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.