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Pastoral debt

ELCA rallies to help reduce student debt for leaders

Answering the call to serve God's people as a pastor, Emily Hollars Leitzke went right from college to the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (Pa.), taking on nearly $60,000 in student loans.

"I kind of rationalized it to myself that when I had a call I would be making enough money to be able to pay those loans back," she said.

Reality struck after her ordination in 2007 when the loan payments totaled nearly $1,000 a month under a 10-year payback schedule. On top of living expenses, it was too much.

ELCA pastors Emily and Tim Leitzke
ELCA pastors Emily and Tim Leitzke clip coupons to stay within a tight weekly budget and make monthly payments on Emily's nearly $60,000 student debt. The Leitzkes and other ELCA clergy share a common burden: crushing student debt that is difficult to pay off on a pastor's salary.

"It took every last red cent of my income to pay everything but the loans," said Leitzke, whose husband, Tim, was a pastor awaiting call (he is now in graduate school).

Leitzke's predicament is common. Crushing seminary debt limits the choice of calls for the newly ordained, as well as the choice of pastors for smaller congregations. It places a financial millstone around the necks of pastors for years. Church officials fear cost may deter many qualified candidates.

The standard route for pastors is a four-year (three years of seminary tuition, plus one year of internship) master of divinity degree from one of eight ELCA seminaries. Tuition averages about $12,000 a year, and living expenses can bring the total cost above $100,000, according to the ELCA Fund for Leaders, an endowed seminary scholarship program (see "ELCA Fund for Leaders still premier vehicle," below).

About 80 percent of ELCA seminarians take out student loans, said Jonathan Strandjord, director for seminaries with ELCA Congregational and Synodical Mission. In 2009, the average ELCA seminary graduate had $36,909 in student debt, he said, way above the $30,000 "threshold of concern." In other words, such a debt will be difficult for a pastor to pay off.

The ELCA is mobilizing to help at every level: churchwide, synods, congregations, seminaries and affiliated agencies. Thanks to a $1 million grant from the Lilly Foundation, the church is coordinating a pioneering strategy, Stewards of Abundance, to reduce seminarian debt.


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