Seminary Debt: A Problem for the OPC?

John Muether and David Winslow

Anyone attending college or sending a son or daughter to college these days surely experiences sticker shock at the cost of higher education. Staggering increases in tuition and fees have prompted many students to mortgage their future through educational loans. If a student continues past the bachelor’s program and pursues graduate school, these loans will often mushroom. Retiring educational debt may not be a problem to the graduates of law or medical schools, but what about seminary graduates? Long gone are the days when schools like Westminster Seminary assessed no tuition charge.

A recent study of evangelical seminaries in North America indicated that while over 60 percent of graduates carried no debt, a quarter had serious debt of over $40,000, and some of them owed more than twice that amount. Perhaps most alarming, the average amount of student loans has tripled over the past two decades.

OP Seminarians and Ministers

What about the OPC? Does our denomination have a seminary debt issue? This past winter, the Committee on Christian Education and the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension sought to find out by conducting two online surveys: one of current OP seminarians and another of recently ordained OP ministers.

The speed and number of responses confirmed that the surveys were addressing a timely subject. Many of the respondents expressed their deep gratitude that this matter was a subject of study. “I’m so glad the OPC is tackling this important issue,” wrote one. Said another: “I am incredibly grateful to know you are taking a serious concern for us as seminary students! It is encouraging to be a member and under care of a church that takes the responsibility of training men for ministry seriously.” Some responses underscored the difficulty in supporting a family while attending seminary. “Cost of living expenses,” wrote one student, “plus tuition and other materials have made seminary cost prohibitive for an increasing number of people, and I think it is getting worse.”

There was plenty of good news from the survey results. Of the current students, three quarters of the respondents reported that they were in good financial shape, even if they were struggling to pay bills. Nearly half of them receive significant help from a variety of sources, including extended family and friends. A little more than a third of them received support from churches, ranging from modest ($500) to major ($24,000). Yet, even with this help, 75 percent of seminarians or their wives worked while in seminary, with a few of those holding several jobs.

For a minority, the picture was far removed from one of financial health. A fifth of the respondents were in serious debt, even exceeding six figures. A recent article on educational debt in the Wall Street Journal offered this rule of thumb: total educational debt should not exceed one’s anticipated starting annual salary. By that standard, some of our ministerial candidates are way over their heads in debt. Some financial advisors suggest that educational debt not exceed 50 percent of expected starting salary. It certainly makes sense for married seminarians with children to take a more conservative approach to their debt, since they will have extra family expenses competing with the paying off of debt.

From the survey of recent graduates, there was also good news. Eighty-five percent indicated that they were free of both college debt and seminary debt. Almost all of those in debt claimed to have a viable plan to repay it, although none of them received in their ministerial package any amount specifically designated for educational debt reduction.

A Growing Problem

When the surveys are compared, two trends emerge. First, it appears that debt levels are growing with current students. While most of the young ministers have no seminary debt now, half of the seminarians expect to graduate with debt. Secondly, students are taking a little longer to complete their M.Div. requirements than those who graduated five years ago. While this may help to minimize their debt, prolonging one’s schooling exacts further tolls on young marriages and families.

Both surveys indicate that those with the greatest debt are least inclined to solicit help, which seems to indicate that some are underestimating the financial challenge before them. Finally, the responses from both surveys indicate that however carefully students prepare to meet the cost of their ministerial training, seminary tuition and other expenses consistently exceed their expectations.

“Free from Worldly Care”?

So does the OPC have a seminary debt issue? The answer seems to be that most seminarians will be graduating with reasonable debt, but that a significant minority will carry serious debt. This will be difficult to pay off and could negatively impact them and the churches they seek to serve. The CCE and CHMCE will study the data more closely in the months ahead, perhaps with some recommendations for students and churches. Guidance on financial stewardship is needed, not just for students who would be pastors, but for the congregations that send them to seminary and the congregations that receive them as graduates ready for ordained ministry.

Beyond educational expense, younger ministers need other forms of financial help, including advice for investing for their retirement and counsel for interpreting the increasing complexity of the tax code. One young minister made this appeal: “I wish that my session and the church’s deacons would apply greater attention to helping me in the matters of my financial well-being. Those questions simply do not get asked of me.” Churches that have vowed to keep their ministers “free from worldly care” need to start asking those questions.

The authors, both ruling elders, are members of the Subcommittee on Ministerial Training.


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