By Kirk Petersen
After 161 years of existence and decades of little to no financial growth, the Society for the Increase of the Ministry (SIM) has raised substantial new money under new leadership, preparing to play a broader role in helping candidates for ordination.
SIM was founded in 1857 in Hartford, Conn., to provide scholarships for seminarians. More than 5,000 seminarians have benefited from SIM scholarships, including 37 current bishops.
Courtney V. Cowart joined SIM in March 2017, and became executive director in October, upon the retirement of Thomas Moore. By December she had moved the organization from Hartford to the Episcopal Church Center in Manhattan. SIM retains an independent board of directors and 501(c)3 status, and has gained better access to coordinate with church leadership.
SIM is moving quickly on other fronts as well, experimenting with new forms of fundraising and broadening the pool of applicants.
“The church is changing, theological education is changing, people’s understanding of the impact of debt is changing, so there are a lot of factors that when they come together make a possibility for a real paradigm shift in how we address all of this,” Cowart said. “That’s the kind of thing that gets me excited.”
Her fundraising efforts have boosted the organization’s endowment from about $3 million to about $5 million, after a long period of stagnation. According to tax filings, SIM had more than $4 million in investments in 2002, and the endowment fluctuated in the range of $3 million to $4 million through 2017.
SIM is preparing for a major fundraising push this spring, to coincide with the deadline for new students to apply to seminaries. Cowart has noticed that her phone starts to ring more then.
The goal is to increase the funds available for scholarships that begin this year. When there’s “a sense of urgency — your giving today will have an immediate impact — there tends to be a little bit more motivation on the part of people giving,” she said.
With support from the Lilly Endowment, SIM has begun exploring social media as a fundraising platform. Its Future of the Faith campaign, launched last spring on Facebook and other platforms, will culminate this spring with promotion of what Cowart called “a wonderful video” featuring Presiding Bishop Michael Curry talking about the importance of financial support for seminarians.
Cowart said that in the video, Curry “talks about the fact that he would not be our presiding bishop if it were not for the men and women who support scholarships for theological education,” because in his 20s Curry could not have afforded to attend seminary.
The cost of a theological education has doubled since 2006, said associate director Jim Goodmann, and “the average debt load … for Episcopal seminarians is anywhere between $7,000 and $10,000 a year” for the three years of a Master of Divinity program.
That number does not seem huge compared to news reports of newly minted lawyers and physicians with six-figure educational debts, but priests make less money than lawyers and physicians, particularly at the entry level.
Debt takes a toll on the availability of priests for small and rural congregations, and for roles focused on justice.
“The debt configuration is a part of your own calculations about what calls, to which ministries or churches, you can actually answer,” Goodmann said. This at a time when, according to the church center, 72 percent of the nation’s 6,447 Episcopal congregations have an average Sunday attendance of 100 or less.
Last year, SIM gave scholarships totaling more than $187,000 to 46 students, and Goodmann said approximately one-third of them are people of color, in keeping with SIM’s commitment to increasing diversity in church leadership.
“The scholarships ranged from $1,000 to a little over $18,000, so there’s a big range,” Cowart said, adding that many people are surprised to learn how much money is potentially available.
In recent decades, SIM has provided scholarships solely for students at traditional, residential Episcopal seminaries. That will remain its focus, but Cowart said that for the first time, SIM plans on supporting a handful of students on non-traditional paths. This may include students at non-residential diocesan seminaries such as Iona, near Houston, and Kemper, in Topeka — where a $1,000 scholarship can have more effect.
Cowart and Goodmann — SIM’s only full-time employees — have worked together for about eight years. They both came to SIM in 2017 from the University of the South, where Cowart was an associate dean of the School of Theology and Goodmann was on her staff.
Cowart has a Doctor of Theology degree from General Seminary but is not ordained. She serves on the Task Force on New Funding for Clergy Formation, which General Convention created in 2018.
Teaching the church about “the realities around funding theological education” is one of Cowart’s highest priorities. “A lot of people make the assumption that if you’re making this commitment to the church, that there’s some central mechanism for funding the cost of your theological education. That just isn’t true in the Episcopal Church. It’s a very organic system.”