A Day of Jubilee
by By Katie Langston '21 M.Div.
Jonathan Rundman is a 47-year-old musician who has toured across the united states for the past 25 years. He’s played national youth gatherings, churchwide assemblies, and the grace gathering for the ELCA, and he has created original music for several seminaries. But, he says, it wasn’t until 2016 that he had an inkling that he might have a call to ministry himself.
“I was playing Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California, and a couple of professors asked me if I’d ever considered going to seminary and becoming a pastor,” Rundman says. “It was the first time the thought occurred to me.”
A Twin Cities resident, Rundman connected with the Minneapolis Area Synod office and began the candidacy process for what he calls “the biggest detour of [his] adult life.” The only problem? He knew he couldn’t change careers unless he had significant financial support.
That’s when Luther Seminary Director of Enrollment Services Elizabeth Schoenknecht informed Rundman of the Jubilee Scholarship—a new initiative offering all admitted Master of Arts and Master of Divinity students an automatic full-tuition scholarship.
“When I heard about it, I said, ‘Wow, that’s incredible!’” says Rundman, who will be enrolling at Luther Seminary in Fall 2018. “It’s a big part of what makes this transition possible."
Rundman is also receiving the Fund for Leaders scholarship from the ELCA. All combined, he expects to be able to graduate debt-free (see the case studies below for a more detailed breakdown of a scenario like this).
Heidi Droegemueller, vice president of Seminary Relations, says that over the past five years, Luther’s leadership team has identified the growing challenge of student debt as a significant threat to the well-being of the church.
“We’re facing a serious pastor shortage in the ELCA right now,” she says. “Our mission is to educate leaders for Christian communities, and we’re not fulfilling that mission if students are graduating from Luther Seminary hampered by financial strain.”
According to a 2014 survey of 1,745 graduates from theological schools conducted by Auburn Theological Seminary, “negative effects of student debt were felt by over two-thirds of borrowers.” These negative effects impacted their lives in concrete ways.
- 24 percent of respondents said that they (or someone in their family) had to postpone health care because of finances.
- 26 percent said that they had to seek other employment.
- 30 percent said that they or their spouse had to moonlight (take on an extra job) to meet expenses.
- 37 percent said that debt had influenced their career choices.
- 45 percent said that their current financial situation was not comfortable.
- 52 percent indicated that loans had negatively influenced their standard of living.
For Droegemueller, these findings were untenable. “We started to dream up a new way of doing theological education,” she says. “We wondered what would happen if we increased scholarship support of M.Div. and M.A. students to 100 percent tuition coverage for everyone.”
Michael Morrow, vice president of Finance and Administration, crunched the numbers. “Because we have one of the most engaged and generous donor bases of all the theological schools in North America, we already receive enough from our endowment and scholarship gifts to fund 75 percent of total tuition,” Morrow says. “With the continued support of our dedicated donors, we are confident we can fund the remaining 25 percent over the next five years.”
The initiative was named the “Jubilee Scholarship,” a reference to the biblical season of forgiveness of debts. Most notably, the scholarship is given without exception: all M.A. and M.Div. students are covered by the award, whether they are ELCA, non-ELCA, residential, or distributed learning students.
According to Morrow, the Jubilee Scholarship energized the Luther Seminary community. “Pretty soon, everyone—from senior leadership to staff to the board—was excited by the idea of providing real alternatives to the growing problems of student loans for Christian public leaders,” he says.
Of course, student indebtedness cannot be eliminated by full-tuition scholarships alone. According to the Auburn study, 71 percent of borrowers take out loans to cover living expenses, which are roughly equal to tuition.
“Students still need a place to live, food, books, transportation, and medical care. Full-tuition scholarships can’t provide that,” Droegemueller says. “It will still be important for denominations, synods, and congregations to give educational grants and support to students who come to Luther Seminary. Otherwise, we won’t be able to move the needle.”
Still, working in partnership with the wider faith community, Luther Seminary has set a goal to reduce the average indebtedness of graduates by one-third by the year 2023. “It’s ambitious,” Morrow says, “but I’m confident we can do it.”
Droegemueller says the results will speak for themselves. “When leaders are financially healthy, they’ll be freer to respond to where the Holy Spirit is calling without the weight of indebtedness, discover breakthrough practices for cultivating Christian faith and communities, and take calls based on what the church needs and what’s a good fit for the candidate, not financial stress.”
As for Jonathan Rundman, he’s already seeing the fruits in his life. “I’ve spent almost 30 years on the road playing music and concerts. I knew that I could not change my vocation unless I had support from an outside source,” he says. “I was so encouraged when Luther reached out with this opportunity. Without it, there’s no way I could make this happen.”
Case Studies: How will the Jubilee Scholarship reduce student debt?
Beginning Fall 2018, Luther Seminary will provide and support three different full-tuition scholarships for Master of Arts and Master of Divinity students:
- All admitted M.A. and M.Div. students will receive a full-tuition scholarship.
- The seminary will award approximately 15 Presidential Scholarships that will also include a $5,000 per year education grant for living expenses.
- In the case that a student receives a full-tuition scholarship from the ELCA Fund for Leaders, Luther Seminary’s award will be $7,500 per year for living expenses.
THESE CASE STUDIES ILLUSTRATE HOW LUTHER’S NEW SCHOLARSHIPS STRATEGY WILL WORK:
Maria enrolls as a full-time residential M.Div. student. She receives a Fund for Leaders scholarship from the ELCA that covers her $17,500 annual tuition bill. Luther awards her a $7,500 per year education grant to help support her living expenses. Her congregation sends her a $10,000 education grant each year, as well. Scholarships and grants cover $35,000 per year of the expected $37,500 total cost of attendance. Maria gets a part-time job on campus to cover the remaining $2,500. She graduates on time and pursues her call to ministry debt-free.
Rick enrolls part-time in Luther Seminary’s distributed learner program to earn a Master of Arts degree in Christian Ministry with an expected annual cost of attendance of $16,000 per year. Luther awards Rick a full-tuition scholarship in the amount of $10,500 per year. In addition, Rick’s synod provides him with a $2,500 education grant each year to help support his living expenses. Combined, these scholarships and grants cover $13,000.
Since Rick is already working full time in his congregation, he doesn’t feel the need to take out the remaining $3,000 per year in student loans. Rick completes his degree and accepts his call to diaconal ministry debt-free.
CORRECTION: In the time between Rundman's interview and the publication of Story magazine, some details of his financial support package changed. The original version incorrectly stated that Rundman was receiving funding from his synod, and did not mention that he is a recipient of the ELCA's Fund for Leaders scholarship. The article has been updated to reflect the most current information. We regret the error.