Your Pastor is Broke and in Debt!

By Scott Keith

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****Warning****

This piece is a little more “heady” than normal. Brace yourselves!

The economic woes of the last several years are placing increasing pressure on seminaries, theological schools, and especially the candidates that will matriculate from these institutions. While the need for theologically minded and trained lay and ordained church leaders remains higher than ever[1], the cost of providing the needed education for these individuals is becoming increasingly prohibitive. In an address given to the Montreal School of Theology in October 2005, Daniel Aleshire, Executive Director of The Association for Theological Schools (ATS) spoke about the prospective future of theological education in North America. Aleshire noted that emerging paradigm changes may be necessary in the way theological education is approached in order to reflect the increasing cost and resulting student indebtedness that stems from the structure of the current model. Aleshire notes that the cost for one year of theological education often exceeds $30,000 (Now $40,000), which makes a Master’s of Divinity degree nearly a $100,000 degree.[2] Students, on average pay between one third and half of the cost, endowments and scholarships often pay the remainder. This means that a seminary education on average will cost a student between $30,000 and $50,000. Added to this is the reality that almost all seminaries require a four-year bachelor degree as a pre-requisite to admission. Often this B.A. is completed at a private theological university or Bible college at a median annual tuition of $24,000 to $31,000[3] per year. The result of this is that a typical seminarian will arrive at the seminary doorstep with significant student loan debt prior to attending a single seminary course.

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In 2005-2006, the Episcopal Church, with sponsorship provided by the Society for the Increase in Ministry, conducted a study of the 2006 class of the 11 Episcopal seminaries. The study revealed that two-thirds of the students had significant debt. The average debt load of each student was a staggering $39,085 only halfway through his or her theological training. Meanwhile the annual median compensation package (including housing allowance) for new Episcopal clergy was a mere $44,500; yet bank lenders say that you need $60,000 of income to pay for the living expenses and effectively manage educational of $38,000.[4] This study only covered the prospect of debt that was entered into prior to attending seminary, not the resulting cumulative debt of seminary education. I think that this leads to a twofold education for the prospective student of theology. The first is a theological education. The second is a lesson in what it means to be in severe debt.[5] Students learn about theology and debt! Rather, they learn to accept debt as a real reality in their life and in their ministry. This is perhaps sad enough when referring to secular institutions, but even more so when it applies so aptly to institutions purportedly engaged in educating, teachers, and leaders of the church and in “pastoral formation.”

The sad truth is that a major part of modern pastoral formation is debt accumulation.

These realities produce two immediately dramatic effects. First, students often spend their seminary or university days focused on money rather than becoming theologically educated. Says one student at the Episcopal Divinity School (EDS): “I need to focus on earning money to bridge the gaps between my loans and the actual cost of living in Cambridge.”[6] And another: “I came to EDS with savings but without financial or emotional support from a parish. As a person with a professional background in retirement and life planning, I was (and continue to be) anxious about depleting my life savings to pursue my educational calling.”[7] The truth is that for almost all students, debt is a reality.[8] But should this be true in the Church for our pastors and teachers also?

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The second direct, and perhaps more damaging effect, is that congregations cannot afford to pay future pastors and teachers of the Church at compensation levels that will be necessary to service the increasing debt of those who have received a post-graduate theological education. This means that only large churches will be able to continue to afford to call adequate numbers of pastoral and teaching staffs, while average size and especially small rural or inner city churches will, in an increasing way, go without.[9]

So, long story short… I don’t have any answers, but I do have questions. Do we need to “rethink” the way we do theological education? Is traditional, and thus costly, theological and seminary education the only way to achieve proper pastoral formation? Do we need to enact a major paradigm shift in the way theological education is approached? I leave it to you. But remember, your pastor is broke and in debt!

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[1] While there are enough pastors on the roster lists of various denominations to serve most of the congregations in need, studies show that many congregations remain vacant. This is especially true of smaller congregations who cannot afford to pay a well-educated pastor. The need for well-trained clergy to serve congregations of all sizes remains very high. See: Patricia M.Y. Chang, “Pulpit Supply,” The Christian Century, 11 2003. Also, for an example of one denomination that reports over 800 current pulpit vacancies, see The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, Pastoral Vacancy Statistics in The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod from September 1998 – September 2010, Statistical Data (St. Louis: LCMS, 2010).

[2] Daniel Aleshire, “Theological Education in the Twenty-First Century” (Pittsburg: Association of Theological Schools, 2005), 1.

[3] Association of Theological Schools, Average Tuition, Fees Charged, and Selected Degree Programs at Univeristy Affiliated, Independent, and College Affiliated Schools, Data Table, ATS Data Tables 2009-2010: 4 – Finances (Pittsburg: ATS, 2009-2010). See also a recent report from the College Board stating that total charges at a private univeristy in the 20015 school year will top $42,500 per year. College Board, Trends in College Pricing 2015, Survey, Trends in Education Series, College Board (New York: College Board, 2015), 9.

[4] EDS News, “Theological Education Today: Is the Traditional Model of Seminary Education Viable in the 21st Century?,” Spring 2007: 1.

[5] Peter Selby, “Mamman’s Revenge: Theological Reflections on the Global Crisis” (Oxford: Univeristy of Oxford, August 4, 2010).

[6] EDS News, 5.

[7] Ibid, 1.

[8] A report from the college board in 2010 states that 24% of students graduating from a private four year institution will carry more than $30,500 in student loan debt.  Sandy Baum and Patricia Steele, “Who Borrows Most? Bachelor’s Degree Recipients with High Levels of Student Debt,” Trends in Higher Education (College Board), 2010: 1.

[9] Patricia M.Y. Chang, “Pulpit Supply,” 3.