Called to seminary but saddled with debt, ‘Church should help,’ say seminary deans

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When the Rev. Shelley McDade left a career as an advertising executive to follow her call to become a priest and attend the General Theological Seminary, she knew her financial situation would change drastically.

Once accustomed to a six-figure salary and expense account, McDade liquidated a portion of her retirement savings and took out roughly $70,000 in loans to help fund her seminary education.

Now, two years out of seminary at age 50, she’s chipping away at her debt through her work as an associate rector at the Church of the Ascension in New York City. In order to make the roughly $700 in monthly loan payments, she takes on extra work whenever possible.

“Without working lots of weddings and funerals, it would be extremely difficult to meet the debt payments every month,” McDade said.

Read More: Increasing Financial Stress Hits Clergy as Well as Students

Although she has no regrets about taking on the debt, she said she feels fortunate for the extra work and for the fact she doesn’t have $120,000 in loans to pay back while supporting a family, like some of her former classmates. She also feels lucky to have a job.

Because the financial stress on seminarians graduating with massive amounts of debt appears to be increasing at the same time that many full-time job prospects are diminishing, seminaries are taking steps to ease the debt burden on students and graduates. And some bishops are re-evaluating the role of a traditional seminary education in their priests’ formation.

Many students who take out educational loans to attend seminary are still paying off their undergraduate loans, and so they enter the seminary with a median debt load of $29,000, according to a 2010 limited sample study by the Church Pension Group for the Society for the Increase of the Ministry (SIM). That study also indicated an alarming trend of students liquidating their retirement accounts and selling their homes to finance their seminary education.

To make matters worse, Executive Council’s Draft Budget 2013-2015 eliminates the scholarship support of $195,200 provided through SIM in the Episcopal Church’s current triennial budget. These funds help an average of 100 seminarians each year, according to Thomas Moore, SIM’s executive director. And in July, when subsidized Stafford loans will no longer be available to graduate students, it will become even more expensive for students to enter the seminary.

Like many Americans, seminarians may be left with crushing debt, underfunded retirement accounts and a frail financial safety net amid limited job prospects.

Read More: Three Episcopal seminaries offer new programs to address financial realities facing seminarians (**EXCLUSIVE**)

Because seminarians are following a strong call to serve God, some may minimize the impact debt will have on their future financial security; but that’s all the more reason the church should help them with that debt, said several seminary deans.

“We have even more of a responsibility [to help them] as they follow this call,” commented the Rev. Lang Lowrey, president of the General Theological Seminary (GTS).

Increasingly, some bishops agree that the traditional seminary experience isn’t the only way to get the education necessary to become an effective pastor. “We treat each person as a unique case and don’t make everyone jump through the same hoops,” said the Right Rev. Kirk Smith, Bishop of the Diocese of Arizona.

Smith explained that a full-time, three-year seminary program may not be the right fit for someone, for example, in his or her late 30s who has started an urban monastic community and is trying to reach un-churched youth. Smith indicated that in some cases, classes at a nearby seminary may be more appropriate, or a certificate in Anglican studies may make more sense.

To be sure, there are seminarians today who can complete the traditional three-year programs and graduate without debt – usually thanks to working partners or spouses, significant personal resources, scholarships or diocesan support. And full-time job prospects are indeed available – some states such as Texas or Kansas may have more opportunities than others.

But those instances are becoming the exceptions instead of the norm for seminarians.

“The church needs to think creatively in order to grow and follow the Spirit,” said Smith. “We can’t leave people with a giant albatross of debt around their neck.”

(Veronica Dagher is New York City-based reporter and an Education for Ministry graduate. She is a recipient of a Religion Newswriters Foundation Lilly Scholarship.)






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