One of our Conference Priorities is a new generation of clergy leaders. The United Methodist Church has a long tradition of high educational standards for our clergy. Not long ago, because of the Ministerial Education Fund and the scholarships given by our colleges and seminaries, few pastors entered ministry with any indebtedness. Today the cost of ministerial education and the indebtedness that our seminarians are incurring are major challenges.
The North Alabama Conference contributes (through the Ministerial Education Fund apportionment) over a million dollars per year for ministerial education. Our Conference is able to retain about $100,000 per year for scholarships given directly to our seminarians to help defray seminary costs. In addition, a few of our congregations (to my knowledge, Gadsden First, Anniston First, Highlands Birmingham, Huntsville First, and Tuscaloosa First) have ministerial scholarships. This past year the Northwest District created a ministerial scholarship fund to honor Jarvis Brewer (retiring Dist. Lay Leader). The frustrating thing is that, despite this annual expenditure of over 10% of our Conference funds in order to prepare our future pastors, colleges and seminaries are passing on to us an increasing burden of ministerial education indebtedness.
Our Board of Ordained Ministry monitors the indebtedness of our candidates for Full Connection. The numbers are deeply troubling. In the past three years, nearly half of the persons we have ordained have each accumulated educational debt above $20,000. In 2006, 8 of our 16 ordinands accumulated $416,430 in educational debt. In 2008, the educational debt total for 4 of our 17 ordinands was $241,000.
You can see that many of our candidates come out of seminary with a debt load that will be a significant factor in their lives far beyond graduation and ordination. Clergy salaries are not sufficient to handle this level of indebtedness. Young marriages will be placed under stress as will the appointive system due to this burden of debt that is accumulated by our new clergy in order to complete the exacting educational requirements for ordination in the United Methodist Church.
As a new member of the University Senate I am going to push for a reform of the way that funds are allocated by the MEF. It is frustrating to have our Conference invest so much in ministerial preparation only to have this much indebtedness passed on to us through the educational debt of our newly ordained pastors. I also hope that our districts and congregations will follow the lead of the Northwest District in establishing ministerial scholarship funds. If your congregation is fortunate enough to have a young person who has been called to ministry in our church, I hope you will do everything possible to ensure that that person’s ministry will not be unduly burdened with indebtedness.
Patsy and I have started ministerial scholarships at Duke Divinity School and (beginning this year) at the Candler School of Theology. Our gifts to Candler are designated specifically for students from the North Alabama Conference. I invite our pastors who are alumni of our seminaries to join us in designating your gifts to help a new generation of clergy.