TALLAHASSEE -- Stephen Demme came away from Annual Conference 2015 with renewed purpose. His excitement has been contagious at Killearn UMC.
Demme is the chairperson of the Staff Parish Relations Committee at Killearn. Inspired by the new “Passing the Torch” program launched earlier this year by the Florida Conference, the committee is creating an annual grants program to give aid to newly ordained ministers in full connection and to aspiring missionaries. The goal is to help reduce student loan debt and encourage others to follow their hearts into full-time mission work.
The program somewhat mirrors Passing the Torch, which was announced in June at Annual Conference in Daytona Beach. With a $60,000 donation from the Conference Board of Pension and Health Benefits, 11 clergy received grants to get them out from under heavy school debts.
The board agreed to set up an endowment of $2 million from which to draw funds for these grants annually. The grants aren't restricted to school debt but can also be used for credit card debt. And the Florida United Methodist Foundation agreed to contribute a matching $60,000 in each of the next five years.
Killearn UMC anticipates setting aside $15,000 annually for debt relief, but also to consider grants to individuals who are called to missions. As a first step, two assistant pastors at the church each recently received a $2,500 grant to pay down seminary debt.
"They were very, very excited and thankful and very gracious to receive this," Demme says. "It was definitely unexpected."
Currently, the committee members are setting up an application process and waiting for final approval of the church's 2016 budget.
The subject of student debt was something that Demme says he hadn't thought much about. But that changed at the conference.
When he broached the subject with the church's assistant pastors, he learned firsthand about the challenges recent seminary graduates face.
"They both have significant loan debt," he says. "We wanted to do something immediately for the first year (of the program). We thought this one-time thing would be great, but we wanted to do more. Maybe we should make this something we do regularly as something that shows who we are."
Nationally, student debt is at an all-time high of about $1.2 trillion and climbing. It is the second highest debt load after mortgages.
According to the Institute for College Access and Success Project on Student Debt, nearly 70 percent of all graduates leave school with some debt. The average is about $28,500, but about one in 10 graduates owes $40,000 or more.
Seminary students are no different from typical college graduates, and they can expect only modest incomes. Demme believes these grants can ease a point of stress for new clergy as they start life's work in the church and put them on better footing for the future.
"I don't think money is what will determine why someone goes to seminary and to pursue that mission calling," he says. "But it will be a big help to the next church beyond that. It will give them other opportunities to go where their heart leads, not to where they have to, to cover their debt."
Beyond easing debt, the grants might also help staff members who may work part-time but have a mission plan. They can present their ideas to the committee for consideration.
The church will be blessed in this as well, he adds, because it will foster closer personal and working relationships as committee members reach out with support. People within the church will be drawn closer, he said.
"If you feel something calling you, here are the people who can figure out your next step," Demme says. "You don't have to do these things alone."
– Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa.