New 'Passing the Torch' plan to ease clergy debt

LAKELAND -- It was a gift for retiring treasurer Mickey Wilson from the Conference Board of Pension and Health Benefits. But in a way, it was more of a gift from the treasurer to Florida United Methodist churches, as Wilson prepares to turn over the financial services office to a new director.

The board last month set up a fund to provide grants to new clergy who leave seminary saddled with education debt. Board members presented Wilson with a $60,000 mock check made out to the initiative, called “Passing the Torch,” in the treasurer’s name.

“I have been for the last several years promoting the fact that we need to help these young clergy,” Wilson said, adding that he had been expecting a donation of some kind but not of that size.

“It was huge,” he said. “No greater present could I ask for than to have part of these (board) investments help young clergy with their debt.”

The fact that the gift comes from a board largely dedicated to overseeing retirement benefits shows that members “realize that the future of The United Methodist Church isn’t with retirees,” said Wilson, who will retire in June. “It is with the young clergy coming in.”
Mickey Wilson sees mock check to Passing the Torch
Rev. Cathy Thacker, right, chairperson of the Florida Conference Board of Pension and Health Benefits, presents a mock check to treasurer Mickey Wilson, at the board's February meeting. The gift is a donation to a new debt relief fund for clergy called "Passing the Torch." Photo by Tim Turner.

The pension board agreed to use $2 million of earnings from investments to generate a recurring fund to provide grants to newly ordained clergy in full connection. The exact grant amounts have not been determined, but the first payments of several thousand dollars each will be made to individuals ordained as elders or deacons in full connection at this year’s Annual Conference in Daytona Beach.

Clergy in full connection will be eligible to receive another grant after logging five years in their positions, Wilson said. The money is intended to pay off college debt, but it will not be restricted to education loans; credit card debt also can be targeted.

In addition, the Florida United Methodist Foundation board voted Saturday, March 21, to match the pension board’s commitment of $60,000 a year for five years, said Rev. Mark Becker, president of the foundation.

The board’s hope is that the grants will be used either to pay down debt or save for retirement, he added.

“The foundation is all about stewardship and what it means to become good stewards,” Becker said.

“We are strongly supporting and participating in this effort because it helps our clergy become good stewards. … It’s a very consistent and natural thing for the foundation to do, to partner with the Annual Conference on this program.”

The pension board has set aside earnings on $2 million of its investments to generate grants for the program, Wilson said. The local grants will supplement existing financial assistance, such as scholarships, that are funded by apportionments.

“The purpose is for us to attract the best and the brightest … and to show young clergy coming in that we’re not oblivious to their financial situation,” Wilson said.

Helping clergy feel secure financially also tends to spur generosity in their flocks, he added.

“I don’t know how you talk to your congregation about tithing if you are in a (stressed) financial situation,” Wilson said.

Becker agreed.

“I sat on the Board of Ordained Ministry for many years, and I understand the debt that new clergy have and how that can hamstring a person’s ministry,” Becker said.

“Seminary is expensive, especially if you uproot your family and move them somewhere.”

First grants to be awarded at Annual Conference

Rev. Dr. Wayne Wiatt, Florida Conference director of Clergy Excellence, said he expects 11 clergy who will be ordained in June to be eligible to receive funds through the new program.
The grants will be in addition to scholarships from the Ministerial Education Fund (MEF), supported by apportionment giving, which most recently awarded about $185,500 to scholars for the 2014-15 academic year. The new program will be a separate initiative targeting existing clergy debt, not current tuition.
It’s no secret that the price tag of a seminary education is hefty, Wiatt said. With a typical first year’s salary around $40,000, he added, new clergy face a daunting task to pay off education loans and stay within the required debt limits of $30,000 for an individual and $60,000 for a married couple.

“Seminary costs almost as much as medical school, especially at schools like Duke and Emory, so these funds will be a tremendous gift and a godsend,” Wiatt said. “They are going to make a difference in whether or not clergy can succeed and thrive in ministry and move beyond the worry of debt.”

Has the prospect of education debt discouraged aspiring clergy from following their call?
“I’ve known several who had debt going into seminary, and that was an impediment,” Wiatt said. “We’ve got to help talented, gifted clergy figure out how to overcome this hurdle.”

The new grants may also provide incentive for new talent to choose Florida for ministry.

“I think clergy are shopping around, and with this grant program, the ones who apply will have the knowledge that we’ll help them,” Wiatt said.

The Florida Conference appears to be at the forefront of efforts to address clergy debt  with cash grants. Allyson Collinsworth is the chairperson of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry’s Seminary Indebtedness Task Force, which spent the past year accumulating research on the debt load carried by United Methodist pastors.

She said by email she was not aware of any other annual conference with a program like Passing the Torch. Some annual conferences use MEF funds for service grants that might be used to reduce a pastor’s prior educational debt, she said, and at least one is working on a proposal to issue grants that might pay a clergy member’s loan servicer directly. In addition, the New England Preachers’ Aid Society has a program to help refinance residual education debt at lower interest rates for clergy who have completed three years of full-time appointment in the New England Conference.

-- Susan Green is the Florida Conference managing editor. Anne Dukes is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

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