Monday, March 16, 2009

Educational Indebtedness of New Pastors

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.

William Willimon


jimmorrow said...

It is my experience that students attending University approved, non-UM seminaries have less support, and therefore, may have more indebtedness.

What are your thoughts on this?

William H. Willimon said...


Couldn’t agree with you more. I’m not sure that Univ. related div. schools are more expensive than others, after their financial aid packages, but I know that they are more expensive if you look at their tuition alone. Duke Div., my last year in their employ, had the largest percentage increase in tuition of any grad school at Duke. Of course, their tuition was the lowest of any grad school at Duke. Still….

I don’t know what a bishop like me can do about this trend, but I want to try.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for caring! As a potential candidate for Ordination in the N. Ga Conference I can tell you that we scramble to find scholarships, and there are never enough. Not to mention, the seminary debt is often piled on top of our undergraduate debt. It often feels that our conferences and districts forget about those us of who desperately want to serve the Church, at least monetarily.

So thanks for thinking of us!

BEAT said...

Like Amber (a good friend from LaGrange College), financial support was always a concern when applying to graduate school. I will be returning to N.GA when I graduate with no debt. I am one of the lucky few. Currently attending Vanderbilt Divinity (Bishop WIllimon, I am in class with some fine folks returning to your conference.), Cal Turner, Jr. is funding a new fellowship program for UMC students on the ordination track. I am a member of the first cohort. I hope more schools, especially non-UMC related institutions, find ways to fund similar programs. The Turner Scholars Fellowship allows me to go to school and work in a local church. This happens all three years as I complete my masters. It is (very) creative thinking between the school, churches, and supporters to conceptualize such fellowships.

I am getting an education, developing leadership skills, and working in the church all at once. I am doing now while critically thinking about the future. This vision and mission of my program addresses all your concerns.

See, one of the lucky few!

Casey Taylor said...

Here's another angle to consider: my wife and I came into the UMC from another denomination but attended an expensive grad school (re: Duke). We had no financial guidance from our church tradition/denomination at the time. But here we are in the UMC and happy to serve.

It was common knowledge at div school that many students lacked a denominational commitment but were preparing for ministry all the same. Those students were receiving NO financial aid beyond loans, petty grants, and Field Education funds (which, by the way, Duke RADICALLY CHANGED during our first year).

How will the UMC prepare for leaders who come in too late to benefit from scholarships?

Is it feasible to offer a "work off your student debt" program?

Anonymous said...

I'm currently trying to figure out if I'm experiencing a calling or if I'm guilty of spiritual pride.

The fact that my current situation (wife, baby) makes the cost of seminary a primary concern makes me feel it may be the latter. But it is helpful to read that a) I'm not the only one and b) that it has been recognized that the cost of seminary is, in a word, prohibitive.

Anonymous said...

I agree that coming out of Seminary in debt is a bad thing. I did it 29 years ago so it is not a new thing. Now my daughter will finish her undergraduate degree in August and will begin payment on her student loans shortly thereafter. All professional educational courses are expensive. By the way, what a minister will make their first year out will likely be more than my daughter will make 10 years out. We each chose our course.

BobK said...

I am second career Local Pastor (retired Air Force). MDiv from Logsdon School of Theology at Hardin Simmons U in Abilene, TX. Fully accredited but unapproved. Took denominational courses through Asbury. Received COS credit but must do 30 more hours to become elder. I am called to the small church. To go back and repeat educational requirements I already have. If you haven't read or listened to John Ed Mathison's comments on the site on his concerns for the UMC.

UmcMatt said...

I think that we must also find ways to educate seminarians about budgeting and debt management. I am in seminary and I have been helped tremendously by MEF Funds provided by the NA Conference. Many times I scratch my head at fellow seminarians buying cars and taking expensive vacations between semesters while at the same time crying about their debt load.

My situation is unique. I am a single pastor with no children. I have been able to pay my way though seminary with my salary and the MEF help. I understand this isn't possible for every person, but I often wonder how there can be $30,000-40,000 debts if we are responsibly managing our resources.

Anonymous said...

This seems like an opportunity for the church to be the church.