The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Making seminary debt manageable

ELCA Stewards of Abundance tries targeted scholarships

Editor’s note: Third in a three-part series on the economy of theological education today.

I’d assumed seminary would be costly, but I didn’t realize how costly,” said senior Gwendolen Powell, one of 13 students at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn., to receive an ELCA Stewards of Abundance scholarship this year. “It’s sad because it shouldn’t be about money. It’s about God. If we are committed to continuing the church, we need to be committed to raising leaders.”

Stewards of Abundance, a 2009-2014 effort to help reduce seminary debt, has provided targeted scholarships coupled with financial education at all eight ELCAseminaries. It also has worked to foster a culture of generosity in the church. Funding for the effort came from a $1 million Lilly Endowment grant and matching funds from the ELCA churchwide organization and seminaries. 

The targeted scholarship was welcome news for Powell. Her first year at seminary left her $30,000 in debt.

Each year ELCA leaders set a threshold of concern for seminarians’ educational debt. For Powell’s class, that’s approximately $33,500, said Jonathan Strandjord, ELCAprogram director for seminaries and director for ELCA Stewards of Abundance.

Both Powell and Katie Slack (see profiles below) were at high risk for going over that threshold and being unable to repay loans on typical ELCA first-call clergy salaries. 

Luther distributed nearly $120,000 in Stewards of Abundance scholarships, ranging from $2,000 to $13,000, said financial aid director Bill Silva-Breen.

With the scholarships, students didn’t have to borrow more. For example, if a student needs $30,000 (for tuition, housing and living costs) and receives $20,000 in grants, “the maximum amount they could borrow in federal aid would be $10,000, compared to about $20,000 if they had no scholarship/grant help,” he said. “Scholarships are a sure way of keeping educational debt down.”   

That holds true for seminarians who received scholarships from the Fund for Leaders — now at $36 million, said Rachel Wind, director of the ELCA’s premier scholarship vehicle (www.elca.org/fundforleaders). “Everyone cares about leadership,” she said. “Enough people just don’t know about [the need] yet.”

The fund distributed 16 full-tuition scholarships and dozens of partial scholarships for 2013-14, Wind said.    

ELCA research shows that in 2009, master of divinity students who didn’t receive Fund for Leaders scholarships graduated with a median educational debt of about $35,000 — well above the threshold of concern. Those who did receive the scholarships had less debt overall (a median of $31,000) — this dropped to $22,500 for those who received a total of $20,000 or more.

In 2012 that pattern continued, with even less debt levels at graduation for fund recipients: $27,000 in educational debt overall, and $17,000 in educational debt for those receiving a total of $20,000 or more — amounts more easily repaid by those earning average ELCA first-call salaries.

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