Over the past couple of years, with the support of Lilly Endowment, select theological schools have been studying the issue of educational debt, and we are discovering a grave miscalculation. What it costs to prepare for effective ministry may never be fully discharged if one stays in ministry. When an entering student carries significant debt from an undergraduate degree, the compounding of additional educational costs creates an almost insuperable burden.
Seminaries are generous to a fault in providing scholarships, and donors are keenly interested in assisting students in this way. Yet, seminaries cannot control what a student can borrow from a federal loan program, unless a school opts out of the program altogether. That “nuclear approach” would make it impossible for many to respond to God’s call. Coaching for increased financial literacy can also assist, but habituated approaches to money management require more stringent approaches than many schools can muster.
In our school’s particular study, the level of financial obligation some students bring has astonished us. Regrettably, some have never gained essential financial planning knowledge, and others have “spiritualized” educational debt, believing that if one followed God’s call to ministry, God would take care of the finances. While I appreciate great faith, a level of naiveté shapes some entering congregational leadership, and the economics of ministry are irreducible.
Theological students are not alone in racking up educational debt. It is a national crisis in higher education, and this kind of debt now outstrips what persons owe on their credit cards. The difference is that there is a clear bankruptcy option for the latter; student loan debt is with you always, unless you can prove extreme hardship — which is not done easily under Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 of the U.S. bankruptcy code.
At the other end of the calculus is ministry compensation. Yesterday in a Christian Century blog, David Lewicki calls churches and judicatories “to equalize pastor salaries.” He articulates the stark realities faced by underpaid ministers. “How do you pay school loans, afford a mortgage, make car payments, save for college or retirement, and occasionally enjoy a night out?” he queries. What if a health crisis ensues on top of all of that?
The “noble profession of ministry” is above earthly concerns, some members of personnel committees surmise, and they fail to do the math on what commensurate schooling commands in the marketplace. A master of divinity degree parallels a doctor of jurisprudence in length of academic program, yet the salaries of ministers and lawyers are widely disparate. The consequences of this are harmful to churches and communities.
As Lewicki argues, “When pastor salaries in small urban or rural churches aren’t enough to survive, it creates a pervasive structural incentive for clergy to move up and out of those neighborhoods — not seeking riches, but simply seeking a livable wage.” This reality discourages creative leaders who once deeply desired to be transformative in these contexts, often the most in need of stable congregations.
Monastics may vow poverty voluntarily, but there are helpful considerations: there are few wardrobe requirements — they keep it simple — and health care for life is part of being a member of their community. There is no such concomitant vow for Baptists and other clergy, but often it seems as if such a vow is expected. Some do earn a fair salary, but far too many do not. Then there comes a tipping point as ministers realize that they cannot support their families at the level of their pastoral compensation, and the significant investment of time and resources, personal and institutional, seem futile.
Our times call for fresh thinking on the economics of ministry, which is a constellation of issues. Educational debt, ministry compensation, rising health care costs, diminished congregations and a culture of credit all conspire to make the question “can the church and the ministry afford each other” more challenging.
It is high time seminaries and churches and judicatories find ways to engage these concerns. We are united in our desire for ministers to have the freedom to serve with energy and confidence, and we know that stewardship requires a better interface between the cost of preparing for ministry and actually serving in ministry.
As we think about the changing landscape for congregations, it is paramount that we invest resources in sustainable forms of excellent ministry. Pastoral leadership will be more inviting, and congregations will be more equitable in their practices.
This column originally ran on Sept. 3, 2015.