Debt and Seminarians

Recently a congregation in our synod was in the call process and found a candidate they loved. And, the pastoral candidate loved the congregation.

In the process of deciding if he could take the call, the candidate checked with his financial advisor. They had a frank conversation. His advisor warned him that with the amount of student debt he came out of seminary with, and the money needed for housing in that area, he would need to be making at least $60,000 a year. The congregation could only afford to pay $45,000. The crushing advice the pastoral candidate received was, “You will be in a major bind if you take that call.”

We want to help seminarians. The astonishing fact is that ninety-five percent come out with significant student debt. We want to help them manage their debt and pay it off. This also helps congregations. Smaller debt allows recent and new seminary grads to affirmatively respond to great calls and ministry settings, which otherwise would be out of reach.

In my day, way back when, between the subsidy of the national church body, my parents help and working part-time, I graduated with no debt. Today, the cost of education is way up due to inflation. Tuition and housing keeps going up and up. Even students who come from well-off families are making incredible sacrifices.

If you were to put yourself in the shoes of a recent seminarian grad looking for a call, how would you respond to opportunities knowing your expenses would outweigh your income?

I think about graduating from seminary and wanting to go to a call and having to pay off $50,000 in debt at the same time! My first call was from a congregation that didn’t have much money. I took a very small salary. If I had student debt to pay off, I couldn’t have taken that call — and a whole new ministry would not have been started! 

...in order to see tremendous pastoral candidates grow deeply in their spiritual lives, become well-trained in ministry and come back here to SW Washington to serve, we are going to have to make a larger investment in the costs of their seminary education.

I do think about that. I think about my Son who just graduated from college. He worked part-time and had good jobs and is facing significant debt. He is interested in ministry, but financial realities get in the way.

My education is an investment. We prize well-educated pastors who are deeply rooted in the study of scripture and theology. We want well-trained pastors, don’t we? This requires that we be committed to well-educated and trained pastors. Our seminarians are caught in the middle of the traditional deep roots of a four-year Masters of Divinity program and the financial costs of that education. They make a huge commitment to complete this requirement of their calling, but unlike doctors and lawyers, they are not being adequately compensated.

This is why we in the SW Washington Synod would like to be known as a synod which helps our seminary grads with debt. And along with financial relief, we also want to help them learn about financial management. Pastors skilled at budgeting will also help their congregations in the area of financial stewardship.

So, in order to see tremendous pastoral candidates grow deeply in their spiritual lives, become well-trained in ministry and come back here to SW Washington to serve, we are going to have to make a larger investment in the costs of their seminary education.