Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Indebted for God? Seminarians and the Debt Trap

The new academic year is beginning for colleges, universities and seminaries. As students prepare to take classes one ritual many of them will participate in is the walk to the financial aid office. There they will attempt to get scholarships and grants to help pay the ever increasing price of tuition. Many will end up with an application for student loan. 

Student loans have been a part of the US educational system for some time. We were all told that if we invested in a degree we would have a better shot at a higher paying job. And in some ways that was true. But over the last two decades student loans have increased substantially and the pundits are now warning that, like the dot-coms and housing, this is the next “bubble” to burst.

As a professor at a seminary I have been concerned about the rising level of debt. It is something that I have been aware of for some time. Students are taking out most or all of their tuition in loans and they are using some for living expenses. The result? They are leaving seminary with debt ranging between $35 to $40,000. The problem, however, is that 2011 statistics from the dept. of labor indicate that the average clergy salary is $44,140. DavidBriggs notes that some clergy are having to postpone starting families or are facing bankruptcy.

In other recent articles a former ORU student suggests that while seminary won’t solve your doctrinal problems it will increase your debt. In the WSJ Russell Moore suggests that denominations do more to help seminarians pay for their education. And fellow-blogger, Brian Leport, shares his own experience as a recent graduate as well as some sage advice.

As a professor who works at a seminary and went to seminary I have two perspectives on the situation. I realize that I am, by virtue of my position, part of the problem. One reason that tuition increases happen each year is because the expenses related to paying me go up. At the same time, it would be unfair to suggest that I am “well-off.” For instance, although the seminary is part of a university I am paid less than my colleagues in religious studies up the street. No sour grapes here, well maybe a little, but my point is I am not rolling in dough.

But I also have some observations/suggestions as I watch students come to class via a loan.

1.  Part of the student loan problem in seminary starts in undergrad. Many students come to seminary with $25,000 or more in debt. Again, this is a two edged sword. You took out loans to get the degree which you needed to go to seminary. Perhaps one answer is to take a break between degrees and work to pay down that debt. Students always seem to be in such a rush to finish. I understand that, but  taking 2, 3 or even 5 years to gain some maturity and financial freedom might not be a bad idea if you know you are going into a field that doesn’t pay all that well. Unless you plan on being a successful televangelist, chances are you won’t be very well-off.

2. Cut up the credit card! Too many people are using their cards to get the through. No, no, no. My wife worked in the business office when I was in grad school and she told me how students would come in with two and three cards trying to spread out their bill. Again, if you are going into ministry, credit card debt is not a good way to start.

3.  Work.  I know that many of my students work as well as school. I also know that it adds stress to life. But a few years of stress now can help prevent the increasing stress levels as interest climbs on your debts.

4. Only take the courses you can afford. This goes back to the “don’t be in such a rush” point. If I can beat my own drum here, I only ever took two courses per term in seminary. Why? That was all I could afford. I worked 30 hours a week during the academic year and full time during the summer. I scraped and saved to pay for my classes and was only ever able to take two at a time. The result? It took me 4 years longer to do a degree that should have only taken 2 ½ years. I was also able to concentrate more on those two classes and I left school debt free.

5.  Build a relationship with a church. Not everyone will be fortunate enough to have denominational backing to help pay for seminary. I think Russell Moore is correct when he suggests that churches need to do more to help future clergy prepare. But at the same time, it is unusual for a seminary grad to stay at their home church. But if you think you are called to seminary and your church is encouraging you, telling you what a wonderful minister you will make then why not ask what they can do to help. Perhaps they could pay for one or two classes a year? Perhaps there are other ways that they could support you that would help you avoid the debt trap. Lori and I were part of a wonderful church when I was in seminary and the congregation helped us both with finances and other means. They knew we weren’t going to stay, but they considered it an investment in the kingdom.

These are just a few observations. I realize that the impending debt crisis will not be solved by everyone getting a job. And the current economy only adds to it. But if you are considering seminary you might find some of my suggestions helpful. You might also learn from Brian Leport.

At the same time seminaries need to work harder to control costs. I am proud to say that Ashland Theological Seminary had a only a 2% tuition increase last year and this year we did not raise prices. We are doing what we can to solve the problem. I have had to drill some extra holes in my belt, but if it helps students to leave with less debt I am happy to do it. In the mean time, students need to think through how education is financed as they seek to fulfill their call.


  1. Good post. I was an interesting case because I came in with very little debt but had a lot of major emergencies crop up that I could only pay with student loans. What's more is that my scholarship has tight parameters on what I can and can no do, so I HAVE to take so many classes haha

    But luckily I have a useful and lucrative degree for undergrad and good resume. I think I will be forced into being bi-vocational for the first few years out of seminary but I'll be making enough to pay off 100% of my loan in like 2 years.

    I feel blessed to graduate from Ashland, even if I had debt connected to it.

    However, I know some graduating with like 100K of debt and no real resume or work experience....I am truly scared for them.

  2. Jesus said, "You cannot serve God and money". I don't see what alternative we have.

  3. As a recent seminary graduate and current pastor I think I can offer a few points of response, though mainly to the Huff article.

    The first thing I want to say is I had a plan. When I started seminary I had two degrees, undergrad and masters, and ZERO debt as well as almost enough $$ saved to pay for my seminary education in its entirety, if I finished in 3 years. I ended up taking 4 years.

    However, to work while in seminary and live at home for free, I had to commute to Ashland. That drive killed 2 cars. I replaced both of them, buying used cars and paying for them completely to avoid a car loan. I also got married and rather than take on wedding debt, I paid for the rings, most of the wedding (family covered the rest) and honeymoon. Our wedding was nearly $10,000 cheaper than the average for our area I might add. But, at this point I had 1 year left in seminary, nearly no savings left and I had inherited my wife's student loans from undergrad—which I had started to pay off when we got engaged.
    If the seminaries didn’t allow students to enroll or continue due to their indebtedness at this point I would have qualified to be disqualified. Yet before I had graduated I had received a call to be a full-time pastor at a church. Since coming, the church is growing spiritually and numerically and through too many ways to mention, God has affirmed my call there. The church I currently serve is larger than the national average. The facility is fantastic and completely paid for; we have been provided with a large parish house and in many other ways, are richly blessed. My wife and I are very grateful. I’m also aware that my situation is unique compared to most of the other churches and pastors in the area who struggle financially.

    While I know there are seminary students who make poor fiscal decisions the main problem, I feel, is with denominations. I personally know the individuals who are either in charge of or one of the leaders for large regional bodies within 2 different denominations. And I know (b/c they have told me) that each regional body is sitting on tens of millions of dollars (assessments, sale of property, inherited estates, etc.) and have no idea what to do with it! I suggested to both of them seminary debt assistance. One took it to the governing body which shot that down; the other never did anything with that suggestion. Meanwhile, small churches struggle yet continue to pay assessments (denominational tax). Example of assessment cost: the church I previously served paid nearly $35,000 yearly in assessments to the regional body. Imagine if that church only paid $10,000 and had $25,000 left. They could set up their own scholarship fund for seminary students—and that is ONE church! The vast majority of assessments go towards bureaucratic costs and salaries for administrators that make—while not CEO levels—incomes that are not biblically justified. Meanwhile, said denominational leaders demand the government do something about the level of indebtedness their pastors are incurring in seminary. The primary problem is not seminaries and it is not seminary students, it is the denominations who have the means to help but do nothing. Or at least the two denominations I am personally connected to.