Seminary financing: the cold, hard facts

January. Epiphany. For Episcopal seminarians in their third year, it means taking the General Ordination Exams. For a lot of us, it means biting our nails until the financial aid funds are released so we can pay the overdue heating bill and buy our textbooks.

For many denominations, including mine (Episcopal), becoming an ordained minister requires that we complete a three-year professional degree, the Master of Divinity degree. In that sense, our degree is much like the three-year Juris Doctor degree that people earn to become lawyers. Of course, most ordained ministers will not be making the big bucks when they find their first call–or even their fifth call, judging by the compensation guidelines I perused from dioceses in the East and the Midwest.

And some denominations, including mine, require us to go to specific schools, such as one of the few Episcopal seminaries in the United States. All of these are private institutions with tuition bills of about $20,000 a year (at least that’s cheaper than law schools) and living expenses of at least $20,000 a year for those who can live simply (with a roommate, without a car, without children). It costs a lot more for those of us who provide homes for families and require transportation, insurance, and so on. Several of these seminaries are in expensive parts of the country (such as Manhattan, New Haven, CT; and Berkeley, California), so one has to factor in the high cost of living in these places. And then, since these seminaries are spread far and wide, one has to factor in travel costs if one wants to see family and friends. Or one just doesn’t see family and friends.

In addition to those three years of education, some of our denominations, including mine, require us to complete other types of education, such as Clinical Pastoral Education, usually during the summer. So when some students might be working full-time during the summer to support themselves, many seminarians are doing a full-time, 11-week course for no pay. I was in a lecture hall last November when an administrator at our school was explaining this to all of us students who were applying for CPE positions.

A young woman from the back of the lecture hall said, “I don’t get it. How are we supposed to live if we can’t work during the summer?”

The administrator said, “Well, some people live at home for the summer.”

That response sank heavily in the room since most people are not in the position to move home to the proverbial Mom and Dad for the summer. (I don’t know about other people, but mine died long ago. And… I’m 48….)

I should add that at Yale, someone at the university has arranged for us to get a work-study stipend of $3,000 for Clinical Pastoral Education. But still, it’s not possible for most people to make it from May to September on $3,000 while paying rent, utilities, groceries, clothing costs, etc. And so, I gave up my usual summertime employment of online teaching to do the required CPE training. For the last four weeks of summer, I ended up doing something I have never done in my life: I lived on a credit card.

Some people have the romantic perception that servants of the Church are supported financially by the church. That is usually not the case in the United States. (It is true for seminarians in the Anglican Church of England, which is state-supported.) In the U.S., there are no standard financial provisions for the education of Episcopal seminarians, and so the amount of financial support we receive, if any, is all over the board. I have heard dramatically different stories. One seminarian in my diocese receives $10,000 a year from his church, which has an education fund for seminarians. One woman’s church gave her $2,000 one year and $4,000 the next. I know of one diocese that pays for 1/3 of a seminarian’s education costs. Two other seminarians get about $3,000 a year from their dioceses. Others get a few thousand from their diocese and a few thousand from their parish.

Those of us with no parish or diocesan support scramble for scholarships, piece together jobs, and borrow, borrow, borrow. We spend our breaks applying for scholarships, shelling out money on transcripts and postage in the hopes of supplementing our seminary scholarships. We take on multiple part-time jobs. People often take out the maximum student loans of $20,000 per year for graduate students in the U.S.

It’s tempting to look at the state of the Church today–decreasing numbers of people attending mainline churches, increasing costs for seminary, the dwindling resources of the seminary institutions themselves–and think that the Church is falling apart.

But when I look at my seminary, at least, I see a lot of people from age 22 to age 60-something giving up a lot to prepare for ordained ministry. These are not stupid people with no head for numbers and no practical impulses. Many of us have worked in law, education, or business before coming to seminary, and even people coming straight from their undergraduate education are not naive about the apparent job prospects after seminary or the state of their finances.There’s an excitement and energy propelling us that these difficult times should be dampening, but they’re not.

So what propels us?

Vocation.

If I look at the Bible stories involving vocation (think Sarah, Jonah, Ezekiel, Mary, Peter), I am reminded that there just is no way to say no to God. I mean, you can try. God knows I have tried running from certain vocations, and like Jonah, I thought at first I was successful at running away, only to be spat upon the beach. And while everyone likes to hold up Mary as the quintessential obedient servant, she wasn’t exactly asked whether she wanted to be the mother of Jesus. She was told that she would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Sarah was told she would become pregnant with Isaac. Ezekiel was told to do, well, a lot of weird things to let his people know of God’s displeasure with them. Peter was told he was going to have to go where he did not want to go.

And for many of us, at least Episcopalians, that sense of vocation is tested, challenged, and discerned with people at parishes and diocesan offices, so it’s not like many of us are rushing off to seminary on a misguided whim. Our vocation is being affirmed and encouraged by a team of church officials after years of discernment.

If so many of us are being called, I have to believe we are being prepared for a purpose.

Still, it worries me that during the crucial years of preparation, seminarians are given the message that it is okay to borrow, borrow, borrow. (I’m saying it three times for a reason: 1) it’s Trinitarian! and 2) we borrow three times over three years.) Many priests need to deal with dwindling parish financial resources or the spending down of some parishes’ endowments. To be given the message that it’s okay to borrow, borrow, borrow is, I believe, bad preparation for work in the church.

But is the solution to allow only those who can afford their own way to enter ministry? Should only the wealthiest parishes put forward postulants for ministry? I don’t think so. I believe that one possible solution is nicely depicted in the plan that Joseph devised for the Egyptians who were going to experience seven bountiful years followed by seven lean years: lay away provisions now for the lean years, and then dole them out for all. Now that is good stewardship.

Only four more days until the loan check arrives–I mean until classes start.

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