The Pastor’s Dilemma: How Pastoral Debt is Destroying Churches (And What You Can Do to Help).

I stepped out of college at the bright and brimming age of 21, and never looked back, except to pay the bills. The bills, that is, that had accumulated to a whopping and ludicrous $60,000+ dollars, plus change. This was my student debt.

But called to ministry I was, so I stepped into the field fully expecting that the Lord would compensate me. I began ministry at a grand $36,000 a year, until I finally pinned down some of my theology and decided the place I worked didn’t share it. I then transferred to a church that paid significantly less, we had our first child, and the “graduating payment” plan kicked in generously, asking us to donate to our local loan officer a grand $400 a month payment.

The story does get better, but before it does, I need to be honest about the fact that “ministry” during this the time felt less like changing people’s souls and more like I was a cat trying to claw its way up drywall. I was struggling to breathe, to work, to think straight – my debt was an insurmountable burden, like I was pregnant with a child who would never breach the womb.

I nearly gave up ministry, and probably should have if it weren’t for the generous program that paid my way through seminary, effectively putting my debt into the same category as most other seminarians: yes, you heard that right. The average debt for a seminary graduate is $30,000 (plus change). And the average pastoral salary is $45,000. Which means paying off debt in this lifetime, for most pastors, is about as likely as shooting a nerf-ball into outer space and hitting the moon.

Destroying the Church.

Now think about that. 20 years ago, it was considered a crisis that 30% of seminarians were graduating with $10,000 of debt. A crisis. Why? Because 50 years ago, denominations largely bore the brunt of paying for theological training, and to this day, most parishioners assume that’s just what happens: seminary gets paid for. Somehow. By someone.

But statistically speaking, that’s just not true. Instead, here are a few things that happen:

1. Churches decide theological training is unimportant. Thus, pastors become less able to defend orthodoxy with any reasonable skill, unless they are exceptionally, exceptionally talented (and 99% are not). Or,

2. Pastors are forced to view ministry as a career, climbing from one position to another, in which case college towns (the most strategic place in the country for gospel outreach), and at-risk/low-income communities are ignored for the simple fact that they can’t pay the bills. Or,

3. Pastors become embittered against the seminary/church for financial woes, and drop out. Or,

4. Pastors succumb to the pressure of “church growth”, and effectively sell their ministry out to corporate tactics, trying desperately to grow a small church into something that can at least manage the debt-beast that’s slowly avalanching toward the pastor’s family (this isn’t a rant against church growth tactics, but it KIND of is, because I have no doubt that many, many church growth practices are really about income growth, even if we won’t admit it).

Other possibilities abound, but the point is: pastoral debt is a social justice issue, it is a spiritual issue, and it is an orthodoxy issue. It is, in other words, a gospel issue.

What You Can Do.

Fortunately, a few organizations like the Lily Corporation, the ELCA and several theological institutions have worked to bring this issue to the fore. But it’s not enough. The truth is, most people are shocked to hear that seminarians are graduating with debt they’ll never pay off in their lifetime. The funding for seminary education just isn’t there (even for these great programs), and until it is, the problem will continue to persist, crippling churches, neglecting needy communities, and destroying the lives and families of pastors nationwide.

What is needed to address this issue is mass awareness, and mass response. What is needed is the local church, hearing and responding to the need. So what can you do? Here are a few ideas:

1. If you’re an employer, offer a job to a seminarian so he/she can complete their degree long-distance. In the past 5 years, a flourishing of long-distance M.Div options have cropped up, when none were available before. This will be the most viable option for most people, and has the dual benefit of giving real-world work experience before entering ministry (a requirement in some Europeans denominations!).

2. If you’re an elder/deacon or other leader in the church, encourage your church to set mission funds aside for theological education, and work with programs like Gordon Conwell’s Partnership Program or RTS’s 1/3 matching program to fund seminary completely. If your church does this, raise awareness and help financially.

3. If you are a pastor, speak with your denomination about strategic ways to help seminarians financially before, during, and after the seminary experience. Beforehand, catalyze gifted administrators in your church to help future pastors think about budgeting, exploring the options, and considering the debt/salary ratio. During, GIVE, and set students up with financial coaches from your church.

After, consider the ELCA’s matching program, which matches dollar for dollar every penny a seminarian pays back for theological education, encouraging both responsibility and offering much-needed aid (the man who put this program together reported that only 1 out of 150 pastors under his care dropped out of ministry while he was in leadership. This is remarkable, considering the most conservative estimates are a 20-30% dropout rate in the first 10 years nationwide).

Also, ensure that the minimum wages for pastors include the debt factor, especially if the denomination isn’t paying seminary costs up front.

4. Raise awareness. Share this article, for starters.

To be completely frank, I’m not sure I see any solutions for independent churches on this one. Not that I’ve investigated it much, but researchers chiefly point to denominations and seminaries as the main factors, and denominations are chiefly responsible for the funding. I would be more than happy to hear from independents on how this issue could/is being handled outside of connectionalism.

Further Reading:

Blossom, Jay, “Making a Repayment Plan a Condition for Student Loans,” In Trust, http://www.intrust.org/Blog/entryid/66/making-a-repayment-plan-a-condition-for-student-loans
Blossom, Jay, “Student Loan Forgiveness for Employees of Religious Non-Profits? Maybe”, In Trust,
http://www.intrust.org/Blog/entryid/33/student-loan-forgiveness-for-employees-of-religious-nonprofits-maybe
Briggs, David “The High Cost of Service: Student Debt Burdens Religious Workers”, Association of Religion Data Archives, August 6 2012 http://blogs.thearda.com/trend/featured/the-high-cost-of-service-student-debt-burdens-religious-workers/
Cortez, Marc, “Do Seminary Grads Burn Out Quickly?”, Western Seminary ‘Transformed’,
http://www.westernseminary.edu/transformedblog/2012/04/18/do-seminary-grads-burn-out-quickly/
Foss, Richard “Tending to the Financial Strain of Ministry” Faith and Leadership, http://www.faithandleadership.com/qa/richard-foss-tending-the-financial-strain-ministry
Kloth, Ronnie, “Lilly Endowment Gives 12.3M to Help Theological Schools Improve the Economic Well-Being of Future Ministers,” Lilly Endowment Inc, December 2 2013, http://www.lillyendowment.org/pdf/HelpingTheologicalSchools.pdf
Mcmillan, Becky; Price, Matthew, “How Much Should We Pay the Pastor?”, Pulpit and Pew Research Reports, Winter 2013. http://www.faithandleadership.com/programs/spe/resources/ppr/salarystudy.pdf
Miller, Sharon; Early, Kim Maphis; Ruger, Anthony T. “Taming the Tempest: A Team Approach to Reducing and Managing Student Debt”, Auburn Theological Seminary, October 2014, http://www.auburnseminary.org/sites/default/files/Taming-Tempest-Final.pdf
Miller, Sharon; Early, Kim Maphis; Ruger, Anthony T. “A Call to Action: Lifting the Burden”, Auburn Theological Seminary, April 2014 http://www.ats.edu/uploads/resources/current-initiatives/economic-challenges-facing-future-ministers/student-debt-strategies/auburn-lifting-the-burden.pdf
Moltz, David “No Repayment Plan, No Loan”, Inside Higher Education, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/04/14/tidewater_community_college_requiring_students_with_federal_loans_to_complete_personal_budget_and_repayment_plan
Steeber, Mary “Introduction to Coaching: Manual”, Luther Theological Seminary, http://www.ats.edu/uploads/resources/current-initiatives/economic-challenges-facing-future-ministers/student-debt-strategies/Luther-financial-coaching-manual.pdf
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nick.youthwriter@gmail.com

Nicholas McDonald is a blogger, pastor, and author of the book "Faker: How to Be Real When You're Tempted to Fake it." He studied creative writing and communication at Oxford University and Olivet Nazerene University, and received his M.Div from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. He currently resides in Lexington, NC, with his wife and two boys, Caleb and Owen.

16 Comments

  1. Not to mention the loans that parents also take out to assist in the financing! We are in the midst of this, and see the great concern for churches, future pastors, and those now entering the ministry. Taking this one fervently before the Throne of Grace!

    • Yes, not to mention them! It’s a great burden for anyone going through the process. Thanks, MT

  2. What you’re talking about is exactly what TheGoFund.com is seeking to address in terms of overseas missionaries. You’re right and this beast is going to continue to drive more and more people out of the ministry or give them an unhealthy mindset towards it.

    • That’s encouraging, Jeff. I’d heard of the go fund, but never knew it was focused on this issue.

  3. Something that I think of is in regards to this:

    “2. Pastors are forced to view ministry as a career,
    climbing from one position to another, in which case college towns (the
    most strategic place in the country for gospel outreach), and
    at-risk/low-income communities are ignored for the simple fact that they
    can’t pay the bills.”

    I am thinking, specifically, the “at-risk/low-income communities.” Another option is to become a bi-vocational pastor and work either part or full time. I say this as a bi-vocational pastor with not only with my own college/seminary debt, but also my wife’s college debt.

    Granted, there are concerns with this. For the majority of pastors who are bi-vocational there tends to be an increase of burnout. There is also the feeling of being inadequate for ministry, or feeling sorrow for not being able to do more. At the same time, this can cause us to be humble, remembering that a congregation is a body, and that the pastor is just a part, not the whole.

    I am sure that there can be a lot more said about this, but that was just a little bit of thought from reading your very important article.

    • That’s a great point, Sean. I think bi-vocational is a great option for a lot of pastors. Maybe a suggestion to congregations “after the fact” would be to hire pastors part-time for a good wage, so they can continue on a less-than-good wage on the job. Thanks.

  4. So, I’m contemplating going to Seminary, but debt — and not knowing how to pay for Seminary — is a scare. Besides the two organizations you mentioned, do you (or anyone), know of ways to help students pay for seminary? My inquiry is serious and very much open to further dialogue (email: davidqaoud@gmail.com)

    • Hi David – I know a couple of seminaries like Fuller and Calvin have long-distance M.Div programs, or Knox in Florida. If you have a job, that might be a good way to go. I can’t speak to the programs themselves. GCTS and RTS are both really great schools, and both have a fully-paid scholarship opportunity, but it means you need a team of people willing to support you.

    • You should consider Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, AL. It is remarkably affordable! All students get a scholarship that covers 40% of tuition costs, and there are other scholarships available depending on scholarly and pastoral promise. Beeson is very strong when it comes to the Biblical languages. But its best kept secret is its amazing History and Doctrine sequence that, over the course of four semesters, covers the intellectual history of Christianity taught almost exclusively from primary sources. Beeson offers no online courses; instead, it places a high premium on community and learning through conversation in and outside of the classroom. The faculty to student ration is about 1:7. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

  5. Great article! Great seminary-GCTS; I went there myself. What was really discouraging for me was when I came out of seminary, worked at a church, was given a low salary (for the position and region in which I lived), had seminary debt even though I worked all through seminary, the affluent church didn’t offer to cover part of it, and instead paid $60K for a 50′ sidewalk on the church property. One month (or possibly even just two weeks) of the landscaping costs for the church could have erased my seminary debt. Churches should really consider this.

    Also, I believe the trend now will require bi-vocational ministry, and I would STRONGLY urge a student looking ahead to seminary to pick a major in undergrad in order to get a job to support him/herself through seminary to avoid taking on too much debt. Even though bi-vocational ministry isn’t ideal, neither is swimming in debt.

    • Just for personal interest – did you tell the church about your frustration on this? This is one of the things many of the studies found: often, pastors don’t feel comfortable communicating their needs to the broader congregation.

      • Not really. 5000€ is the cost of the 1st year (room and board included). The other 3 years are internships in churches with 8 weeks a year of classes in Geneva (2000€ a year, room and board included).

        The IBG 4 year diploma is recognized in all conservative French evangelical churches (700+).

  6. You have some valid points in supporting some of the financing theological training in the church; however, I disagree that this should be the sole responsibility for the church to support. In the African-American community, similarly in the rest of the world, it’s very common that pastors have a full-time job and minister, too. Paul did this too as a tentmaker. Most of the cost incurred from education should be on the student and not the church because it places too much burden on the church. What happens when the individual doesn’t want to be a pastor anymore? What happens when a moral failure occurs in a pastor’s life? What happens when the pastor wants to leave the church that has paid for the education? Being a pastor should not be a career path, but a ministry one and any education incurred should be placed on the student.

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