Ministry Killer: Seminary Loan Debt

Jesus once asked a great crowd, "For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?  Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, 'This man began to build and was not able to finish'" (Luke 14:28-30, ESV).  His question was pointed specifically at understanding and weighing the cost of being a disciple of Jesus even in the face of renouncing all that one has and baring the cross of Christ.  But there is wisdom in counting the cost of any ministry endeavor as we seek to faithfully serve our Lord. 

Seminary is one such endeavor that really demands that the cost be counted.  It is difficult.  It takes lots of time.  You'll start reading topics that will brand you a geek.  You will need room for all your books.  Many seminary graduates I know (including me) ended up getting glasses while in seminary.  And seminary is expensive.

Seminary President, Dr. Jeff Iorg argues against the cost writing, "Check seminary prices against graduate or professional school tuition, and you will be shocked.  Formal ministry training is the least expensive of all major academic and professional disciplines" (1). But if we are okay comparing the cost against other graduate programs and professional school tuition, then we should also be okay comparing the salaries among these professional fields.  I suspect in most, if not all cases, the average ministry salary is much, much lower that these other professional fields.  Many seminary trained missionaries actually have to raise their own support just to get into the mission field!

This is not to say that the cost should be the primary reason not to go to seminary, just that it is important to understand what one is getting into as he is moving into his calling.  It is also important to examine the practical cost of a student loan on the other side of seminary.  I can speak with some experience.

When I entered seminary, I was also entering an Army chaplain candidacy program.  I believed my student loan would be paid off by the Army.  But when I was unable to enter the program, I ended up with a big loan balance.   My salary is good for the ministry profession, but it looks like a peasant boy with a stick up against an angry, fire-breathing dragon.  My loan is a monster and causes me a great deal of stress.  This stress effects both my family and my ministry.

Large student loan debt in ministry is extremely difficult.  Many church planting and missionary organizations will not accept a pastor with student loan debt.  Some churches may not hire you.  Churches and other organizations that will happily offer scholarships to people headed into seminary will rarely if ever offer to pay down the debt of one who has successfully completed seminary and serving faithfully in ministry.  (I know I've yet to find one.)  Government programs that once helped offset debt for those working in a non-profit capacity no longer apply for those in religious positions.

I believe seminary is important and extremely valuable to the minister of the gospel, but every effort should be made to finish seminary without debt.  If you must go slow, go slow.  If there are ways to cut costs, cut costs.  And if there's no way to go to seminary without obtaining a loan, then please be sure to count to the cost of a loan against your post-seminary ministry.

It's my prayer that more churches will consider helping seminary graduates pay off their debt as part of their compensation packages or as a ministry to pastors with debt.  It's my prayer that more churches will help seminary students buy books, pay tuition, and afford food and housing as he or she is in seminary.  It's my prayer that seminaries will work hard to reduce costs as much as possible considering what they are training their students to do.  And it's my prayer that more scholarships for seminary would be made available by any means possible.  If we hope to have well trained, prepared pastors and missionaries, then we really aught to invest in the students.  And if we really want to help the student succeed, we aught to find ways to combat educational debt. 

1. Jeff Iorg, Is God Calling Me?: Answering the Question Every Believer Asks (Nashville, Tenn: B&H Publishing Group, 2008), 82.

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