A few months ago, Americans watched the 21st Winter Olympics on television. When NBC cut to commercials, you may have heard something like “a proud sponsor of the U.S. Olympic Team.” The United States team was supported by everything from Coca-Cola and McDonald’s to Allstate Insurance and AT&T. Even individual sports had their own sponsors. Nike funded U.S. speed skating, and the investment firm of Charles Schwab underwrote the U.S. ski and snowboarding teams. To be sure, these sponsors received a lot of publicity, which no doubt translated into increased revenues for their companies.

While the opportunity to be an Olympic sponsor promised large returns for corporate investors, these companies provided funding to allow the athletes to train and travel. An athlete’s life is expensive, and only a small number of athletes ever earn serious money. If they are to participate and excel, someone has to fund them. During their personal training, the athletes are often unable to work to pay all of the costs of that training, much less fund the travel involved to get to games in a foreign country. So sponsors underwrite the athletes’ training and travel. It’s good for the athletes and it’s good for the sponsors. It’s a win-win situation. If a country wants trained athletes to represent it internationally, it and its corporations have to sponsor them. Someone has to pay so the athletes can devote themselves to their sports.

A parallel happens in the church. Future ministers of the gospel need similar support commitments while being trained for the ministry.

The Baptist legacy

The reality of ministerial education is that if the church wants a trained minister, the church has to pay for it. In Baptist life, this started in 1679, when Edward Terrill provided £1,000 (approximately $1,524) of his estate to be used by Broadmead Baptist Church of Bristol, England, for the training of Baptist ministers. Baptists were excluded from the recognized universities of the day, Oxford and Cambridge. There was little or no real way for men to receive adequate training unless the Baptists provided it themselves. However, the men who headed into the ministry often had few resources to provide for their upkeep and expenses while devoting themselves to study. Further, as they studied, they were kept busy both in the pursuit of academic knowledge and in the assistance of local churches, preaching and caring for the needs of sinners and saints. Little time existed for the mundane necessity of earning a living. So the Baptist churches, through their laymen, underwrote the training of ministers with donations large and small.

Believers’ support today

The legacy of Baptists supporting education remains important for today’s ministerial training. In the past several years, the economic downturn has been especially hard on seminaries. Schools have been forced to lay off staff and/or downsize programs to work toward a balanced budget. Part of the problem has been that endowments have dwindled and donations have fallen short when compared to previous years. Christians who see the need have been hit hard by the economy, like everyone else. Their donations come in many forms—from sizeable estate gifts to monthly support of modest amounts to onetime donations for a particular need. All of these gifts in one way or another help defray the ever-rising costs of training the next generation of ministers.

Seminaries historically have had four sources to fund their programs—tuition, donations, investment income from previous gifts, and a constituency support base. Schools connected with a denomination are written into the annual budget of the denomination for support. Independent schools have no constituency support and must make up the funding from the other sources. Typically a seminary will have a group of churches, often pastored by the alumni, who will support it. Occasionally, funding sources for education, such as government grants or private education foundations, become available; but often seminaries either will not or cannot take advantage of such resources. So they must count on tuition, donors, and the market to provide the necessary funds to educate their students. Of course, I am not discounting the Lord’s supplying the need. But He does so through His people.

Tuition. Some might argue that if a school needs more funds, it should simply raise the tuition and charge the students more money. This is certainly an option, and in difficult times, many schools have reluctantly had to pass on rising costs to their students. There is a limit, however, to what students can be expected to pay. Not even in the secular world does a student or the student’s family pay the entire cost of education. Municipalities raise taxes for public education, and states do the same for their university systems. Ministerial training, on the other hand, has been the burden of the church at large rather than of students in particular. Until the early 20th century, schools typically admitted students tuition-free. It was recognized that they would have a difficult enough time paying for their upkeep, so the seminaries raised money to pay for the professors, the buildings, and the books. Generous donors were sought to raise endowments to fund the various professorial chairs on an ongoing basis. Returns on those investments provided annual income to offset ongoing expenses.

The idea of passing on the cost of ministerial education to the student would be more reasonable if these men trained for a profession that promised large wages. A medical student may take out significant loans against anticipated future wages, but ministerial students have no such prospect. One website suggests that the average debt of a med school graduate is $120,000! Expenses can reach 20–50 thousand dollars per year. Seminary education must of necessity be far cheaper. But even if it is less than $5,000 per year, a student could potentially incur a debt in excess of $20,000 by the time he graduates with a bachelor’s degree and a master of divinity.[1] This is a pretty sizeable obligation to expect to pay on a minister’s wage.

Missionaries are usually required to go to the mission field debt-free. If a student incurs even a modest educational debt, it may take years to repay student loans to be free to follow God’s calling. Graduates typically head out after seminary to work in churches as staff members whose wages, even if sufficient to meet personal living expenses, may not provide ample funds to repay burdensome student debt quickly. The graduate may be saddled with an unmanageable burden for years and never make it to the mission field.

Some argue that students should incur no debt while in seminary. This is indeed a worthy goal, but if the price of the education is too high, it may mean that students will take years to complete their training. A typical seminary degree requires three years of concentrated study. Most students today take four years or more to complete that training because of financial obligations. They often marry and begin a family and regularly work in churches while in school. If they are paid at all for their services, their salaries are in most cases modest. It becomes difficult for young seminarians to manage a family and a ministry and pay for an education. Schools attempt to underwrite costs through the generosity of their donor bases via scholarships and grants.

Endowments. Financial endowments by those whom God has blessed go a long way toward offsetting the cost of ministerial training. Endowments are larger invested gifts with the returns on those investments underwriting seminary education. Schools have endowed chairs such as the Hollis Chair of Divinity at Harvard, named after British Baptist layman Thomas Hollis, who in 1721 gave a large sum of money to establish a chair of theology, requesting that Baptists be allowed to attend the school. In 1880, Joseph Emerson Brown, former governor of Georgia, United States senator, and railroad president, gave $50,000 to help stabilize the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary after the Civil War. Today a Joseph Emerson Brown Chair of Christian Theology at Southern exists as a result of that generosity. John D. Rockefeller Sr., founder of Standard Oil, was a Baptist who gave away a sizeable fortune, much of it to seminaries to train men for the ministry. Many American institutions with Baptist roots are named in honor of the generous laymen who made education possible through large donations. Schools such as Brown University of Rhode Island, Bucknell University of Pennsylvania, and McMaster University of Ontario, Canada, are named for Baptists who contributed to defray the cost of educational expenses. The need for schools to raise endowments to ensure their long-term viability continues to be a real challenge. Some Christians can give a gift that will live long after they have gone to Heaven and that reaps dividends in the lives of new ministers. Even if believers cannot give a large gift, perhaps they can give smaller gifts or contribute periodically to seminaries and their endowments.

Alumni. To whom can the seminaries turn for financial support? Secular universities turn to prosperous alumni to remember their alma maters in their benefactions. Commonly, doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, and others generously support the schools from which they graduated. These graduates turn their education into personal wealth and return a portion to the schools that trained them. Seminaries also look to their graduates for financial help. But the reality for seminary alumni is that very few ever have the economic means to make significant contributions to their alma maters.

A challenge

So who will make up this need? To whom can the seminaries turn to help train the next generation of ministers? It must be to the churches and Christians who will be the recipients of an educated ministry. It must be the church at large—who benefits from the fruit of well-trained men—that shoulders the burden of the financial obligations of seminary education. Some will invest in ministerial education but will never personally reap the reward. They will, nonetheless, be contributing to the generation of church leaders that care for their grandchildren. If the church does not underwrite the training of the next generation, the church may well realize a tragic loss of prepared ministers of the gospel.

This article is no mere plea for supporting a particular seminary. As a teaching historian, I work at a school dependent on the generosity of the Lord’s people. My greater concern is to help the church understand the larger need of educational funding. When seminary presidents or development people seek donors, they are following a tradition as old as Baptist education itself. They are seeking support in the only real place it may be expected to be secured—from the churches and the Christians served by the trained ministry. God has blessed some Christians with financial resources that exceed their personal needs. God has provided some Christians with the unique ability to make major contributions to Christian work. One area that should be carefully considered is ministerial training. All Christians can have a part in the training of men for the ministry. Some may be able to help in small ways only through an occasional gift as a particular need is presented (remember the young boy who gave the Lord five loaves and two fish?). But other Christians can and should consider making serious investments in endowments, by way of living gifts or bequests. Without the generosity of the Lord’s people, seminaries will not be able to carry out their mission of training the next generation of the Lord’s servants.

Jeff Straub (PhD, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is professor in historical and systematic theology, Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Plymouth, Minn.

[1]*Some might argue that perhaps a minister needs only a bachelor’s degree to enter the ministry. Indeed, God has used many men without seminary training. It would take another article to argue why a master of divinity degree is a minimal requirement for ministry in today’s world. The military will not take chaplains without an MDiv or its equivalent, and no one can become a doctor or a lawyer with just four years of education. Seminary provides the specialized training to help prepare men for a lifetime of Christian ministry. I headed into the Lord’s work without a seminary education, but thankfully, 10 years later, the Lord allowed me to make up what I missed by completing the MDiv as a mature student. It was hard going back to school with three children, but I was simply unprepared for adequate ministry without the MDiv.