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A Letter from the President

This is the last time I will write you, as president, asking for a gift for Phillips Theological Seminary. I will step down from the presidency on June 30th, take a year’s sabbatical, and then return to lead a new initiative.

I hope you will consider a gift to fund the adaptive work Phillips is doing to educate students for church and public ministries. That, in short, is the reason for this letter: to ask you, once again, to support Phillips’ work.

However, if you are willing to grant me your attention for a few minutes, please read the following reflections. Be reminded of where Phillips has come from. Imagine where the seminary is headed. Your support has been necessary all along the journey, and your gift is very much needed today.

Phillips has changed in many ways since I first came in 1993 to direct the Doctor of Ministry program. I came to Tulsa from Chicago and was not raised among the Disciples. I had no idea of the rich history, present work, and promise of what was then named Phillips Graduate Seminary. In 1993:

  • The faculty was very small, and the student body was already tilted toward more students commuting to Tulsa than to Enid.

  • The seminary rented the Marshall Building in Enid and two dilapidated houses at The University of Tulsa. The only owned property was the books.
  • Freshly out of the 1987 separation from the University, the seminary’s endowment was about $3 million, the smallest among Disciples seminaries—by far.

  • The seminary needed every tuition and annual fund dollar it could raise. Any unrestricted gift was spent when received. Annual fund donors provided more of the budget than any other Disciples school.

  • The faculty drove to teach. Each of us taught in clothes stained by coffee or soft drinks from hitting potholes on 412 or I-44 or I-35 while taking a sip to wake up or to stay awake.

I quickly fell in love with the mission, the students, and my colleagues. I was privileged to serve as dean from 1997-2000, during the time the trustees moved the seminary’s home to Tulsa. When I left Phillips in 2000 to be with family near Chicago, the seminary had just found its future campus location.

Between 2000 and 2005, QuikTrip founder Chester Cadieux’s powerful commitments to the seminary took shape.

  • Chester arranged for QT to give the buildings that would become the seminary’s home.

  • The seminary then went to Disciples congregations, foundations, and many individuals for the Pursuing the Vision (PTV) Campaign. Through PTV, the former QT headquarters was remodeled into a school with excellent spaces for classes, the library, worship, and offices.

  • As an element of PTV, Chester gave a second major gift: $4 million in QT stock. The seminary could not touch that gift for a decade while the value of the stock grew. [Today, QT stock’s $31 million value represents nearly half the seminary’s endowment.]

  • Chester’s third major gift: he put stock in a trust on which the seminary could draw for operations. [The seminary draws $500,000 annually from this fund (about 10% of the operating budget).]

Chester, unrestricted gifts, tuition dollars (student numbers were up), and annual fund donors kept the seminary “in the game” from 2000-2005.

  • President Tabbernee lured me back to Tulsa in 2005 to lead development work. Soon after I returned, Chester decided the seminary needed one more fund. The new, and last, of Chester’s major gifts was to match all new gifts to the permanent endowment.

  • As vice president of stewardship, I had the privilege of working with a consultant, the president, a great group of volunteers, and Chester to run the Bridges of Faith Campaign with the goal of raising $20 million for the endowment, including Chester’s match.

  • That campaign was truncated by the 2008 Great Recession but not before several dozen incredibly generous donors all but met the $10 million goal. Support for scholarships, operations, employees, and faculty research and development all increased markedly.
  • In subsequent years additional endowment gifts were matched; and the campaign exceeded $20 million in new endowed funds.

 

In the fundraising world, we sometimes speak of transformative donors: donors whose gifts enable an organization to grow and change in positive ways. Chester Cadieux was a transformative donor for Phillips.

Comparing where Phillips was financially in 1993—where we lived, what we paid employees, what we could offer students in terms of scholarships—to Phillips in 2018 creates a remarkable, and remarkably positive contrast. The building. The endowment. Scholarships. The diversity of our funding sources.

Phillips is lucky and blessed (depending on your theology, you are likely to agree with one of those two words). More than 80% of the seminary’s revenues now derive from long-term investments.

All this outstanding support has carried Phillips to the present moment. However, the need for continuing and new supporters of Phillips’ mission is undiminished.

Chester died two years ago. The wealth he gave to Phillips and the generosity of several hundred loyal donors move the seminary well down the road of funding operations each year. But as church and society continue to change, Phillips needs to adapt. Continually.

One of the aspects of the Phillips culture I most admire is this school’s capacity to adapt. This is not a new attribute. The now-retired executive director of the Association of Theological Schools has said he believes Phillips is the only seminary to survive the demise of its “parent” university. That survival required enormous adaptation.

I am so grateful for the privilege of serving as Phillips’ president since July 2009. The growing endowment and the generosity of annual donors has enabled Phillips to do the following kinds of adaptive work in order to educate students for church and public ministries:

  • The faculty learned to teach online and in concentrated formats and has become more adept at curriculum innovation.

  • Phillips is offering the ministry training program that previously was offered by the MidAmerica Center for Ministry.

  • The employees are building their capacity to support theological education for a multicultural U.S. that needs congregations which can bridge cultures.

  • The administration, board, and faculty are paying close attention to data, changing curricula based on outcomes assessments, asking themselves tough questions, and taking necessary risks.

  • The administration expanded the communications area from one half-time position to two full-time positions. This adaptive change moved the seminary from functioning as if it lived in a small-town to an organization that knows it is competing for the precious gift of attention.

  • The board lowered tuition and raised scholarship assistance.

  • The library purchases resources, in both print and electronic formats, to serve students who attend classes from about 20 states.

  • The seminary has become more competitive in national and local searches for talent.

In addition, as I reflect on the adaptive work in the last 9 years, I am perhaps most pleased that Phillips has “moved our needle.” When the seminary engaged a consultant in 2011 to conduct an organizational assessment and begin a cycle of strategic planning, the consultant said: “Organizations tend to decide on their mission with one of two strategies. The first is to take 5 smart people, sequester them, and they’ll come out with the mission. The second is to put their ears to the ground, sense what is coming, and set the mission accordingly. Higher ed tends toward the first strategy. Phillips is that way. It would be well if Phillips would move the needle toward opening itself to wider publics. Don’t go all the way to the ear-to-the-ground side, but move a little in that direction.”

Examples of Phillips moving the needle include:

  • The seminary became a member of the Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce and participates actively in Mosaic, the Chamber’s outstanding diversity and inclusion initiative.

  • The seminary offers an adult education program in Interreligious Understanding in Tulsa and, beginning this spring, also in Oklahoma City.

  • Seminary personnel are active in various justice-oriented organizations, in addition to local and regional expressions of church.

  • The trustees’ willingness to welcome the ministry training program that previously was offered by the MidAmerica Center for Ministry.

  • In May 2017, the board of trustees authorized a center for religion in public life in Oklahoma. While the center is but a dream at this point, I am very, very grateful that the board is asking me to initiate the work of starting it, when I return from my sabbatical. [Read more about the center at ptstulsa.edu/newpublicvoice.]

With a search for a president about to begin, with 3 new faculty joining the community this summer, with a strong endowment, with increasing enrollment, and with a wider reach and a more visible local and denominational presence than was the case some years ago, there is much to celebrate in where Phillips is at and where it is headed.

Phillips has a storied past, a strong present, and a promising future. Not all schools can say “the promising future” part.

Past donors gave us a future. The late Chester Cadieux gave us a future. The shape of Phillips’ future is not yet set. You have the power to participate in shaping Phillips.

Thank you, thank you for supporting Phillips Theological Seminary. Please, consider the gift you can give to Phillips today. Your gift will enable students to learn the way of Jesus and to be ready to lead in the work of cultivating vital congregations, communities, conversations, and the public good.

Thank you for the privilege of writing to you, one last time, as the president of Phillips Theological Seminary. I look forward to receiving your positive response.

In shared service,

 

Gary Peluso-Verdend

President and Associate Professor of Practical Theology

 

 


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Phillips Theological Seminary offers Christian graduate theological education
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