When I entered as a full-time master of divinity student at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary (now Palmer Theological Seminary) some 13 years ago, I was a dying breed. I was a 20-something who was able to commit to the standard three years as graduate student. I was fortunate. I was at seminary without children or a family. Many of my fellow students were in their 40s, 50s and even 60s as part-time seminarians. They had jobs and families, and could not afford to be a full-time student.
Gone are the days when students attending seminary could spend three years living as a full-time resident on campus. Now, most seminaries have more part-time students than full-time students. The number of students who exit seminary with $30,000 or more in educational debt has increased by 300 percent since 1996. Students, perhaps more than ever, must rely on grants, scholarships and part-time jobs to keep their debt low. In addition to all the debt woes, ministers do not make much money to pay off their debt. According to the Department of Labor the median salary for a minister is $43,950.
Unlike doctors or lawyers, we ministers do not have the potential to earn great sums of money. Our culture simply does not value what clergy offer. If our culture did value pastors ministers would be paid as much as CEOs. Public school teachers are also in a similar predicament. The well-paying school districts require most teachers to have a master’s degree, but many teachers seek an advanced degree in hope of landing a job with higher pay.
Cutting through the tide of rising debt, tuition and limited resources, two seminaries are bucking the trends. Gettysburg Seminary and The Lutheran Philadelphia Seminary (both are planning to merge) are offering free-tuition to all Evangelical Lutheran Church rostered leader candidates. Non-Lutheran students who are at least half-time and receive scholarships from their churches or denominations will receive matching grants from the seminaries.
It is simply shocking in this age of crippling debt for a Protestant seminary to have the vision and commitment to offer free theological education. This is the way seminary should be. With low wages for most clergy and high educational requirements, it makes sense for seminaries to move to this model.
Of course, it is risky. Can such a model be sustained? Yes, but with great struggle. It will require generosity among individuals, churches and organizations. As an American Baptist minister, I see the challenge to introduce such a model because my denomination is a group of associations without a top-down hierarchy. It would require a fundamental revisioning and reordering of resources and institutions. Such a task would incur radical change — something that is avoided in most Protestant denominations. We cannot afford to send ministers and ministry leaders into their calling with massive debt. It will burnout and discourage leaders from entering ministry.
We have witnessed drastic shifts in cultural connections to Christianity and, more specifically, to the local church. Denominations and seminaries must take a serious look at the model of seminary education. Seminaries need to become the training centers from which we draw motivated and capable ministers, missionaries and leaders without saddling them with debt.
The time is at hand to create a radically new seminary funding model that enables men and women who are called by God to receive the training and education tuition free.