Mental health, congregational politics and the decline of the American church get much of the blame for minister burnout.
But the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Bo Prosser said all of those factors take a back seat to the financial struggles of pastoral leaders.
The Fellowship has identified economic issues, including credit card and student loan debt, as the top impediment to effective pastoral leadership in the CBF, said Prosser, coordinator of organizational relationships for the Atlanta-based organization.
Poor congregational finances also take a toll, he said.
To address that trend, the CBF received a $1 million grant from the Lilly Endowment earlier this year to provide individual and congregational financial education for struggling ministers.
The gift also will be used to provide grants directly to pastoral leaders within CBF who are weighed down with personal debt.
Prosser said applications for the program and grants will become available in September and October. In June, he and Gary Skeen, CBF Church Benefits president, led a workshop at the 2016 General Assembly giving details about how the Lilly funded program will work.
Helping debt-laden ministers
There are two parts of the program.
One provides seminars focusing on personal finance and congregational financial management. Those sessions will be led by the Lake Institute, a financial education organization located in Indianapolis, Ind. The other addresses the financial challenges of individual pastoral leaders.
Prosser said the need is clear. Of the ministers who participated in a CBF study, 67 percent said financial problems are their main struggle. The debt load of many ministers is two- to three-times that of their annual salaries.
“Some of that is student loan debt and some of that consumer credit card debt,” he said.
CBF isn’t the first to identify that trend — especially when it comes to debt ministers incur while attending seminary and divinity schools.
In a 2014 study, the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education found that average reported theological debt incurred by master of divinity graduates was close to $40,000 in 2011.
Another cultural norm around debt and money is that they are rarely talked about, Prosser said.
“Money is the least talked about subject in the church. So, pastoral leaders operate in this cloud of shame and pain if they are carrying a lot of debt.”
And when it is the congregation’s finances that are the problem, ministers feel pressured not to address that either — certainly not from the pulpit.
“Lilly has found that it’s the least talked about and least preached about subject — the majority of pastors never talk about money,” he said.
That trend will have to end for ministers who apply for one of the personal finance grants available under the program.
Pastoral leaders awarded grants must work with a financial adviser and participate in financial literacy sessions. They also will be required to identify a member of the congregation as a “trusted advocate” in whom to confide about financial matters, Prosser said.
“That congregational leader will be there to give you support and will advocate for you within the congregation.”
The idea isn’t to throw money at a minister’s financial problems, but to teach them saving and spending habits that can help them throughout their career and retirement.
“The grant amounts will average somewhere in the range of $10,000,” said Prosser, adding the precise amounts will depend on individual circumstances.
Small “seed” grants will be provided to each of the Fellowship’s 18 states and regions. Those dollars will be available for crisis assistance, Prosser said.
Also, $500 scholarships will be available to CBF peer learning groups who want to apply for the financial literacy grants.
The idea isn’t to throw money at a minister’s financial problems, but to teach them saving and spending habits that can help them throughout their career and retirement, he said.
And the program is aimed to help congregations become capable of helping their ministers with these matters.
“We hope we can give pastoral leaders a better handle on their own finances as well on with their churches’ finances,” Prosser said.