Reimagining Theological Education: Funding

Anytime I hear someone use the phrase “no money, no mission” I find myself getting frustrated. Typically, this is stated by someone suggesting that if a particular organization “doesn’t raise enough money” then their unique mission will cease and the organization risks closure. However, I’ve been in settings in which Chris Meinzer, Senior Director and COO of the Association for Theological Schools (ATS), has stated that “seminaries are going to run out of mission long before they run out of money.” If we’re committed to reimagining theological education then we need to give consideration to how missions are funded.

God funds missions. We sometimes do ourselves a disservice when we label positions “fund raising” as if it’s our money to raise and collect. I was in a conversation with Dr. Gary Hoag recently in which he challenged the regular use of “donor” to describe those who give to missions such as Winebrenner’s. His point, which is worth considering, is that “donate” suggests that these are our funds to give away. We are stewards of God’s resources – according to Gary a much better word to describe those with generous spirits who financially support our missions is “giver.”

As a first step, we should challenge ourselves to better align our thinking with God’s kingdom language and priorities as we find them in the words and stories of Jesus. The paragraphs above provide a few starting points for that conversation.

A next step could be to consider how to re-organize around this sense of mission and money (you can read a previous post on InDepth about reorganizing for stewardship of our resources by clicking here). At a very basic level, sustainable theological education needs three elements – content (in Winebrenner’s setting this is a faculty-led structured classroom or digital content on Co-Mission), a way to deliver the content (in Winebrenner’s context this is three 12-week trimesters), and the resources to do the related tasks over and over (this is where this conversation about funding fits). Winebrenner’s current Executive Team consists of a “point person” for each element – an Academic Dean, a Director of Enrollment Management (aka Admissions), and Director of Finance. We continue to explore the best ways to staff an office focused on funding and givers.

We’ve spent much of the past six months at Winebrenner building a solid foundation for giving, both theologically and organizationally. Of all the areas within a seminary’s operations, it seems that this may be the area we can veer the farthest from our theological convictions. Recently, I was in a meeting when another seminary leader said that part of his job is “begging for money.” If you’ve read this far, I’m hopeful that you see the contradiction between this statement and our biblical and theological convictions. Yes, asking for financial support is part of a seminary leader’s role, mine included. However, since we are stewards of God’s resources we never “beg” someone but invite them into the work God is doing in our midst. Faithfulness to the Spirit’s direction becomes a key ingredient to this conversation.

My role is to sow the seed of the work God is doing in our midst, similar to Matthew 13. And like Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3, God cultivates and makes our resources grow. My priority is to be faithful to His leading.

– Dr. Brent C. Sleasman, President