The tale is told of a new pastor who prayed, “Lord, please help your poor, humble servant.” A church council member added a postscript: “You keep him humble, Lord, and we'll keep him poor.”
It’s a joke, of course, but the truth is that education costs can keep seminarians poor. “The high cost of seminary education is a significant challenge in becoming a pastor,” said Peter Rogness, bishop of the St. Paul Area Synod.
“On the day of graduation last spring,” said Patricia Lull, dean of students at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn., “the M.Div. graduates at Luther held a diploma in one hand and an average educational debt of $45,000 in the other. This is simply too extreme a debt load for those going into ordained ministry.”
A first call to a parish doesn’t come with a signing bonus, stock options or a fast upward track to middle management. For both young pastors and those who are taking up a second career in midlife, debt can be a proverbial millstone. It determines what kind of call they can accept, whether they can purchase a home, how they can support their children and plan for their education, and decisions about retirement.
“The realities of the debt they will leave seminary with will stay with them for a very long time,” said Sister Noreen H. Stevens, candidacy coordinator for the St. Paul Area Synod.
Katie Keller, a senior at Luther, anticipates her call to ordained ministry. Newly married, she lives with her husband who is serving his first call in northwestern Minnesota. As she completes her studies online, making regular trips to St. Paul to meet with her professors, she’s also working full time as a licensed lay minister in two parishes near the Canadian border.
Keller grew up in a family that experienced poverty, but she heard God's call and dared to believe that she could become a pastor. As a seminarian, an almost daily decision was whether to put gas in her car or pay for food, and, she said, “I didn't have a backup plan of asking my parents for financial help.”
Scholarships, loans and working—often more than one job at a time—have brought her close to fulfilling her dream of ministry. But educational debt is the backseat driver. For Keller and her husband, it will determine whether they can raise a family or buy a home, and whether they can serve God in a foreign country as they feel called to do.
Rogness recalls that when his father, Alvin, attended Luther Seminary in the 1930s and later became its president in the mid-1950s, candidates for the ministry didn’t pay tuition. Preparing young men (and in those days they were all men and mostly young) for the ministry was considered an obligation of the church, the parishes and the people those pastors would eventually serve.
Over the past half century, seminarians have gradually assumed more financial responsibility for their education as costs have increased and funds from synods and the ELCA have been reduced. Today students at ELCA seminaries pay upwards of $10,000 per year in tuition and nearly all of them accumulate debt as they prepare to answer God’s call. This debt has profound implications, potentially keeping students from a seminary education or burdening them significantly as they enter ordained ministry.
“We understand the vocation of ordained clergy to come from both the Ê»inner' call of the candidate and the Ê»outer' call of the church,” Rogness said. “If the church invites someone to consider ministry, it’s only logical that we would seek to remove significant impediments, and certainly debt is that.”
© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers