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.

* Photo by user, thisisbossi is used under the conditions of its registered creative commons license. 

Failing to Consult God

Joshua 9 contains a fascinating narrative about the a ploy hatched by the inhabitants of Gibeon to fool Joshua into a a peace treaty.  After the ambassadors of Gibeon arrive looking as if they had traveled from a great distance, they convince the people of Israel (to include Joshua) that they were not in fact people of the promised land.   Joshua was waring against those living in the promised land under the orders of God, but these people played themselves off as potential neighbors.  The problem however, is that they started out with bad provisions and worn out sandals in an attempt to fool Joshua and it worked.

Verse 14 contains the lesson of this narrative.  It reads, "So the men took some of their provisions, but did not ask counsel from the LORD" (Joshua 9:14, ESV).  It looks as if the Israelites sampled some of this bad bread from themselves and were convinced.  Some commentators content that they may have even shared a meal with the bad provisions as a part of this pact.  Using the false provisions provides a parallel for the poor agreement but more significantly is the second part of this sentence, "but [they] did not ask counsel from the LORD."  They did this under their own power without praying about this serious decision.  

It is a good picture for us today.  We should be consulting with God, that we would work and act in accordance with his will rather than our own.  James writes that we should ask for wisdom (James 1:5), something that was clearly lacking in the Joshua account.

Praying With the Psalms

Praying with and through the Psalms is certainly not a new idea; in fact, it goes all the way back to the time when the various psalmists were recording each psalm for generations of God's people to come.  And by praying with the Psalms, we can enter into a rich, robust prayer life that will serve to deeply grow our relationship with the Living God. 

If you have never prayed with the Psalms, I would like to challenge you to start.  Pick up your Bible and either turn to your favorite psalm or psalm or wherever and start reading.  Then, when you're ready, start praying.

Lord, Help My Unfaithfulness!

Mark 9:14-29 shares a account of a father who takes his demon possessed son to Jesus for a healing. At one point, the man says to Jesus, "But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us" (Mark 9:22b, ESV).  In the next verse Jesus responds, "If you can! All things are possible for one who believes." And we are left with a picture of doubt and hope.

Prayer, at times, might also look like an act of doubt and hope.  At times, as we pray, we may find ourselves wondering, "God, if you hear me. . . "  What a statement!  Based on the picture in Mark, I suspect God's response is "If I hear you!"  But the amazing statement from the man with the demon possessed son should be our model in these moments of doubt in prayer.  That man responded, "I believe, help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24b, ESV).

In our moments of doubt in prayer, we should cry out in prayer, "God, I have faith, help my lack of faith!" 

Community in Prayer

Prayer is amazing in how much it shapes our lives and communities. Prayer in fact, has an aspect of community built into it by God's design.  It's called intercession.  As we interceded for others in prayer, we grow toward our attitude toward others.

As we see that Moses stood in the gap for others in Psalm 106, we get a picture of just how important praying for others really can be; but throughout the New Testament, we see how natural this is within Christian community.  James 5 actually gives us a command to ask for prayer, pray for others, and pray together.

Community is found as one aspect of our prayers.  

How Much Should I Pray?

How much should I pray?  Should my morning prayer time be 30 minutes or an hour?  How much is enough prayer?  There are books that try to answer this question as if there's a special formula, but the book that we should use as a guide is the Bible.  The funny thing however, is that these are not the questions the Bible answers because these are the wrong questions.

There is no formula.  It's not about time or quantity or fulfilling a requirement of length or brevity.  It's about a natural relationship and a longing to spend personal time with our Creator.

So as you examine your prayer life, it may be best to examine your relationship with God first. Then the rest of the questions will probably answer themselves.

Pray and Watch - Colossians 4:2

What's my evangelism plan?  How do we engage in evangelism at Risen Life Church where I'm a minister?  We Pray and Watch.  We pray specific prayers for the lost and watch for the opportunities God may provide. In general, we encourage people to pray for five people with whom they have some kind of contact, whether it's a family member, co-worker, neighbor, the lady poring your coffee, or whoever.  Then when those opportunities are presented, we faithfully and boldy act in ways appropriately called for with confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  That's it; nothing fancy.

Many people hear this and say, "It's too simple."  They argue that there should be complex planning and training and books and tracts and so-on.  "Evangelism means we do hard stuff," they say.  "If we don't roll up or sleeves and get to work, people will go to hell," some even shout, trying to guilt God's people into doing the work God says he does.  It's interesting how often people would prefer to go under the power of their own steam rather than trusting God. It's our default position. (I find myself battling this thinking often as I tend to have the same desires.) It's amazing how little weight some 'evangelism programs' give to prayer.

But the Bible shows us how amazing prayer is.  We see that we are called to partner with God, not do the job apart from him.  Jesus builds his Church while we are asked to be faithful.  So we should be faithful and we must trust that he will build his Church.

I would like to encourage you to pray and watch.

Prayer is Relational

The Bible is full of prayers. Herbert Lockyer says, "Exclusive of the Psalms, which form a prayer-book on their own, the Bible records no fewer than 650 definite prayers, of which no less than 450 have recorded answers."[1] As early as Genesis 4:26 we read that "people began to call upon the name of the LORD." Recorded prayers allow the student of the Bible a glimpse of the prayers of others, at times providing the specific words and at other times only demonstrating that the individual engaged in prayer of some sort. Even communication between the Godhead—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is made available to us in the written Word. Biblical instructions include praying often (without ceasing in fact), with faithfulness and hope, for others and ourselves, in line with God's will, with and without words, and by divine help. We're given specifics for which to pray. The prayers of the Pharisees are condemned, and we hear warnings about wrongful prayer. We even read about disciples learning directly from our Savior specifically about how to pray. Yet in a book loaded with prayers, there is no clear and obvious definition of what prayer actually is.

For centuries theologians have attempted to define prayer. They diligently examine the various prayers contained within the Canon as well as the instruction and teaching on prayer. Through their findings, they've come to an understanding of prayer and attempt a definition. For example, Wayne Grudem says, "Prayer is personal communication with God."[2] Millard Erickson argues that "Prayer is in large part, a matter of creating in ourselves a right attitude with respect to God’s will."[3] Appealing to Psalm 27:8, John Mueller suggests the definition is, "the communion of a believing heart with God."[4] And John Calvin, while not providing a clear definition of prayer, still says it is, "a kind of intercourse between God and men."[5] As varied as all of these definitions are, they all seem to get at the same thing: a relationship between God and man.

God desires to be in relationship with his creation. Nothing in the Bible could be clearer. In fact, the Bible itself—God's Word—is a merciful revelation intended as a mechanism of communication that draws us into a relationship with its divine Author. God is reaching out to us, calling us into a relationship with himself. Prayer is an important aspect of this relationship.

Jesus teaching was purposed to draw all men into a salvific relationship with the Trinity. Notice that Jesus proclaims, "Your Father knows what you need before you ask him" (Matthew 6:8); but James 4:2 says, "You do not have, because you do not ask" and 1 Thessalonians 5:17 instructs that we should "pray without ceasing." Is this some kind of contradiction? Why would God want us to pray if he already knows our needs? Because he wants a relationship with us! Jesus paints a beautiful picture of this relationship in Luke 11:9-13:
"And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"
Do you see the relational factors in Jesus' plea? “Ask!” he says, as if almost begging. And look at the question and answer that follows. Father, children, good gifts. Jesus desperately wants his disciples to enter into this relationship and he wants them to pray.

Prayer is about a relationship with God.

1. Herbert Lockyer, All the Prayers of the Bible: A Devotional and Expositional Classic (Grand Rapids: Mich, Zondervan, 1959), Publisher’s Forward.  
2. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Mich, Zondervan, 1994), 376. 
3. Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Mich, Baker Academics, 1998), 431.
4. John Theodore Mueller, Christian Dogmatics (St. Louis: Miss, Concordia, 1934), 428-429.
5. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody: Mass, Hendrickson, 2008), 564.

Prayer is Partnering with God

God asks us to ask him for the things we need, yet he already knows what we need before we ask him. (James 4:2, Matthew 6:8 for example.)  This seems paradoxical.  Yet, God's desire is for us to partner with him; not because he needs us, but because we need him. 

When we pray, we are partnering with God. Prayer helps us join in God's mission and will. We see this in Genesis with guys like Noah, Abraham, and others.  How about the partnership with Moses in Exodus? Nehemiah? The disciples in the Acts?  God brought his people into his plan for their own good even though he did not need to.  Even today, God brings you into his plans as a partnership for your good. But it is important to remember that this is the most unequal partnership we could imagine.  We bring nothing to the table and God brings everything.  It's almost shocking that we hesitate to partner with God.  

Prayer is entering into a partnership with God. Be praying!