The cost of the call: grappling with seminary debt

Many young seminary students and graduates on staff at local churches face the painful reality of crushing debt that results from following their calling. In response, task forces across The United Methodist Church and in the Florida Conference are seeking ways to offer relief to budding clergy members.

Those attending Annual Conference 2014 will hear a report intended to provide information and build support for an assistance program to launch next year. 

The Florida Conference and Florida United Methodist Foundation have received a $50,000 grant from the Young Clergy Initiative program of The United Methodist Church. Click here for details.

Rev. Rwth Fuquay, associate director of Clergy Excellence for the Florida Conference, said any actions aimed at reducing seminary debt will be holistic, with financial, educational and spiritual components.

“There is an eagerness to understand issues and get definite action steps in place so they (clergy in debt) could start feeling the effects. … We are building a supportive advocacy in order to break down barriers or isolation and build an atmosphere of mutual trust because this affects all of us: our churches and our denomination,” Fuquay said.

Fuquay serves on the Florida task force studying the issue, along with Rev. Bridget Thornton, who became associate pastor at St. Andrew UMC, Brandon, in July 2013. Thornton is a young clergyperson dealing with educational debt related to her degree from Asbury Theological Seminary, where three years’ tuition averages about $52,000 for a full-time student.

The final price tag to earn a Master of Divinity degree typically required for ordination can vary. For example, Thornton’s journey included full-time and part-time attendance, loans and scholarships.

But with an average starting salary for a newly minted seminary graduate being around $35,000, some new ministers can feel blindsided by the financial realities of their prayerful pursuit.

“In chatting with friends, many who are seminarians and young clergy, it seems that many of us did not expect how big the debt load would be, especially on the front end,” Thornton said. 

Bridget Thornton headshot"I stepped out in faith, and I always thought that my rewards for following my call would come later."

- Rev. Bridget Thornton


“I stepped out in faith, and I always thought that my rewards for following my call would come later,” she said. “I never anticipated any help paying down the debt, but the task force’s effort is really exciting and offers me hope.”

Married and expecting twins in September, Thornton thinks new approaches to educating entering candidates will help them understand the real debt load and also offer information about scholarships that may be available.

Thornton said she didn’t learn of certain scholarships offered at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University to offset that school’s $20,000 yearly tuition, not to mention books and supplies at $1,200, living expenses at $18,000 a year and other costs such as parking.

“That (scholarship information) would have been nice to know about,” she said.

Candidates may also be aided by their local pastor, the staff parish committee at their home church, district staff, the Florida United Methodist Foundation and the conference.

Fuquay acknowledged the challenges faced by aspiring pastors, describing part of the problem as matters of “spiritual understanding and discernment.”

“Many candidates for ministry have the belief that if God has called them to ministry that God will make it happen no matter what … and that by not going forward with such a plan they are not honoring God’s calling,” she said.

“They may have their hearts set on a certain school, but they need to think about whether or not it’s a financial hardship during or after their attendance. … To be financially unaware is to jeopardize one’s financial wellness, which is also jeopardizing God’s call.”

The issue of finances is fraught with emotional issues, she said. And the cost of seminary has skyrocketed, so the sheer cost of undergraduate and graduate school is an even bigger problem today than in years past, Fuquay said.

For new aspiring clergy, personal financial health is a consideration when being certified for candidacy and throughout the licensing or ordination process, Fuquay said. A single clergyperson cannot have more than $30,000 in education debt and no more than $5,000 in consumer debt, excluding car and home loans. Married candidates can have no more than $60,000 in shared education debt to be considered. 

Rwth Fuquay"Many candidates for ministry have the belief that if God has called them to ministry that God will make it happen no matter what."

- Rev. Rwth Fuquay

Information on the front end can help the decision-making process, but it’s also important to develop and offer sources of assistance, Fuquay said. Rev. Dr. Wayne Wiatt, Clergy Excellence director, said candidates whose debt exceeds the limits can sometimes be ordained if they show they are making headway in a debt-reduction program.

He and Fuquay said it’s also important that clergy candidates know early on the compensation they can expect to receive in their first appointments.

“The fact is that most will make minimum salary … and since salaries have stagnated since the economic crisis and many clergy have taken pay cuts or decreases, the level of salaries is not rising in relationship to the standard of living,” Fuquay said.

As a result, digging out of debt can be a huge undertaking.

“Living with this kind of financial stress can leave pastors feeling overwhelmed, and if they have families, there can be a need for clergy spouses to take jobs and for clergy to even take on an extra job. With this kind of stress, it’s hard to give leadership on giving and stewardship,” Fuquay said.

Florida Conference task force members believe that positive changes have to happen holistically, with participation by the foundation, Clergy Excellence, the district committees on ministry, the Board of Ordained Ministry and seminaries.

Actions being considered include tapping ministerial education funds, offering grants for clergy debt reduction and seeking matching grants from churches, providing scholarships and re-financing student loans at a lower interest rate.

In the meantime, people considering a professional ministry career will get information on minimum salaries; access to financial planners to help project their actual costs of living, debt and income; and worksheets to calculate their financial circumstances if they move forward.

The educational piece will start with a candidacy retreat where information about seminary costs, minimum salary and clergy taxes will be offered.  The foundation will also offer three educational modules: Clergy Finances 101 for candidates and young seminarians, 201 for stewardship leaders in the congregation and 301 for retirement planning.

“There has to be work across The United Methodist Church,” Fuquay said, adding that there is no formal network yet, but she hopes there soon will be.

“This is not strictly a United Methodist issue. It faces all new clergy.” 

-- Anne Dukes is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

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