Luther Seminary, the nation’s largest Lutheran seminary, has received a $21 million gift to experiment with more flexible and faster ways for its students to finish their clergy training.
A lucky 30 students will be selected each year, for the next three years, to receive a tuition-free education at the St. Paul seminary and participate in new ways of learning on campus and in church communities.
The pilot project was funded by Dean Buntrock, the founder and former chairman of Waste Management Inc. and a longtime benefactor of Lutheran education.
The $21 million gift is the largest donation ever received by the seminary.
“We’re excited about this opportunity,” said Heidi Droegemueller, Luther’s vice president of seminary relations.
The pilot program will allow the seminary to educate and train students in two years, instead of four years typically needed for a master’s degree in divinity, she said. That will significantly reduce the cost to students and reduce college debt, which has been a detriment to seminary school enrollment.
Buntrock, 87, who now lives primarily at his home in California, said in a statement that he hopes others will step forward to continue the investment and creativity in clergy training.
“This pilot project is designed to inspire and support innovative leadership development churchwide,” Buntrock said. “It will attract exceptional candidates from across the nation who show potential to be spiritually strong, theologically faithful, and entrepreneurially innovative.”
More than 500 students are enrolled at Luther Seminary, with about 40 percent participating in “distance learning” programs that combine online study with intensive on-campus classes.
In the new pilot program, students may start their education working in a congregation, where they’ll get hands-on experience working with church communities, said Droegemueller. They will attend some intensive short-term classes on campus, as well as take classes online and through video participation.
The first students to enroll in the program will arrive in 2019. The seminary is creating the student application for the program, establishing academic requirements, and preparing for staffing, Droegemueller said. She expects students from across the country, and across Protestant denominations, to apply.
Buntrock also has been a donor to St. Olaf College in Northfield, his alma mater, where his family funded a campus community center in 1999 called Buntrock Commons.
But the businessman made a different kind of headline in 2002, when Buntrock and several executives from Waste Management were sued by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for “massive accounting fraud.” The matter was settled out of court in 2005 with the company and the executives agreeing to pay a $30 million settlement and no admission of wrongdoing.
Droegemueller said that the Lutheran faith recognizes that “we are all 100 percent sinners and 100 percent saints.”
“We see him as a person transformed by the power of God’s love,” she said of Buntrock.
Founded in 1869 by Norwegian Lutheran immigrants, Luther Seminary has educated nearly 40 percent of the pastors in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, staff said. It also provides continuing education to more than 3,000 pastors each year.