Seminary is Great… Seminary Loans Suck… Young Pastors are Slaves

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an online symposium, “Does Seminary Have a Future?” hosted at Patheos this month. Read other perspectives here.

Seminary changed my life.  Hands down, one of the formative experiences of my 28 years.  I’m on the long term plan, finally reaching toward graduation this May after 5 years in a 3 year Master of Divinity program.  For most of those years, I served in paid pastoral ministry, which demonstrates only that I have a legitimate reason for taking a bit of extra time.  And what a wonderful five years.  During this time, I’ve been able to sort through various theological convictions.

  • Moved from just war to nonviolent resistance.
  • Moved from right wing politics to the subversion of all things empire.
  • Moved from reductionist views of the good news to a holistic gospel.
  • Moved from 7 day creationism to a God who orders reality as his cosmic temple using whatever methods God so pleases.
  • Moved from desiring to be a mega-church leader to a passion to dream of fresh contextual expressions of the church in the world.
  • Moved from knowing it all to realizing that I still know very little.

Numerous other examples could be listed, but I highlight a few to show the way in which seminary came alongside me and opened up fresh possibilities for my life with God and ministry aims.

My goal for the next few hundred words is to reflect on the future of seminary education, pointing to both beauty and frustration.  First the good, then the bad.

Seminary education as it stands is good.

My coursework clarifying, my learning numerous, and my personal mission refined.  My conviction is that too many pastors avoid seminary or simply “get by” and fail to recognize how much our theology actually shapes the ways in which we lead and guide church communities to practice our shared faith.  Seminary creates a context in which I wrestle and dream about how the intersections between theological values and praxis will shape what I do with the rest of my life as a minister of the in-breaking Kingdom of God.

Certainly seminary gets critiqued for not providing a context that “really prepares for the demands of actual church ministry,” and I can see how this might be true if all we mean by this is “church work.”  Church and mission find themselves in a state of flux and much of seminary work tends to not flex as quickly in some contexts (although my ministry profs are quite aware of the landscape).

In these sorts of areas, I see the need for seminaries to invest in bringing in guest lecturers that are on the “cutting edge” of the mission of God.  My school (Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary) will be hosting an adjunct professor from England named Stuart Murray, for instance (author of several books including The Naked Anabaptist).  His course on missional church planting will provide the kind of perspective that wasn’t developed in the classroom, but in the context of the UK as the founder of Urban Expressions.  Seminaries ought to bring in innovative practitioners to keep our theology honest and our churches missional.  In addition to this example, I wonder if the major Christian ministry conferences and seminaries could create an easy path to grad credit?  Much of what I’ve learned in addition to classroom work took place at conferences.

So far I’ve praised my seminary experience as basically good.  Now the bad.  The awful.  The reason that seminary also sucks.

President Obama is slated to introduce new policy on student loan repayment this week, in light of emerging statistics that demonstrate that student debt is on its way to surpassing credit cards.  In my situation, I find myself worried about the future while also trusting that God can and will indeed provide.  When May comes, life could get quite difficult financially.

Think for a moment about the education pastors typically are expected to get, the M.Div.  Certainly not all denominations “require” such a degree, but most “encourage” this sort of leap through the ministerial hoop.  What strikes me as odd is that the average Masters degree is somewhere around 36-48 units (not based on data, but experience), but we are asking pastors to fulfill 90 rigorous units.  The coursework is fine, but the financial burden is not, especially considering that most first year pastors (assuming they get a job) will probably make less than teachers in many cases (who are also underpaid).  Then, if a seminary student is married to a grad student in another area of study (like myself), then here comes even more debt!

Pastors are slaves to money from the first day on the job.  Where do we move from here?  I’m not sure.  Perhaps denominations might consider a stronger financial responsibility or offer loan repayment as part of young pastors’ benefits?  Or, what if seminary and the church were linked more closely in that churches actually commissioned emerging leaders to go to school and paid half the cost?  I’m not sure what the solutions might be, but something needs to change.  It’s hard to help others find liberation through the gospel when you live in slavery to finances yourself.

So yes, seminary is great.  It’s amazing.  It could be tweaked here or there, but theological education in my experience is transformative.  Seminary also sucks.  Sucks students into a financial hole that in this economic climate, might be difficult to dig out of.  Young pastors are slaves, slaves of Jesus Christ and slaves to mammon.  May the church and educational institutions dream about fresh ways to send graduates into the world, to change it – not to worry about paying the mortgage.  This must be the future for seminary education!

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  • In the UK in the Church of England of which I am part training costs are paid by the denomination and shared. 

    This includes 3-4 years in a training post as well as 2-4 years at seminary – although in some areas the local church has to provide housing. 

    For full time normal posts we get housed and a living allowance + varying expenses & tax breaks. Downside is that leaving a post for a non-church job is difficult – no housing, and you can retire without owning property.

    Is it a better system? Unsure – but it is certainly different.

    • Dave C.

      I agree with the general spirit of this article. It is pretty on target. I graduated with my M. Div. 25 years ago and have served smaller, struggling churches. I am still paying back loans and I hold two other part-time jobs besides pastoring my own congregation. I am in a mainline denomination. The older I grow, the less “marketable” I become. Still, I am glad I got my M. Div. degree. It was a hard, adversarial educational process. The only other point I wish to add to the article, is I find the M. Div. is not too marketable in the job market in case one has be a “worker priest.” I suppose this why pastoral ministry is a “calling,” not a “career.”

  • I understand on both counts. My seminary education was extremely valuable both in deepening my faith and discerning my call (which is not to pastoral ministry, but teaching adult groups and higher education). However, I also came out with $70K in new loans.
    Given the decreasing levels of support for most denominational expressions, it is economic and sociological reality that graduate seminaries will have to rethink their place in the church. Non-residential programs and licensed ministry are becoming less unusual all the time, and it seems highly unlikely that the trend will reverse, particularly for those in non-suburban ministries.
    I see the future role of graduate theological education as providing a core group of leaders who can intentionally and continually be involved in helping further the preparation and depth of theological understanding for those who have taken alternate routes to ministry, including lay leaders. The biggest challenge of this type of stratification, however, is to subvert the natural human tendency to rank people as better or not in relation to the level of preparation they had when, in reality, they just have developed different skills (and data on alternate ministry track outcomes bear out the similar overall levels of readiness).

  • I’ve been struggling with this one for a while now, too. I dropped my M.Div. program because unlike you, I’m not even a pastor on staff right now. For some reason, my undergrad was entirely worth it, but it has a broader use than something as specific as divinity. So, I dropped it. At least for now. We’ll see what happens. I would like to see all ministers get some kind of degree, but I’m a snob like that and truthfully, have you ever had a pastor with a completely limited understanding of the Bible go off on you about anything? It’s unfortunate.

    I think ministers are called to be such regardless of their education, but at the same time, it’s wonderful to see a man or woman respond to their call with preparation (WHAT?!). But in the northwest, I feel like that’s becoming less and less the trend. As long as they can communicate and read pop-christian authors, they’ll have plenty to say.

  • First, Kurt, I really enjoy your blog; I don’t know why it took me so long to add it to my RSS feed, but I’m glad I finally did!

    I’m also in seminary (first semester on what will hopefully be no more than a four-year M.A. in history and theology, but I too am working full-time, so that might be unrealistic), and we are still paying off my wife’s undergrad student loans. 

    My job is in the fundraising office of the university where I’m attending grad school. So I get a big discount in my tuition, and I got a scholarship to cover the rest. So, hopefully, no loans for this degree. That’s a huge blessing, but that means the university is eating my entire education (minus fees and books). That’s not cheap for them either, but they can afford it because the seminary here has been the recipient of scholarship money from generous donors.

    So there’s two sides of this coin. I’ve been hearing a lot about how it doesn’t seem right for seminaries to be charging so much money for a degree that will be used mostly in service and ministry work. And I completely agree; Christian universities need to take more effort to ensure all of their grads, but especially those they are training for ministry, emerge with minimal or no debt.

    But if we are truly passionate about the benefits of a seminary education and the benefits of not going into exorbitant debt to receive one, then we – once we are established in our own professions and are financially able – need to be generous with our own money and give back to these seminaries, so they have the ability to provide more discounts, scholarships and other incentives that will help lower their students’ debt burdens. We can’t change the financial incentives of higher education, which seem to be skyrocketing out of control, but we can try to help other students coming after us.

    Just some thoughts I’ve been kicking around.

  • I agree, Kurt. Having to take out $thousands in loans often results in a desperate scramble to take any ministry position that will pay. And those jobs are getting harder to come by. The ones that do pay are often in legacy churches or denominations who are resistant to change. So then the seminary grad feels pinched financially and philosophically. 

    There are a couple seminaries that are considering adding some courses designed to help students explore how to build a bi-vocational ministry. The thinking is that with or without school loans, more and more grads are going to be serving in non-traditional ministry roles, which may not earn them any income (or certainly not enough to be considered a living wage). There is freedom in that. But when you add loan repayment into the mix, the amount of money one needs to earn drastically increases.

  • Anonymous

    I can’t echo your statements enough. As someone who is finishing their seminary degree this December, and who has a wife finishing her graduate degree, I’ve taken out more loans in a year and a half of seminary than I did in 4 years of undergrad. Part of that is circumstantial, part is the high cost of it all. And for me, who wants to write and work within the church rather than for the church, that is a high price to pay when it comes to something that I won’t particularly get paid to use. Is it worth it, yes. Do I wish I would have done things a little differently, perhaps. But it is still something that is rediculously expensive and could be due for some reform in method.

  • Seminary is tough. For starters, the traditional MDiv is too broad, prepping students to be traditional pastors and scholars at the same time. There really isn’t a ton of overlap between the two in the day to day (I mean between the challenges facing a PhD, academic theologian and a pastor). I think seminaries are generally a little too disconnected from the day to day challenges of the church and even some of the books used for practical stuff are too laden with theory. Even bringing in practitioners isn’t good enough. I’d suggest seminaries need practitioners who can speak in everyday, usable language that pastors can put into use. 

    I’m grateful for the theological grounding I received in my seminary, I just wish it had been in the midst of a 48 credit program that focused on what I needed for ministry rather than 90 credits that tried to give me everything. 

    The other challenge is fundraising. I know alumni put all kinds of pressure on schools to toe the line for particular pet issues. It’s hard to maintain a measure of freedom for students and professors in their studies while the alumni threaten to withdraw their support over particular issues. 

  • James Farrell

    Good piece.  My wife and I operate without credit card debt, a hard lesson I learned, but between the two of us we carry a TON of student loan debt.  Like I could be driving a bemmer or a Mercedes type of debt…  Because of the reasons you mentioned I decided to to a MA in Human Services – Executive Leadership.  My BA is in Bible and Theology.  I chose to go this route for a few reasons, money being a big one.  My degree is 30 units, as opposed to 64 for the MDiv. and the units are nearly $200 less each!  So not only do i save money per class but I have to pay for half the classes too.  I kicker!  The majority of my classes are the same offered in the MDiv program.  I am currently serving as a youth pastor, and if history is correct, I won’t receive any sort of added compensation when I finish…  The system is broken, I don’t know the fix.

  • “what if seminary and the church were linked more closely in that
    churches actually commissioned emerging leaders to go to school and paid
    half the cost?”

    Mennonite Brethren in Canada have an official program for this very thing! Only limitation is you have to go to the denominational school (I didn’t). Thankfully my local church still stepped up to support my education.

  • Never went to seminary but did go to a Christian  College. I never completed my college education because I couldn’t afford it. It never could understand why a school that is training people to be pastors, missionaries, or ministry leaders – would charge so much for school when they know how little these professions get paid. 

  • Je

    Moody bible theologically may not be even close to what I believe now but their commitment to free education (only pay for room/board & no loans accepted) must be praised. I was able to walk away w a BA in historical theology w no debt. This led me to Wheaton college grad school paying 10k for my masters of arts in church history (which bc my undergrad was cheap, my parents agreed to help). Unfortunately none of this matters bc I didn’t get a mdiv. :/ for ministry, churches want that! I still love history.

  • Sgseibert

    Well spoken friend……and I like your theology as well.

  • Good thoughts, Kurt.  I think all your pilgrimage bullets can probably be summed up in the last one…going “from knowing it all to realizing that I still know very little” is an important and all-too-rare path.

    Some seminaries indeed do all the wonderful things you describe.  Other seminaries create cookie-cutter answer men (and it is usually men) who move from knowing it all to realizing they didn’t before, but now they do.  It depends on where one goes and what one allows to happen while there.

    And the wage slave predicament you describe is true to a large extent for nearly any education now.  I have for most of my life lamented the fact that many who graduate with degrees and skills that would be valuable in service (whether here at home or around the world) cannot offer that service because they, too, need to pay off their loans.

    The church would be a richer place if those among it who have resources were to pool enough to create a fund to partially pay loans for those who serve in ways that further the kingdom but don’t generate income.  That includes seminarians, agriculture experts, engineers, teachers, health practitioners, and many others.

  • Kurt,
    Love this post. It’s marvelously true the power of transformation that seminaries hold. Your experience of growth is fantastic to see, I love how you lay that out. My own journey took me from & to several of the same destinations. A favorite word now being “empire” for me as well.

    But what really struck home was the power of your word choice: “slave.” That’s pretty much how we feel today, and how we’ll be feeling for the next 10-15 years. Our goal is to pay my sem off by the time my kids start college (14 years). Not a lot of room for extra money making when you work full time, and not a lot of extra saving cash when working full time either.

    Charging pastors with leading people in wholistic healthful living while being saddled with debt doesn’t even begin to compute. Yet welcome to my world. It’s no wonder I dont feel confident preaching on money: my job depends on it, and everyone knows it.

  • Ccbrian

    Kurt . . . I agree with you on much of the value of seminary training.  My first several years in the ministry, I complained that my education did not help me much day-to-day, but in about year 10, it started to come clear how much it helped ground me for the sake of others.

    However, I disagree on the cost analysis.   I think Christians often whine about their pay, their calling and how much they will get paid.  It has been my experience that there are very few professions where you are not saddled with debt from obtaining your education.  For many, a debt that will plague them for years.

  • Megan Z.

    In my community, I have experienced a sort of uneducated-ness from older
    generations. My parents told me to keep getting loans, because it would
    pay off in the long run, that my earning potential would increase by so
    much I wouldn’t even notice. But as a fellow helping professional, I’m
    more and more starting to realize that my education is priceless,
    changed my whole freakin life, wouldn’t give it up for anything, etc.
    But I will not make the $54,000 minimum that the Feds tell me I need to
    live like a normal human being and repay my loans. I’ll be lucky to
    reach $24,000.

    That being said, I wouldn’t be me if I weren’t in ministry, and I
    wouldn’t be me if life didn’t suck and I wasn’t completely dependent
    upon God. So yeah, this thing blows hard, but at least we’re all in it
    together. If anyone needs me to help them get a professional wardrobe
    cheap, let me know.

    Also [sarcasm warning!] Kurt, your post only solidifies the fact that
    seminary has turned you from the straight and narrow to the liberal and
    fascist. God be with you my friend!

    • @d6bc2388569d87f7e85e414220057313:disqus … great thoughts! Really, agree with you completely on the community thoughts.  And yes… you made me LO – frikin’ – L with that last comment…

  • Great post. Thanks for sharing.

    As a Seventh-day Adventist pastor my MDiv at church owned Andrews University – and now a Dmin I am working on at a different seminary (which I receive partial funding for) – was and is funded through our tithing system.  I am incredibly grateful for that.  Many denominations keep more tithe in the local church which gives some unique options for local mission funding but I think miss out on the connectedness and development of new projects through a tighter tithing system.

    As a church planter I see this in a unique light.  The most effective church planting churches (rather in a denomination or network) aren’t recruiting from seminary but raising up their own apprentice leaders from within.

    If seminaries can develop a MDiv with church planting emphasis – and pairing recent grads with cp internships – then I think the role of seminary would be much more integrated to some of the new missional activity taking shape in North America.

  • Thanks for this, Kurt. I am in my third year of the M.Div. program and have not had quite the positive experience you have had, although my similar transitions and exciting time of learning took place in undergrad where I majored in Theology. Unfortunately, non-denominational and many loose-knit organizations expect an M.Div. from the pastor (even if it isn’t technically required) but do nothing to help seminarians from their own congregations or the pastors they eventually take in to help pay down the substantial debt. I understand wanting pastors to be well-educated for ministry and definitely do not expect to be wealthy, but find it odd that many MBA programs are completed in one year but the M.Div. is at minimum three years and has no expectation of paying off the debt in a timely manner.

  • But how is it possible to portray the relationship between seminary education and fitness for
    ministry puts seminary administrators in a bit of a quandary. On the one hand, they have personally experienced and witnessed many times the powerful contributions theological education makes to effective ministry activity. Yet few, if any, would state without qualification that a seminary degree is indispensable for ministry. To be honest, some of Jesus’ disciples were, on the whole, a fairly uneducated people. And what is more, to say that God cannot call and use someone who has not earned a seminary degree not only smacks of elitism, but it also comes in conflict with the way God has worked through history and
    continues to work nowadays. Just think about it.

  • Consolidate student loan online and it offers the benefits of doing studies and verifying the best education relief rates among all programs. Just atke notice of the fact that s education mortgage should be combined only if it lower than the current rate.

  • Why don’t we look to the local church for training? What about pastors training pastors? There’s a significant argument that this can perpetuate a certain type disciple and your views may not be stretched and tested (which needs to always be happening) but the cost would be minimal, if any, and the training would be much more organic. Just a thought. 

  • Peter

    Seminary loans do take a little while to be fully paid back. Also, you get much decent interest rates for seminary loans. Yet again, pawn brokers have also been providing with instant and hassle free loans to any person whosoever may need them.

  • Joshua King

    Not sure if this has been addressed, but I did not see it addressed. I too had similar experiences with seminary, including the debt that it has caused while being married to a teacher with her masters non the less. So here is my question. What do you think about including my repayment to seminary debt as a part of my tithe as I believe tithing is important as a biblical foundation and as a model to our churches we pastor? I am in a denomination that does require a M Div.