The Omaha Presbyterian Seminary Foundation is the successor of the former Presbyterian Theological Seminary at Omaha, formed in 1891 when the Reverend John Gordon of Omaha and the Reverend Stephen Phelps of Council Bluffs met to explore the possibility of founding a seminary in the area. At the time, the only Presbyterian seminary between the Mississippi River and the Pacific coast was in Dubuque, Iowa, a seminary that then specialized in training ministers for non-English-speaking congregations. Churches in the West were finding it difficult to attract ministers when the nearest Presbyterian theological schools were more than 500 miles away. Gordon and Phelps gathered a group of interested elders and church leaders and gained the approval of the General Assembly to establish a seminary in Omaha, Nebraska.
The seminary opened in September 1891 with six students. It served as a teaching institution until its closure in 1943 after 52 years of preparing more than 1,000 persons for service as ordained ministers in Midwest churches. But that wasn’t all: the president and some of the faculty of the Seminary were instrumental in founding a college in Bellevue (not the current Bellevue University) and Omaha University (then a municipal institution, now part of the Nebraska University system). The Presbyterian Theological Seminary at Omaha met with many challenges and came to an end as a teaching, degree-issuing institution in 1943. The General Assembly, noting the impact of World War Two on all seminaries, voted to withdraw its endorsement and closed the facility that year.
The closure of the school and the disposal of the property was not the end of the seminary. A group of prominent leaders who served on the board of the seminary felt strongly that the work of the institution needed to continue in some form. For a number of years, many of these leaders dreamed that the seminary could be reopened as a teaching institution. They took the $340,000 from the old seminary assets and, through wise investment and good stewardship, increased those funds to several million dollars. Through their dedication and leadership, the seminary emerged as a different, perhaps even more effective, institution.
In 1953 the Presbyterian Theological Seminary at Omaha, as it was still known, began to give scholarship loans to help theological students from 11 midwestern states. The General Assembly and the District Court approved the program and the use of $5,000 from the investment fund for this program. The Board allocated $800 per student per year—$300 for the student and a $500 grant to the seminary attended. If, after graduation, the student served five years in a rural church, the loan was cancelled. This program of financial aid to Presbyterian seminary students has been modified and increased numerous times over the years until it has evolved into what we now know as “The Apollos Program.” Loans are no longer granted; rather, scholarships are gifted with no reimbursement required.
It also became apparent to those persons on the Board of the Seminary that there was a great need for continuing education for pastors. In summer 1957, the first School for Presbyterian Pastors was held at Omaha University. All the expenses were paid for 32 ministers to attend, at a cost of $11,000. The enrollment, as well as the cost, has increased dramatically since then. This School has been recognized as most unique and one of the best examples of continuing education events in the county. In 1988, the School was moved to Hastings College.
The name was changed to the Omaha Presbyterian Seminary Foundation in 1983. This was approved by the District Court of Nebraska in October 1984 when it also authorized the Board to distribute the income from the trust for the purposes of theological and ecclesiastical education and to facilitate the funding of programs without the approval of the Court.
The Board began an expansion of programs and funding. New members were added to the Board to maintain the balance of an equal number of lay and clergy members. It also became more inclusive with the addition of women and minority board members.
In addition to the financial aid program and the School for Pastors, the Foundation began to aid other continuing education events sponsored by governing bodies of the Presbyterian Church and held within the bounds of the 13-state service areas, which includes Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
A major change came in 1996 when the Board of Directors created a supplemental body called The Board of Advisors. Dr. Daniel Nelson, the President of the Foundation, promoted this concept. The Advisors were to have the function that the name implied—the advising of the Foundation Board on new ideas and programs that could be instituted. This Board was also made up of both clergy and laypersons.
The mission of the Foundation today is not much different from that of the former Seminary, minus a campus and permanent faculty. It is “to seek, develop and support excellence in Christian leadership through the Presbyterian Church (USA).” We do this in several ways:
- By providing Apollos Scholarships Presbyterian Students in our ten seminaries as well as scholarships supporting Doctor of Ministry students. Five scholarships in the amount of $8,000 annually are named in honor of outstanding leaders.
- By helping to fund lifelong learning events hosted by synods and presbyteries within the 13-state area we primarily serve.
- By providing educational debt relief for ordained clergy as well as financial assistance for spiritual direction and spiritual coaching.
Today, the Board of the Foundation realizes that we are facing a growing leadership challenge in the Presbyterian Church. Many of our pastors will be retiring and church attendance is declining, which is leading to church closures and a sharp drop in seminary enrollment. To address this situation, the Foundation has taken on new areas of emphasis to encourage young people to consider responding positively to a call to ministry. We are also exploring how the limited-income churches can be served through Commissioned Pastors and how to support the education of those choosing the lay pastor path.
It is expensive to complete the seven years of study to fulfill the academic requirements to become an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church(USA). Many of those who enter ministry will serve churches that pay a very minimal salary, thus making it difficult to pay off student loans and get out of debt. It is hard for young people to consider a call when there seem to be other more lucrative careers that tempt them. These facts encouraged the creation of the Educational Debt Relief Grants.
Our goals are to be able to grow the number and size of our scholarships and grants, increase the opportunities for continuing education for both pastors, CPs and lay-leaders, and find new ways of helping churches of all sizes recruit potential leaders for ministry.
Hawley, C.A. (1941) Fifty Years on the Nebraska Frontier: History of the Presbyterian Theological Seminary at Omaha, Church History. 10(4) December. pp. 384-38.