Jason Byassee: Is it Christian to have endowments?

Those Christian institutions that lean on large endowments see themselves as working to give away their benefactors’ largesse in the most Christian way possible. And that’s a reason to praise God. Isn’t it?

The normal small talk with seminary administrators these days includes the misery-loves-company question, “So, how are finances?” Usually the other tells her own tale of woe, after which you tell yours—how much money we’re down, how we’re going to fill the hole, whether we’re going to manage to avoid firing people, and so on. Schools that draw income from a formerly well-stocked endowment now have a significant hole to fill. I say this, the other clucks her tongue, and then we swap stories of still other institutions that are even worse off. It’s not bad therapy.

I asked two people that question recently and was surprised by their blasé responses. “You know, we didn’t have much endowment money to begin with,” one interlocutor said of the evangelical seminary on which she is a board member. “I never saw this as a blessing before. But we’re dependent entirely on tuition, enrollment is holding steady, so we’re really fine.”

Another, a dean of a small freestanding mainline seminary, was even more pointed in reply. “We’re outstanding. We’ve never had much of an endowment. It’s only the Harvards and Yales that are in trouble” (eyeing my nametag, he didn’t add, “and the Dukes”).

Then he leaned forward and eyed me mischievously over his glasses: “And they never should have had endowments either. They should have given that money away to the poor.”

I admit I liked his cheeky reply. It’s the sort of straight talk that seminary administrators tend to avoid with one another. As in any guild we discuss matters at a distance, and don’t voice criticism directly to colleagues at other institutions. We save such direct remarks for when we’re gossiping about another sort of school with those who are most similar to us. Plus he went biblical. Didn’t Jesus have nasty things to say about those who hoard their wealth in barns, and build bigger barns? (Lk 12:13-21).

Then I thought about it a little more. He can’t possibly have been fully honest. Surely if some philanthropist offered his school a vast sum he’d take it, invest it, start new ministries and programs with the return, and see that it bore as much fruit for the reign of God as possible. Storing up and giving away are not mutually exclusive activities.

But this is doubtless a thorny set of issues. Ancient Christians had good biblical reason to prohibit usury. It was condemned in the bible after all. In the later middle ages we started to relax this prohibition, for some good reasons (Christians had long vilified Jews for being people allowed to lend money), and some bad (look at all that cash we’re leaving on the table!). A friend says the most bitter fight she’s ever been part of in church was over whether to store some savings in an interest-bearing account or not. Wasn’t gaining money for doing nothing unfaithful? Then again, we’re just talking about a lousy 3% return on a savings account. Surely Jesus wants us to be wise stewards? This is a hangover of Christendom’s long wrestling match with usury (though a peculiar one—such fights would be better placed now if they were over whether Christians can lend at exorbitant rates to those with poor credit).

Those Christian institutions that lean on large endowments see themselves as working to give away their benefactors’ largesse in the most Christian way possible. Far from hoarding, they’re trying hard to match Jesus’ description of being “rich toward God” (Lk 12:21).

So I followed up, and asked the dean if he wouldn’t accept a gift of, say, nine figures. “Well sure,” he said. “Then I’d get busy giving it away.” Which is precisely what Habitat for Humanity has long tried to do with Millard Fuller’s fortune. He asked the great Clarence Jordan of Koinonia Farms what to do with his money now that he was a follower of Jesus. Jordan helped him see that he should give it to the poor in an honorable way, divesting himself sensibly, not just handing it to the guy at the corner, but spreading it around as far as he could geographically and temporally. “Jesus didn’t say ‘Give until it hurts.’ He said ‘Give until it’s gone’.” That’s what Habitat’s doing. It just takes a while. And millions of working poor people are now decently housed that would not have been.

Because of an endowment. And that’s a reason to praise God. Isn’t it?

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.