Clearing the road to ministry

Pop financial gurus like Suze Orman and Dave Ramsey regularly preach prudent spending and increased saving, emphasizing the importance of living without debt. But this advice rings hollow to students working their way through theological school. As the cost of education rises, theological students often find that loans are the most expedient way to fund that education, making it possible for them to respond to their call to ministry. The ironic result: More and more students are graduating with a debt load that makes it difficult to pursue their vocations.

In its New Year 2006 issue, In Trust published a review of a recent report from Auburn Seminary’s Center for the Study of Theological Education. Titled The Gathering Storm: The Educational Debt of Theological Students, the report indicated that between 1991 and 2001, the percentage of students borrowing more than $30,000 grew from 1 percent to 21 percent. More than half of master’s of divinity students graduated with no debt in 1991, but by 2001 only 37 percent graduated with no debt.

Since then, the cost of education has continued to rise. In December, an article in The New York Times called “College May Become Unaffordable for Most in U.S.” predicted that higher education would be out of the reach of most Americans within 25 years. Even before the current recession began, higher education was becoming increasingly difficult to afford, with its cost growing 439 percent between 1982 and 2007.

For graduate-level theological schools, higher costs may (or may not) translate into fewer students in coming decades – some initial reports indicate a larger number of applications. In the short term, however, the rising cost of education means that students are not only borrowing more during seminary, but they are also bringing significant debt with them to seminary.

At a time when schools are facing their own financial difficulties-endowments have been hit hard by the stock market dive, and cuts are being made everywhere-school administrators and board members are taking the problem of student debt seriously.

Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, instituted a policy about ten years ago that when a student’s total educational borrowing approaches $35,000, the student is required to submit a plan outlining how to repay the loans. D. Martin Butler, dean for administration and student services, and the director of financial aid must approve the plan. If they do, the student may take out future loans. If not, Butler has a face-to-face meeting with the student to discuss finances.

“In cases where the student is obviously out of touch regarding how they will ever be able to make such large loan payments, I sometimes encourage them to slow down their seminary career so as to be able to pay for tuition without borrowing,” says Butler. “I also encourage them to look at alternatives such as seeing if their home church will provide resources to help them continue their schooling.”

Other schools are putting the issue front and center before their donors to increase scholarship funds. And some denominational leaders and funders are working from their end to help.

Debt-free Baptists

Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, has a reputation for graduating students with essentially no seminary debt. Kelly M. Jones, the director of admissions, reports that students have a variety of options for funding their education without turning to loans. The most significant is the number of scholarships students can claim.

“We are a Baptist-affiliated school, and many of our students are Baptist,” Jones says. “The Baptist state convention in North Carolina provides a grant for students who are members of churches associated with the state convention.” At the same time, the school’s Baptist students can avail themselves of grants from the Charles B. Keesee Educational Fund, which provides funding for graduate students who plan to enter full-time ministry and attend one of ten fund-approved schools. Together, those two resources cover students’ tuition.

Submitted by the Divinity School

Written by Matt Forster, Intrust Online