Considering that half the churches in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have fewer than 100 members, and taking into account the cost of maintaining an older building, the effects of national economic tensions on tithing, and the cost of mission — the very lifeblood of the church — how can we have faith that we can ever build up new, financially solvent pastors?
For students preparing for any profession, including the ministry, the first step toward financial solvency is minimizing the burden of education-related debt they must shoulder as they exit the gates of academe. Is it possible for seminarians to graduate without oppressive debt? The National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS, 2007-2008) estimated the median additional debt for a master’s degree at $25,000.
Seminary Debt Assistance, a program of the PC(USA) Board of Pensions, helps newly ordained pastors who accept a first call to serve a smaller congregation (fewer than 150 members and a budget of less than $250,000 a year). Grants of up to $1,500 a year for four years are awarded to applicants who have attended a Board of Pensions financial planning seminar and applied to the program through their presbytery. Amber Ellington, a senior at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, is the first person in her family to go to college. Her father is a truck driver and her mother works as a kitchen manager. She says she was able to make her parents a little less nervous about her move from Louisiana to Chicago by assuring them she would not ask them for money. Ellington’s story provides a model for a compendium of strategies students are using for financial support.
» Live lightly. She lived in shared seminary housing and sought a part-time position at the Museum of Science and Industry. Rather than an additional stressor, she says, the job has been a blessing. She finds the museum to be a welcoming community, reminding her there is life outside of school.
» Seek out scholarships. Ellington applied for every scholarship she could find, including the PC(USA) study grant and one from her synod.
» Appeal to those who know you and believe in your calling. Ellington asked for and received support from her current and childhood churches. More importantly, the gifts and scholarships remind her that others believe in her call to ministry.
» Don’t fear loans. She took a small one ($1,000) to bridge the gap between semesters when there was need.
Thoughtful use of all these strategies has brought Ellington to the jumping-off point of a life in ministry with only a light and bearable financial burden.
She expects to graduate next May with a near-perfect grade point average, having been a student session leader, having served as the student representative to the McCormick Board of Trustees and having completed her field education, clinical pastoral education and ordination exams.
Today, she said, she’s “basically ready to become an ordained minister — with only $1,000 of seminary debt. My parents still can’t believe it.”