Seven Years of Debt

In recent months there have been a string of reports about the student loan crisis, how it might be the next bubble to burst.  The crisis is happening now.  Outstanding student loans will exceed one trillion dollars this year. The average student graduates with over $25,000 in debt. There have been calls to forgive student loan debt  in blogs and in action.  Need to Know on PBS recently shared a good, concise understanding of the student loan crisis. For those of us who are clergy and church leaders, student loans are an excruciating burden.  Most clergy starting salaries do not take into consideration student loan repayment, let alone cost of living.  Most congregations in the mainline tradition have not increased their pastor’s salaries to the rate of comparable leadership positions in the community, such as school principals and other educators.  In my experience in the American Baptist Churches, most of the time the guidelines for compensation are “suggested guidelines” and churches take them that way: merely as suggestions, not as advocating for fair compensation.  In addition, Carol Howard Merritt recently wrote about the “extra costs” that are sometimes added on by ordaining bodies and churches who want their candidate to have more experience.  When all this adds up, seminary itself is already becoming expensive, then there are the added costs of ordination requirements.

I was fortunate in that my grades from college were decent enough to earn me a good scholarship. I also qualified for some grants, and my seminary had a wonderful financial aid administrator at the time who slipped notes into my mailbox about every single $500 or $1000 little scholarship.  Those little scholarships made a difference.  However, I still ended up working at least 2 part time jobs every year (during my Field Education year, which included a stipend, I count 3 part-time jobs).   Needless to say, I didn’t date much when I was in seminary. I didn’t have much of a life outside of school and work, and somehow I was supposed to attend local, regional, and national events for my denomination as well, most of the time at my own expense.  My scholarships were only good for three years, so I managed to graduate in three years, taking courses every summer and winter, and loading up on 5 courses both the fall and spring of my final year.  My grades were not as good that last year because of it (luckily my seminary offered  a “pass/fail” option for some courses, so I was able to pass, but I must apologize to my church history professors for whom I rarely cracked a book that last year because I was too busy writing my ordination paper, trying to get an interview for a position, writing papers for my other classes and working those two jobs).  I graduated in May of 2002 without a dime owed to my seminary.

However, this was not the case for my college years.  Almost all clergy nowadays have seven years of higher education under their belt.  We’re not talking the four-year college debt that is leading to the national crisis. We’re talking seven.  So of my seven years, four I am still repaying.

I was seventeen when I was applying for college, filling out financial aid paperwork (oh, the dreaded FAFSA—but with the dawn of the internet it is so much easier than the long paperwork one had to file in the 90’s) and had no guidance when it came to student loans.  My parents, divorced only a few years before, were still arguing over finances.  The college fund I thought existed was long gone.  My father wrote a check for my housing deposit to get me started, but after my scholarships (I had decent grades in high school—no valedictorian but at least I made honors) and grants (my parent’s income was pretty abysmal) there was still a “projected parental contribution” that is included as part of the FAFSA process.  That parental contribution, for me and most of my friends, and I imagine for thousands of students, does not exist.  Just like with taxes and most other paperwork, numbers on paper does not equal dollars in the bank account.  There are other debts, medical expenses, and hardships that eat up that supposed parental contribution.  So at age seventeen, I signed away on a Perkins Loan, a Subsidized Stafford Loan, and the big one: a large private loan with rates that shifted between 8-9% interest while I was in college.

Who understands what $50,000 of student loans will look like when you are seventeen?  Who understands interest rates and monthly payments?  Who understands that your income will not meet the demands of paying off your student loans in a timely manner when you aren’t even old enough to vote yet?  Yes, my parents did sign on my student loans as they had to, but no one explained to me the amount of debt I was getting myself into. Not my parents, not my college, and certainly not the school guidance counselors who were so excited I was going to a private college, so excited that they could add me to the list of college-bound high-school graduates. They were the ones who actually told me about and encouraged me to apply for the private loans.

There is good news for my story: after deferring my student loans in seminary, when I graduated and became an associate minister my salary did not cover both my cost of living and my student loans (I was renting a shared house with 3 other seminary students and graduates, our rent was minimal, our utilities were split 4 ways, and we did not have cable—we lived very simply), I was able to consolidate my Stafford loan at a decent rate. I was able to adjust my payment plan for my Perkins loan. My private loan, however, did not offer any assistance, and so I continue to repay it at the full amount.  But I did receive some help from the Massachusetts Baptist Charitable Society, which altered its charter to help Baptist ministers serving in Massachusetts with the repayment of student loans.  Through that assistance, I managed to work away at my debt.  I no longer live in Massachusetts so I am ineligible for assistance from that organization, but through working two-part time jobs along with my chaplaincy position (along with my husband's full-time ministry position, and he also has student loans!) I am almost done paying off my Perkins loan completely.  I will be celebrating in a few months.

My challenge is this, for our denominations and our congregations: we need to stop socking away money for buildings.  We need more organizations like the Massachusetts Baptist Charitable Society that can help clergy repay their student loans.  We need more counselors at the beginning of the process of both college and seminary to be up-front about debt, loans and interest rates before students enroll in classes.  For seminaries, we need to be especially honest with prospective students about debt and about calls to professional ministry: do seminaries accept more students so that they are able to make their ends meet with tuition dollars, or do they accept those students who clearly have a call to serving Christ and the Church?

For congregations, we need to recognize that if a congregation cannot afford to pay a minister a liveable wage, maybe they should not have a minister.  I’m serious about that.  I have known far too many churches that have paid housing allowances that would not even cover renting a studio apartment in their town.   And I’ve seen far too many churches in one small town, with lower attendance on Sunday morning and in weekly ministry activities, that have so much in common with their neighbors of the same denomination, or even across denominations.  We need to encourage more partnerships and even mergers, so that our congregations can give of their best, and their pastors can be fully compensated so that they can give of their best.   When resources become scarce, far too often support staff positions are cut and pastor compensation is frozen.  A church isn’t going to grow when that happens.  Rather, if resources are becoming limited, then a church needs to cast its vision outward rather than inward.  The church needs to look not at its own survival but how it can best serve Christ in the world—and that may mean partnering or merging with another congregation.

“Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts” (Deuteronomy 15:1).  Debt was a major concern of Moses and the Israelites as they established their communal practices. People needed to borrow from others to survive and debt was part of their society—in that debt is how most slaves came to be.  However, the tradition of Moses, the Israelites and of our Bible is to forgive debts, and to forgive them sooner rather than later.

There are some programs to help people with debt repayment: Income-Based Repayment Plan is not as well known as it should be, but it helps people pay off debts at rates based upon one’s income and forgives the rest after ten years.  But I think a Biblical model that denominations, seminaries and other religious bodies should use is the seven-year plan: if clergy and other church leaders go to school for seven years, four years of college plus three years of seminary (which is difficult in these days to complete 90 credits within three years, but some seminaries have cut back on the required number of credit hours for a Master of Divinity degree; my own seminary went from 90 to 81 credits, and some require only 72 credits for completion), then seven years is what it should take to repay back the student loans.  After that, we need a year of debt forgiveness.

It will be my ten year reunion from graduating seminary this spring; it will also mark ten years of repaying student loans.  I have five more to go.  Some of my colleagues are not as fortunate.  Some of my dearest friends live with their children in cramped 2-bedroom apartments because their churches sold the parsonage years ago, and provide a housing allowance that does not adequately provide for their family in the community they serve.  Most of my colleagues in ministry do not own their own home, unlike most of their congregants.  And as a result of lower compensation, most of my colleagues do not have sufficient funds in their retirement and work well beyond retiring years in at least part-time ministry positions to make up the difference.

We need a year of debt forgiveness.  Seven years of education, seven years of debt repayment is enough.  Let us uphold the Biblical model of debt forgiveness and strive for ways of adequately compensating our clergy and leaders, so that we can grow in our call to Christ’s ministry and serve the world as best as we are able.  And when tough decisions about resources have to be made, let us think about cutting compensation last and instead think about how we are best using our resources, because buildings are just buildings; clergy are people.