EXCLUSIVE: Three Episcopal seminaries offer new programs to address grim financial realities facing seminarians

The General Theological Seminary (GTS), in New York City, is responding to its students’ increasing financial stress by actively raising more scholarship funds and by developing a Financial Literacy certificate program, which will provide students with skills to manage both their own finances and the finances of their parishes.

Lowrey also indicated that GTS plans to increase its distance-learning program, which will help reduce student debt. While it’s still in the very early planning stages, Lowrey hopes that through this program, students will be able to attend seminary full time for two years and then spend their third year working in a parish, gaining practical experience and attending courses online to complete their degree. Lowrey believes the program could save students up to a third of the costs they are paying today.

“If a student sells his house to come here, that’s when I start to worry,” said the Rev. Dr. Susanna Singer, director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP), Berkeley, Calif.

Singer said CDSP has noted an increase in commuter students as seminarians look to cut costs, and that the board has recently voted to begin a partnership program with Episcopal bishops across the country. This program will offer a limited number of full-tuition scholarships to qualified students who are nominated by their bishops and who have demonstrated outstanding community leadership. In return, the seminary will be asking the bishops to pledge to hire these graduates whom they nominated for a period of two years after successful completion of their studies at CDSP at the standard clerical pay scale. “It’s expected the new program will be ready for fall 2013,” Singer said.

Episcopal Divinity School (EDS), Cambridge, Mass., recognizing the financially infeasibility for some of its students of leaving their jobs and moving across the country to attend seminary full time for three years, is continuing to enhance its hybrid learning option. This program allows students to attend classes online in the fall and spring, then meet in person for two intensive 10-day terms in January and June. According to the Very Rev. Dr. Katherine Ragsdale, president and dean of EDS, this hybrid option is garnering increasing interest from bishops who realize the need to ease the debt burden on seminarians whose job prospects may be limited in their dioceses.

EDS is also launching a pilot program this fall for seminarians working in select underserved communities in exchange for repayment of their student debt during their service. Ragsdale explained EDS will be choosing the dioceses to work with during the pilot program over the summer. The first sponsored student participants are expected to begin their studies in fall 2012 and complete the Masters of Divinity program in May 2015.

(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.)

Increasing financial stress hits clergy as well as students

It’s not always smooth financial sailing after graduation – especially for priests who are trying to provide for their families.

Before landing positions as full-time hospital chaplains in Connecticut, the Rev. Eric Jeuland and his wife, the Rev. Jane Jeuland, worked multiple jobs to piece together a ministry and an income.

At one point, Eric worked in two different parishes as a youth minster and as a campus minister 70 miles away, and Jane founded an urban after-school teen program while working as a parish assistant.

But long commutes and shrinking church budgets made it difficult for them to plan for a family and once their son arrived, the need was urgent to gain financial stability for their young family.

Because of their love of chaplaincy and their financial need, they both decided to find employment outside the church.  “We feel so blessed to be working as chaplains,” said Jane. “God really opened doors for us to carry our call to ministry in hospital settings.”

Landing full-time posts in hospitals was well timed, the couple said. “It became very difficult to piece together part-time parish work that, for budget reasons, in this down economy and shrinking church, was always too expensive for our employers to guarantee,” Eric added.

The Revs. Jeuland aren’t alone in the challenges of piecing together work while managing family financial responsibilities.

The Rev. Stephen Harding, who works as a chaplain for the New York City Fire Department and is a hospital and hospice chaplain, is afraid he may have to leave the church to find secular employment if he can’t afford to educate his 5-year-old son and save enough for retirement.

Harding, who would like to land a full-time parish job, expects more priests will need to cobble together part-time work in order to provide for their families if a full-time job isn’t available. Until the church figures out a sustainable compensation model, he fears more clergy will find themselves under similar financial stress.

“I believe the parish paradigm, overall, is a failing business model, and that the church hasn’t figured out the new model yet,” said Harding.

(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.)

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.)