The Echelbargers: Paying it forward

To this day, Dave Echelbarger and Christine Thomas-Echelbarger don’t know who helped them get through their second year of seminary. But there’s no question about how grateful they are, and why they are paying it forward with an endowed scholarship for current students.

After getting married, they started seminary in the fall of 1975 with the intention of also graduating together and serving together as pastors. They did just that, serving 38 years in four different congregations, and retiring nearly a year ago in Racine, Wis.

“We loved what we were doing, and it was demanding and all consuming, but when we retired we were ready,” said Christine, acknowledging how ground-breaking it was for them to attend seminary together and hold their ground in their determination to serve together.           

What happened their second year was pivotal. They knew they could afford their first year of seminary, and thought they could manage paying for the second. But an unexpected increase in tuition needed to happen for LSTC to stay viable. They understood that, but when they crunched the numbers, they realized they couldn’t afford it and met with the president to tell him just that. Days later, they were called back into his office and told their tuitions for the second year had been paid by an anonymous donor. They never learned who helped them, but they say they have a short list of “prime suspects.”

“We were floored, and incredibly grateful and appreciative,” Dave said.

They figured out their living costs, and Christine said they took “every job they gave us” at seminary. Throughout their years here, they had eight jobs between them, including running the housing office, switchboard, hospitality, mailroom, prep cook and dish washer.           

They love telling about the time they were supposed to report to three jobs at the same time, Christine’s sister, Linda, was visiting, and because they were often mistaken for twins, Christine sent Linda to run the cash register for her in the cafeteria.

“I just told her to ‘do what you do and be your normal friendly self, take money and no one will know the difference.’ And no one knew,” Christine said. All three jobs got done, Dave in the mailroom, Christine at the switchboard and Linda at the cash register.

They remember when they had 50 cents left in their checking account and scrounged around their apartment for change. Still, they knew a paycheck was imminent, and that they weren’t without food or homeless. They wonder if they could do it these days.          

It is with those previous days clearly in mind that they established a scholarship for students.

“We do this out of a sense of gratitude. We know how challenging it was for us and how grateful we were to be able to stay the course and finish together and serve together. It is so much harder now. This is our small part to say thank you,” Christine said.

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