Twenty years ago, voting members of the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Philadelphia faced a hard truth. Training pastors had become prohibitively expensive and the cost of theological education continued to rise. Seminary debt was increasing to unsustainable levels. Many congregations couldn’t pay enough for pastors to afford student loan payments and living expenses. 

Today those same hard truths exist, but the news isn’t all bad. Twenty years ago the assembly voted to take a stand in support of new church leaders. They established the ELCA Fund for Leaders, which provides tuition scholarships to full-time students pursuing rostered ministry at ELCA seminaries. Today the fund has an endowment of more than $54 million.  

Twenty years ago, Charles Newman was sorting through his calling to ministry. 

Newman grew up in Los Angeles, and his grandmother’s house was across the street from the parsonage of Ascension Lutheran, one of the ELCA’s first predominately African-American congregations. “Ministry has always been attached to my life,” he said. “It was second nature to go visit my pastor when I went to visit my grandmother. I realize now how abnormal that was.” 

During his youth, Ascension was changing from a predominately white to a predominately African-American congregation. The pastor who led that change, Albert Starr (now ELCA director for ethnic specific and multicultural ministries), inspired Newman to be proud to be African-American and Lutheran.  

“My sense of identity was rooted there,” Newman said. “So many people identify being Lutheran in terms of ethnicity. … I never thought of it that way. For me it meant continued growth, development and being rooted in grace.” 

Newman later attended the ELCA Youth Gathering, where his peers and youth leaders laid hands on him. They prayed for God’s blessing on him, to lead him into serving the church as a pastor. 

“I was going, ‘Yeah, right,’ ” Newman said. 

Ten years later while serving as director of youth ministry for Messiah Lutheran Church in Yorba Linda, Calif., Newman felt God tug on his heart. He wanted to take another step into ministry and attend seminary, pursuing ordination.  

But seminary seemed so expensive. He enrolled at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC), unsure how he would manage to pay for everything. The seminary had assured him they would figure things out together, but Newman was nervous. 

This was 2000, the first year that the Fund for Leaders had raised enough money to support its first group of scholarship recipients.  

“I got called into the financial aid office,” Newman said. “They told me I was awarded this brand-new scholarship that recognizes the future and promise of leadership in the church. … It weighed on me in a good way. The church had made an investment in me. It was my responsibility to pay it forward.” 

After serving as a pastor near Atlanta and then working in the Grand Canyon Synod office, Newman is now leader of Crossroads Lutheran in San Tan Valley, Ariz. The 3-year-old mission, which just received its official charter, has a blend of Lutheran and Southwest contemporary-style worship. 


“I got called into the financial aid office,” Newman said. “They told me I was awarded this brand-new scholarship that recognizes the future and promise of leadership in the church. … It weighed on me in a good way. The church had made an investment in me. It was my responsibility to pay it forward.” — Charles Newman


Newman is just one example of the reach of the Fund for Leaders. The first group of scholarship recipients consisted of eight students; in 2017 the fund provided 40 full-tuition scholarships, with the aid of an additional $3 million gift over three years designated only to full-tuition scholarships. 

Some of the scholarship recipients have gone on to serve not only their church but also their country and the world.   

Will Bevins, a former Peace Corps volunteer who also was an editor for the U.S. Department of Defense, is currently serving a chaplaincy internship that will prepare him to serve as an Air Force chaplain. 

Janelle Neubauer, a scholarship recipient who graduated from LSTC in 2017, today serves as country coordinator for Young Adults in Global Mission in Rwanda and with the Rwandan pastors of the Kigali Lutheran Parish. 

Brenda Greenwald, a former elementary school music teacher, is a fund recipient and current intern pastor near Los Angeles. Last summer at a Colorado hospital, she turned her pain over being unable to have children into serving as a chaplain for mothers who miscarried. 

Greenwald’s joy for ministry exemplifies what Fund for Leaders set out to do 20 years ago. She described her response to receiving the scholarship in theological terms: “I know we can’t earn grace, but sometimes it falls in your lap, and you’re like … thank you, God!”  

Angela Denker
Angela Denker is a former sportswriter turned Lutheran pastor, writer and speaker based in Minneapolis.

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