Reformed Seminaries took Millions in Federal COVID-19 Aid
Can leaders say "no" to Caesar's unrighteous demands when they said "yes" when he had his checkbook open?
UPDATE 1 (3 Jan 2023): This article was updated after release to include Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary’s HEERF use.
UPDATE 2 (4 Jan 2023): A source close to Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary told OFAD that GPTS paid back their PPP loans in either Q4 2020 or Q1 2021.
The audio does not include these changes.
Prior to my enrollment in seminary in 2018, I worked for a state government. One of my functions there was to apply for federal grants for construction projects within the state. We were a rather successful operation; in my final year there, our team landed tens of millions of dollars for infrastructure improvements. I got to know the federal grants process quite well.
During my first year of full-time seminary in residence, Carl Trueman came to campus and gave a lecture titled “Follow the Money.” As the name indicates, the lecture was a brutal but honest takedown of why seminaries do the things that they do—it is often not pure conviction but financial and economic incentives that lead seminaries to add superfluous programs, major in and heavily market niche theological distinctives, and in general creep from their mission of training ministers for faithful Gospel ministry in Christ’s church. After all, at their core, seminaries are businesses that have to keep the doors open and the lights on.
I bring up these two stories from two worlds I inhabited because they collided in 2020. When COVID closed down much of the world, including seminaries, the government was here to help. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) and subsequent legislation allocated trillions of dollars to aid businesses and other organizations affected by the pandemic. The most well-known and well-used of these aid programs was the Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP). Another program particularly aimed at institutions of higher learning was the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF). Religious organizations were allowed to participate in these programs, and many churches, educational institutions, and other religious nonprofits did (including parachurch ministries like Ligonier Ministries, which took PPP loans between $2 million and $5 million, and The Gospel Coalition, which took PPP loans between $350,000 and $1 million).
Because these are government programs, most of the data concerning their use is public record. As a recent seminary graduate from an institution that used these funds, I decided to dive deeper and see what seminaries were using these funds and to what extent.
The Programs and Who Used Them
The most popular program of COVID relief funding was the PPP. This was a program of government-backed forgivable loans that could be obtained through many banks to help organizations meet payroll obligations. The terms were rather straightforward: first, borrowers were required to maintain employee and compensation levels during the loan period. Second, loan proceeds were to be used on payroll and other eligible expenses, of which a minimum of 60% had to be payroll costs.
The second program of interest to this analysis was HEERF, which was a program of federal grants specifically for higher education institutions. As a grant program, it was subject to the same standard federal grants process that I used in my former employment. One additional requirement of HEERF was that a portion of grant funds be distributed directly to students to cover pandemic-related educational costs.
Several NAPARC-adjacent seminaries used PPP and HEERF funding. Below are the data for individual schools.
For PPP, only loans in excess of $150,000 are reported in the public data, and reported amounts are not precisely reported, but rather given in ranges. HEERF funding is documented to the exact dollar amount. All schools together took between $3.6 million and $9.9 million from these two funding programs.
Covenant Theological Seminary
This is the denominational seminary of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), located in St. Louis, Missouri.
Received HEERF grants totaling $498,752. (I can’t link the HEERF pages individually, so I will include screenshots of these.)
Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary
An independent seminary that primarily focuses on the PCA and Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC).
Received PPP loans between $150,000 and $350,000. This one surprised me, given GPTS’ unaccredited status which would seem to indicate an ambivalence towards federal involvement.
**NOTE: After initial publication, a source close to GPTS informed OFAD that GPTS repaid its PPP funds in either Q4 2020 or Q1 2021.
Knox Theological Seminary
An independent seminary located on the campus of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Fort Lauderdale, FL.
Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary
The denominational seminary of the Heritage and Free Reformed Churches, located in Grand Rapids, MI. It also supplies ministers to several other denominations.
Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary
The denominational seminary of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America, located in Pennsylvania.
Received HEERF grants totaling $20,401
Reformed Theological Seminary
The largest school in this analysis, consisting of multiple campuses all over the country, and likely having supplied ministers to every NAPARC denomination.
Westminster Seminary California
Founded as an offshoot of Westminster in Philadelphia (below), but now independent with a focus on the PCA, OPC, and United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA). The one whose piece of paper hangs on my wall.
Received HEERF grants totaling $182,320.
Westminster Theological Seminary
The storied school founded by J. Gresham Machen, who also founded the OPC, though its graduates can be found in many other denominations as well.
Received HEERF grants totaling $567,872.
Some seminaries are a part of colleges that received both PPP and HEERF funding, though it is not possible from the existing data to separate seminary funding from college funding. This applies to Erskine College and Seminary (the denominational school of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church) and Calvin University and its seminary (the denominational school of the Christian Reformed Church, a non-NAPARC denomination, but still notable as many current NAPARC pastors attended there). While Christian universities receiving such funding is worthy of its own discussion, it is outside of the scope of this analysis.
While this list is not exhaustive, one school that was notably absent from both the PPP and HEERF databases was Mid-America Reformed Seminary. While it is possible they borrowed PPP under the $150K threshold, I cannot find any record of their partcipation in either program.
By this point, my readers might be asking why I am so concerned with these institutions participating in these funding programs. After all, everyone was affected by the pandemic, the money was legally offered and obtained, and the amounts here are just a drop in the bucket of federal spending on COVID aid. Some might even argue that it is better for this money to go to seminaries and other religious institutions than their secular counterparts, or that such institutions taking this money is at least value-neutral. So what is the problem?
One thing I learned during my own government work is that there is no such thing as free government money. While we can talk about elections and constitutional ideals and such, the cynical truth is that perhaps the greatest way the government (and particularly the administrative state) exercises leverage over institutions and individuals is through its “power of the purse,” that is, controlling who receives government funding and the terms under which that funding is given. Put simply, government money always comes with government control.
While most of the seminaries that I have analyzed here are not affiliated with particular denominations, at their heart, all seminaries exist (or *should* exist) to be servants of the church, tasked with preparing qualified men to know and preach and teach the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Furthermore, given our culture that prizes education and credentials, many churches, pastors, and congregants look to their preferred seminaries for leadership and guidance when dealing with difficult issues. Once Caesar’s money gets involved, things can get messy. I know that at least some of the schools listed in this article also participate in federal student loan programs, which carry similar risks (never mind the ethics of student loans in themselves). What happens when Caesar decides he does not like what the faith once for all delivered has to say about things like women in church office, abortion, LGBT issues, and other matters of biblical teaching that become political hot-buttons? Does a school maintain proper moral authority and objectivity to say “No!” to Caesar in these cases when it already said “Yes!” when Caesar had his checkbook out? Furthermore, are schools developing an unwise dependency on government funding that will not be easily severed if such encroachments from the government come?
Even COVID aid programs show at least the potential for such encroachments. As funding programs go, the strings attached to PPP were relatively benign. Essentially, the only major “catch” was that funds had to be used for payroll and related expenses. However, while there might not be any particularly troubling strings with PPP, questions regarding the general wisdom of taking government funds remain.
With HEERF, which was taken by Covenant, RPTS, and the two Westminsters, things get more complicated. As a grant program, applicants are required to complete the federal SF-424, the standard form for applying for and receiving federal grants. Every SF-424 requires the applicant to provide a signed set of assurances. Of particular concern in the seminary context is assurance #6:
I am not an attorney and do not have comprehensive knowledge of the statutes listed here. Furthermore, I have no interest in seeing race, national origin, or color discrimination at seminaries. However, a red flag goes up when seeing the language concerning sex discrimination. As NAPARC churches reserve the ministry for qualified men, one wonders if the federal government could try to leverage Title IX to require admission of female students to ordination-track programs. Furthermore, NAPARC churches are unified in their stance against homosexuality and other sins and lifestyles on the LGBT spectrum. Title IX and other federal sex discrimination protections have recently become a battleground in the LGBT revolution. The Obama administration (years before COVID) issued a now-infamous “Dear Colleague” letter attempting to apply Title IX protections to transgender individuals seeking to use bathrooms corresponding to their chosen gender identity. Furthermore, mere weeks after HEERF funding was appropriated, the Supreme Court ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits firing employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity. While Title VII is not specifically mentioned in the assurances, the broad language of subpoint (j) invoking any other nondiscrimination statute applying to the application would seem to at least open up possible applicability. The prevailing winds of statutory and case law seem to favor any federal law prohibiting sex discrimination also being leveraged to protect LGBT identities and lifestyles. What happens when a seminary professor comes out as homosexual or transgender? What about when a person identifying as LGBT applies for admission, or an existing student embraces such an identity? By applying for HEERF and signing the required assurances, a seminary would seem to have painted itself into a proverbial corner should such a case arise.
In summary, I fear that seminaries may not have properly assessed the risks associated with taking federal aid at the time of the COVID pandemic. Taking any federal funding has risks involved and strings attached. Given the increasing hostility of the federal government and society generally towards individuals and institutions that hold to biblical Christian moral standards, we must be very careful to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” (Matthew 10:16 NKJV) Ostensibly conservative and confessional schools placing themselves further under Caesar’s yoke does not seem to suit that end. We have a nation that in many ways looks like Sodom, and perhaps we should respond to its offers of money like Abram did when offered some of the king of Sodom’s plunder:
“I have raised my hand to the LORD, God Most High, the Possessor of heaven and earth, that I will take nothing, from a thread to a sandal strap, and that I will not take anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich’…” (Genesis 14:22b-24a NKJV)
Further questions fall upon churches and congregants. Should we be trusting of institutions that have agreed to the terms of programs like this? Would signing the grant assurances on behalf of a seminary be an act of compromise? Do we need to more carefully monitor the health and governance of such institutions to make sure that they are properly positioned to continue to provide faithful ministers to our churches? Do seminaries feel compelled to seek funding sources like this because individuals and churches may not be doing enough to support them, especially during times of hardship? Who gets the glory when it is the government and not God’s people sweeping in to rescue our seminaries in a downturn? Are we taking the king of Sodom’s wealth so that he might say he made us rich? Did being on Caesar’s payroll for a season hinder any of these institutions’ leaders from speaking with courage, conviction, and clarity when Christian worship and liberty were threatened by other government measures during the pandemic, and could it continue to hinder in similar situations in the future? Who are we listening to in times of trouble, and who are they listening to? These are difficult questions, and I will not pretend that there are easy answers. But it is far better to ask the questions now than when Caesar’s bill comes due.