Forgive us our debts

Are preparation committees taking student loan debt seriously?

When we're charged with helping people prepare for ordination, many things seem like a really good idea. As I attended seminary, people encouraged me to tack on an extra year for an internship, go a bit more slowly with my classes, or take two semesters for Clinical Pastoral Education. The people who did the best in our graduating class were the ones who didn’t have to work while taking courses and spent an extra year to get all of their requirements completed.

Ahhhh… when I think about how beautiful life would have been if I could have taken an extra year for an internship, gathered CPE credits, and tacked on another year for seminary… my heart soars. All of these things are incredibly worth-while endeavors. I’m a person who likes to squeeze the most out of an education. I audited courses regularly and (because I had my tuition covered), always took more classes than I had to for my degree requirements.

You might be on a committee who thinks that a candidate needs that extra training before they ought to be ordained. They could use some time in a hospital or a "real world" setting before they earn that REV before their names.

If you are, then let me tell you something that the seminary student under your care can’t tell you: Students can’t afford it any longer. 

After going to seminary for three years and working through the normal ordination requirements, most students cannot go into additional debt with the internships or the myriad of extra requirements that a committee might dream up.

The general rule is that student loan payments should not be more than 10% of your starting salary. Are committees thinking about this when they add an extra year or semester to a person's preparation? I'm not saying that we should ask for a student's credit report. Though I do wonder, are we taking into account how much it costs to go without an income year after year? Do we calculate how much debt we expect the student to endure and compare it to candidate's starting income?

Twelve years ago, I wasn’t required to do additional CPEs or a year-long internship (though most of my classmates were). I worked at an internship, alongside my regular coursework. I finished my graduate education in three years, and I didn’t have any undergrad debt. 

Even at that, I came out of seminary with $37,000 worth of debt. I served a rural church, full-time, making $28,000 ($18,000 cash salary). Even while working four jobs during seminary and cutting all the corners, I came out with more debt than my eventual salary could handle.  

If a student needs more training (as we all do), couldn’t we figure out a way to give them that support on the job? Could we do more to have mentor programs, while students are able to make an income? Internships are usually unpaid, and for many programs (like CPEs), the student has to pay for the units. Is it fair for us to be making ordination candidates work for free for so many years, when their eventual salaries may not be able to handle so much debt?

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Requirements that a committee might dream up

Well...I'm on one of those committees.  We do not loll around trying to "dream up" additional requirements for our candidates.  We do try to help each person have the best individual preparation so that her/his career and the larger church will benefit from her/his ministries.  For some folks that means more CPE.  For others, choosing the appropriate internship.   Sometimes the candidate actually DOES need that extra training before they ought to be ordained.   

We also review each person's financial situation annually and help apply for grants/scholarships/etc.  We make sure each one understands what the average starting salary is.  We do stop take into account how much it costs and how much debt will be accrued.  After all, half of us are ministers ourselves.  Quite a few of the rest also have graduate degrees - earning those also required paying for classes without a job or while working in uncompensated (or undercompensated) internships.

In other words, we do actually have the best interests of the candidates AND the church at heart.  There is a responsibility to both - not just to the seminary students.

 

I do think the situation has

I do think the situation has gotten more subjective in the last years. My sense is that it used to be that a solid MDiv with Biblical languages was enough, but that we are cloning the requirements of every denomination and adding every good idea anyone can think up. So we have exams with a very high fail rate, which many students take a number of times to pass. We have psychological evaluations. We do field education. Sometimes CPE. Sometimes denominational courses. Languages. Sometimes indidvidual counseling or spiritual direction. A full time intern year.

I don't think other professions are like this. It's not as if the law schools decide, "Well, Sally really needs another semester of torts," or "We'd like Bill to spend a year doing pro bono work on Wall Street." They're not looking for ways to stretch out the JD, MBA, MLS, or MD for another few years. Carol's comment above about encouraging people people to work on issues early in their career makes a lot more sense than delaying the start of that career.

What I learned is that the system always says "trust the system." But at the end of the day, no one is going to give you a job or pay off your loans. It's not a process designed for pastoral care either. For candidates, you can't control this, but what you can do is to be as clear-headed as possible. Applying early for the CPE program that's thirty minutes away and $500 is a lot better than the one that's seventy minutes away and $1000 dollars. Don't take the $7/hour youth ministry gig if you can get another one for $20 (this was a dilemma I remember facing). Plan on spiritual direction or counseling and start it early in anticipation. Expect the requirements of the committee to shift with its membership. Don't take any of it personally, but look out for yourself and your family because the committee's main job is gate-keeping not care. Document what you can with email. Make as many connections in your home juridical body as possible.

I do sometimes wonder why churches never test their theories. We have a great social science evaluative tools now. It shouldn't be a mystery if CPE makes a difference in pastoral success rates, or whether pastors are using their Greek ten years out. One way we can figure out if the system is working is to follow up with people three, five, or ten years down the road, when they can tell us what they really think without it harming their prospects for ordination.

Learn from our brothers and sisters overseas

There are great (low cost) seminary opportunities, they're just not easy to find here in the US! Why not look towards our overseas parynerships? There are seminaries throughout the world that cost significantly less then the cost for a US seminary education. These Brother and Sister churches would love to have US churches send them students that they would be able to disciple. US citizens studying in seminaries overseas would be stretched to think cross culturally and missionally while also studying to earn their M.Div degrees. Then they can be sent back to the US with eyes to see the harvest before them. I was blessed to receive my M.Div at an accredited Thailand Seminary. I was the only westerner among students from throughout Southeast Asia. My fellow classmates were probably my greatest teachers! My CPM (after a little debate) has accepted this degree too. It's possible and I know of other accredited seminaries throughout the world whom have international (English) programs. The question is are we willing to break the mold, stretch and humble ourselves as a church?

CPE

My home presbytery did this. In my case the question was CPE. There was no formal requirement at the time, but almost every candidate was asked to do it. I complained, since I'd done three years of internships/field ed/church job, plus an international field ed (modeled in part on CPE). There was no flexibility. After me, they now just require it of everyone, although I see that they have sometimes exempted second career candidates (which feels very unfair).

For us, CPE meant buying a second car and not doing the training I wanted to do instead. It's a very frustrating situation. On CPMs there is clearly a "requirement creep," where every year something new gets added. For my presbytery, we now require additional Reformed theology classes and we require students to do a year at a Presbyterian seminary (no Union, Yale, or Fuller for you). I still came out debt free, but it took a lot of work.

Seminary Debt

I worked full time in my seminary's financial aid office while getting my MDiv, which gave me an interesting perspective on this whole issue. This is one of those things where it seems like responsibility lies with a combo of the students themselves, seminaries, and denominational governing bodies to help people make good financial decisions. My seminary used to offer full tuition remission to full time employees, meaning that you could work and get full benefits, and take classes at night for free. It was exhausting, don't get me wrong, but b/c so many people worked there to do this, classes were regularly available in the evenings. I was disappointed when this benefit was phased out, because I think that this is one way that things can be a "win-win." Seminaries generally don't pay market value salaries to their staff, but with a free education it was value added that meant the institution got employees invested in the mission of the seminary, and also provided the broader church with people who did not always have a high debt burden as a result of their education.

I also think denominational entities have a responsibility to seminarians to help them "count the cost" in terms of finances. As a financial aid counselor, I can't tell you how many people had "light bulb" moments when we sat down with a repayment chart and I asked them to find out what the cost of living was where they were planning to serve, and what their denomination's starting salary was. No one had asked them these questions before, and these were people who were supposed to be helping them discern their calling. Often students fresh out of undergrad are simply not aware of how credit works, what the implications of borrowing are, or what questions simply to ask. This is important particularly in denominational traditions like the one in which I am now in, where people go to seminary to get their MDiv after entering into and investing in the ordination process. Their first entry point into ordination is not via an admissions process where they will naturally encounter a financial aid counselor. I think it would be ideal if denominations with staff in charge of seminarian formation required that those seeking ordination talk with a financial aid counselor at a denominational seminary or a financial advisor at the beginning of their processes to develop a financial plan.

Being up front with seminary costs

Thanks for this, Carol,

I was thankfully financially supported through a generous fund for seminary students in my home diocese. However, I still needed to borrow for living expenses. We also received a small stipend for our summer placements, including seminary.

A quality seminary education is going to cost a lot of money for crappy pay. Seminary is a masters degree and, at least in Canada, is a pretty cheap masters degree comparatively. 

Candidates need to be equipped to walk into this journey with eyes wide open. How many sit down and do a complete financial projection of their process? I know I didn't. If I had had to pay back tens of thousands of dollars on my tiny base ordained salary, would I have done it? Probably. 

If denominations are clear about the costs, then I don't have issue with them requiring additional education. Perhaps this will mean fewer candidates. But the truth is this masters degree opens far more doors than running a parish. I didn't take on CPE and seminary for my church. I did it because it excited me and opens many doors for me. I did it so God could use me and my education within or outside of my denomination.

If denominations are adding requirements mid-stream in someone's process, then that is unfair. But otherwise there is no bait and switch. We know what we are walking into. 

 

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