The Modern Pastor and Seminary Debt

I got a good comment in my last post on the modern pastor and money. It reminded me that several pastors come out of seminary with as much as $30-50k in debt.

Seminary debt is a more convincing argument than most for paying pastors more, although I’ll be honest and say I’m still not convinced.

I think seminary debt is a big problem. A few places where we need to think more about what we’re doing:

  1. I’d love to see churches and denominations investing more. If a church sees someone they’d like to encourage in the ministry, it would be great to see them put some money behind that person. Some may say that the denominations can’t afford any more. And yet they keep giving raises to some of their highest paid…
  2. You don’t have to take on 30-50k in debt to go to seminary. It might mean going slower and finding a job (how about getting a ministry position while in school?), but it can be done. Seminary took me 7 years, but I came out of it with no debt despite no scholarship or church help — and that was at Asbury, one of the most expensive. You can do it!
  3. Is it really fair to throw your debt burdens on the Church after seminary? You may say, “It’s the only way for me.” First, I’m not convinced. Second, even if you convince me, it doesn’t mean that any church is obligated to take you on and pay you more so that you can pay off your loans.
  4. Your debt burden limits your options. Come out of seminary with significant debt, and you’re not only looking for the right place to serve, but the right place to serve that can also support your debt load.
  5. The American Church is changing. You may offer incredible leadership to the future of the Church, but it’s quite possible that it will be for little or no pay. I celebrate that coming probability, but it makes it more problematic to take on huge debt and assume that a church paycheck will take care of it on the other end. This also means that you might be considering developing some other competencies if ministry work doesn’t pay the bills.

I know I’m going to cause some trouble by saying this, but here goes… I’m concerned when I see people going to seminary entirely/mostly on debt. I’ve seen several people come out ready to get a ministry job and pay off their debt, only to find that no one is too excited to bring them in. A church may have given them a placid endorsement to go to seminary, but that doesn’t mean they would hire that person on the other end.

This really shouldn’t come as a shock. No one was excited enough to pay their way through school, and no one was excited enough to hire them while in school. Why do we think someone is eagerly waiting to hire them and their $50,000 debt burden right out of school?

NOTE: This is NOT me saying that all of these people are unqualified. If that’s what you’re hearing, please hear something else before you start throwing things at the screen. But what I’ve just said certainly is true for some (many?). I don’t think you can deny that. The person who I see getting church support, or working in a pastoral position while in seminary, never seems to have trouble finding a place to serve after seminary.

For potential seminarians

A word for people considering seminary: Think long and hard before you debt-finance the full thing and assume you should get a big-enough salary on the other end to pay it off.

Consider doing school slower and working.

Ask your church or denomination if they’ll help you financially. If they won’t, press them a bit on just how much they believe in you going to seminary — not to guilt them into paying, but to be sure people aren’t smiling and nodding but thinking something else.

This may be the place that we pull the “It’s my calling, and I don’t care what they say”-card. I’d be slow with that one. I remember a girl who was adamant that she was called to the Christian music ministry. Yet everyone else kept telling her they just didn’t see it happening. It didn’t. But she spent a lot of time and money chasing it. Let the community have a place in discerning calling. And remember that we may be making too much out of this whole “vocational calling” thing in the first place.

For churches and denominations

If you really believe in someone, put your money behind them on the front end. Don’t do them and the Church the disservice of a huge debt to pay off for years to come.

And if you don’t believe in someone, be honest with them before they get $30-50k in debt.

I know this one won’t go over well with all of you. What do you think? Be honest.

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13 thoughts on “The Modern Pastor and Seminary Debt

  1. The problem of seminary debt is not just a church issue. It is indicative of how poorly funded our educational system is today. I’m not talking about throwing more money into the fire, but, instead, speaking of how we mismanage money.

    First, seminary debt is just like higher education debt. The cost of tuition has increased, in recent years, as there has been an increase in federal loan money available. The availability of student loans increases the cost of education, because there is more money in the pot. In order to gain access to money, schools have an incentive to raise tuition arbitrarily under the guise of “improving education.” Most of the time, these educational improvements are never seen in the classroom.

    So, where does the money go? Unfortunately, most of the money is spent on infrastructure improvements. Higher education, and seminaries are included in this, is spending too much on infrastructural needs while not improving the quality of education. It is unfair to ask students to pay out $30,000 annually and not see a quality enhancement on the education sides. New buildings, parking spaces, and recreational centers do not enhance the quality of one’s education.

    On the church side, we have a problem in that we are not keeping our seminaries accountable for their spending and in the quality of pastors they are producing. As well, we also have a problem in how we are supporting students. As a UM pastor, I would love to see Ministerial Education Funding changed completely to where no seminary receives direct help. Instead the money goes directly to the student. Of course, this would produce more competition and would likely close a few schools, which means it will never happen.

    1. I’d like to note that the school we are most familiar with hasn’t spent any student funds, at least recently, on infrastructure with all renovation and new building coming directly from private donors.

      Tuition is also subsidized significantly through private funding, though other schools, like Princeton, can offer far lower tuition through much larger endowments.

      (I served a couple of years as a student representative on a committee in the “advancement” office.)

      1. John,

        Granted, but I would suggest you look at the work from the Pope Center of Higher Education on its work on tuition funding and mortar investments in high education. Even though the group focuses on North Carolina issues, the points it raises are relevant across the board. (Note: I used to work for the group.)

    1. Amen, Aaron. Back in my higher education policy days, I remember that being among the highest expenses for a university/seminary.

  2. Hey Teddy! I jumped to this link from the tips to new seminary students link. I wholeheartedly agree with you and, in fact, I would offer that debt-load should be part of the call discernment process. Rather than just speaking about the “spiritual” sense of call, perhaps leadership should ask to see the financial bottom line for a person before endorsement. In addition, second-career students need to think long and hard about the financial ramifications. It might sound spiritual to go to quit your $70,000/year job to go to seminary, but if the house doesn’t sell and you still have substantial credit card debt, life will get terribly difficult financially. Personally, I take a Proverbs 22:7 approach to finances, and I just decided that seminary and pastoring were out of the question if it meant taking on anywhere near the debt I see some of my friends take on. For second career folk in particular, an MDIV is perhaps the only master’s degree where folks should expect to make substantially less than before. It may not seem to matter in the early part of the process, but it will matter that first month you’re in the red.

    1. OH! And one other small pet peeve. If going to seminary means relying substantially on state aid, then the person can’t afford seminary. That’s a personal belief, and I know not all will agree, but I don’t think it’s fair to make taxpayers foot the bill because we feel a call to ministry.

      1. Adam, I fully agree with you. Good suggestions here. Though the majority of seminarians I’ve talked to reject all of this advice and say they’ll just have to take on the debt and state support.

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