Abundant Life Initiative Advises Students on Managing Debt, and Myriad Ways to Cut Expenses
Thanks to a grant to the Eastern Cluster of Lutheran Seminaries from the Lilly Endowment, The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) has initiated The Abundant Life Student Advising Center (ALSAC) to assist seminarians with their finances both in the short and long term.
“The center is part of the seminary’s work through the Eastern Cluster of Lutheran Seminaries,” explained the Rev. Heidi Rodrick-Schnaath, who directs the center and serves as coordinator of student services for LTSP. “In 2013, the Cluster (consisting also of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary and Gettysburg Seminary) applied for a Lilly Endowment grant through its Economic Challenges Facing Future Ministers (ECFFM) program,” Rodrick-Schnaath continued. ECFFM has engaged 67 seminaries and some colleges throughout the U.S. “in an attempt to learn more about the economic challenges students face and how to reduce their financial burdens,” she said.
Former Vice President for Mission Advancement the Rev. Louise Johnson (now president of Wartburg Seminary) wrote a grant request from LTSP’s perspective. The Rev. Dr. Michael Cooper-White, Gettysburg’s president, “knit the grant requests together from the three seminaries,” Rodrick-Schnaath pointed out. As a result, the Cluster was awarded a $750,000 grant to be shared by the three schools over a three-year period. ALSAC is a part of the emerging LTSP plan.
“Originally the grant proposal envisioned ALSAC as a peer center where students could go to receive help with their budgeting and get referrals for additional financial planning support,” Rodrick-Schnaath said. The original idea called for assistance and advice to come in part from graduate students. “But we found many graduate students are really immersed in the challenges to meet requirements for their advanced degrees and couldn’t be sufficiently involved. Very quickly we realized we needed to adjust the plan.”
“Many of our students need concrete assistance right now,” she added. “Certainly they can benefit from planning for their futures, but they also need help with the challenges of paying their bills today. We want to help them with ideas of how to spend less so they can lower their debt load when they graduate.”
In the first year (2014-15), Rodrick-Schnaath worked with LTSP Director of Financial Aid Liz Brunton and five seminarians to brainstorm ideas for the center’s mission. The seminarians were Jeremiah Smith, Lauren Applegate, Theo Maulen, Katie Schnaath, and recent graduate Emily Eisenberg. The team worked to assess student needs. LTSP faculty member Professor Katie Day processed the research helping to define the categories of need.
The team came up with a number of cost-saving ideas including helping seminarians to plan for group meal occasions to save expenses. They solicited the congregations of the region for “gently used clergy apparel to be given to students,” Rodrick-Schnaath said. The response was remarkable. “We’ve collected some $15,000-$20,000 worth of merchandise to be given away to students. It can cost $50 to buy a clergy shirt. Robes can cost $200 to $300 or more. The donation of so much clothing has been a blessing for us.” It was meaningful to hear a seminarian talk about the savings involved in receiving a donated clergy shirt. “That’s a week’s worth of groceries,” the student told me. A pastor’s widow told me how meaningful it is to her that her husband’s clergy wear is going to be used by our students.”
The ALSAC team came up with money-saving practical ideas, such as the cheapest way to use public transportation to get around Philadelphia and its environs. “We’re throwing a lot of ideas against the wall to see what sticks,” Rodrick-Schnaath said.
Future plans by ALSAC include offering professionally led financial planning sessions to teach about prudent spending and how to best manage loan debt, and expanding the size of the seminary’s food pantry, which benefits seminarians on limited budgets.
LTSP first year seminarian Michelle Steiner is studying in the seminary’s Master of Arts in Public Leadership (MAPL) program and is aiming for a career that combines her knowledge of theology with her organizational gifts, perhaps playing a key role in the life of a social ministry organization of the church.
“I’ve really appreciated what ALSAC is trying to do to help students get through seminary in a financially sound way. It is not easy juggling classes and working to support your way through school.” This past academic year, she found helpful a program called “Don’t Go It Alone,” which taught students how to manage loans and develop a plan for paying them off. She also learned about online software “that helps us keep track of our finances, track our goals and our spending. That’s been really helpful.”
Steiner said she lauds the donation of so much clergy apparel, “but I am not studying to be a pastor. So I am excited that in the future we will also be seeking the donation of business attire suitable for someone like me to wear to a business-related interview.”
“The three Cluster seminaries are each using their grant proceeds differently,” Rodrick-Schnaath said. “At the end of the three years we’ll be sharing our knowledge with each other about what works and what doesn’t.”
Anyone desiring to assist the initiative with support for seminarians is invited to send monetary gifts to LTSP, marked to the attention of ALSAC, or donate clothing. For further information contact Rodrick-Schnaath at Hrodrick-Schnaath@Ltsp.edu.