The Common Good

Low Wages, Student Debt, and 'The Call:' Financing Seminary Education

The contemporary fast-paced, capitalistic, U.S. free market society has lost the traditional commitments to and comprehension of ‘church.’ Our parents and grandparents understood church as a community to which they belonged. Church was a place where many aspects of social life happened. The pastor was hired by the church people to care for and nurture the community, both individually and collectively. People looked to the pastor for spiritual inspiration, ethical guidance, sound counsel, and pastoral care. The pastor was an extended member of the family and people were happy to make a personal financial contribution to pay the pastor's salary and to keep the church building in repair. Somewhere along the line our society ‘outgrew’ this version of church.

Jon Bilous / Shutterstock.com
Seminary at Mount Saint Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Md., Jon Bilous / Shutterstock.com

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A recent article in The Atlantic titled "Higher Calling, Lower Wages: The Vanishing of the Middle-Class Clergy" laments the shift away from the traditional model of financing church and clergy as well as the increased costs for training clergy. The average Master of Divinity student (the degree for pastoral training) graduates with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans — sometimes entering into the six-digit category. According to the U.S. department of labor, the median wage for a pastor is $43,800 — not a salary that lends itself to paying off high-end loans.

Historically, students who attended seminary were supported financially by local churches and denominations that sent them to prepare for ministry. Today, very few students enjoy such financial support. The majority of students in theological education must work full- or part-time and take out government students loans while they study in order to pay their tuition and make ends meet. Once they graduate, the majority will not find pastoral positions with full-time pay checks.

The Atlantic article closes with a quote from Justin Barringer, a seminary graduate that couldn't get a full-time position at a church, even after applying to nearly a hundred jobs. Barringer states, “… I would love to see denominations and seminaries work out new and creative ways to train clergy at a more reasonable financial cost.” This quote represents but one slice of the complex pie that characterizes the state of seminary education and pastoral ministry today. While we all wish for more affordable ways to educate clergy, there are several other factors involved that point to the non-sustainability of the traditional model for church.

First, churches are in decline. Mark Chaves, in his recent book titled American Religion: Contemporary Trends, notes that “while liberal mainline denominations are declining, religious liberalism is not and contrary to popular speculation conservative denominations are not growing, but are declining at a much slower rate.”

Second, Walter Brueggemann, in one of his recent books, Reality, Grief, Hope, noted three mantras that have become part of the U.S. psyche. One of these three is "I am spiritual but not religious" (i.e., the 'Nones'), and he calls it the mantra that leaves the status quo of society unchanged. To leave the religious institutions and to say “I want nothing to do with them” is to leave the problem for somebody else to fix, all the while engaging on one’s own personal spiritual journey. Brueggemann’s prophetic call to the church in this book is to move away from the “totalizing narrative of empire, and toward the particularizing narrative of neighborhood, i.e., love thy neighbor.”

The church is in trouble because somewhere along the line our society ‘outgrew’ the traditional model for church and a new model has not yet been developed. Because the church is in trouble, theological education is in trouble (so too education in general in the U.S., but no space here for that conversation). It’s time for some entrepreneurial ministerial work! This work cannot be done by one group, but must come from the collect. It must flow out of the grassroots movements if it is going to speak to and meet the needs of the population.

Seminaries, denominations, churches, and professors, pastors, and laity can be involved, and need to be involved, but top down approaches will not work here. Many of us are already thinking, talking, and planning, but significant change will not come until this work becomes a movement. We all need to say to ourselves “How can I become involved?” To ask, “How can we make seminary education more affordable?” begs the larger, more holistic question: “How can we make the ‘church’ more relevant and meaningful to the contemporary U.S. culture?” And we may need to begin by no longer using the term “church.”

LeAnn Snow Flesher, PhD, is Academic Dean/CAO and Professor of Old Testament at American Baptist Seminary of the West at The Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.

Image: Seminary at Mount Saint Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Md., Jon Bilous / Shutterstock.com

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