When OP pastor Cliff Blair sensed a call to the gospel ministry around 1998, he knew it would mean upending a comfortable life. At the age of thirty-one, Blair had a good job as a graphic artist at a Tallahassee newspaper that provided well for his wife and three children. As he considered the cost and effort involved in quitting his job, moving away, paying for seminary, studying full-time, and caring for his family, Blair says he remembers thinking, “I don’t see any possible way to do this.”
He certainly wasn’t the first prospective pastor to have such a thought. The soaring costs of higher education pose substantial challenges for everyone from college kids to seminary students wondering how they will pay for a degree. Inevitably, a daunting question arises for many: “Will I accrue debt, and how much am I willing to borrow?”
Across the U.S., students have answered that question by borrowing unprecedented sums for higher education. By 2013, student loan debt in the U.S. had exceeded an astounding $1 trillion, mostly from federal loans.
Learning is costly, and higher education is an investment in a student’s future, but Christians face a unique set of questions as they consider educational debt. Beyond the most basic concern of whether a borrower will be able to repay his loan, a Christian also asks, “Will my debt significantly hinder my service to the Lord?”
That’s an important question for any Christian, and it can be especially important for seminary students who are interested in gospel ministry. As seminary costs have risen, so have the hurdles to paying for a degree to train for the pastorate. With salaries for pastors varying widely, and a limited number of pulpits available in some Reformed circles, counting the cost can be a complicated task.
To learn more about debt among OP seminarians and new ministers, the Committee on Christian Education and the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension conducted an online survey to compile data. CCE committee members John Muether and David Winslow report on the results of that study in this issue (see the Christian Education pages).
As you will see in their report, these results stand out: Most of the recent seminary graduates who responded to the survey said they were free from educational debt, but about half of the current seminarians expected to graduate with some level of debt. In some cases, those who did have debt have accrued substantial burdens. Many said they hadn’t spoken with their church leaders about their financial situation.
Committee members say that assessing a new minister’s financial health has implications for the health of his local congregation and for the health of the denomination as a whole. They hope more churches and presbyteries will continue to consider—or begin considering—how they can help gifted men pursue gospel ministry without undue burdens of debt or worldly care.
When Blair—now pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Charlotte, North Carolina—began considering a call to the ministry more than fifteen years ago, the thought of not burdening his family was foremost on his mind. He was determined that he would not pursue seminary if that meant neglecting his wife and children.
The session of Calvary OPC—Blair’s church in Tallahassee—shared his concern, but decided to do two things: assess his gifts, and discuss his options for affording seminary and caring for his family. “We spent a year discussing the lay of the land,” he says.
The session had a good starting point in assessing Blair’s gifts, since he had been a member of the congregation for four years, and already was serving as a deacon. They assigned other tasks as well, including teaching adult Sunday school, assisting in leading worship, and even preaching a sermon. They also talked with him about his financial situation and options for moving forward.
By the end of the year, the session affirmed Blair’s sense of calling, but they offered more than approval: the church leaders began helping Blair craft a plan to pursue seminary without accruing debt or overburdening his duties to his family.
In a multipronged approach, the session encouraged members of the congregation to consider assisting Blair, and a number of the families became regular supporters throughout his four years of seminary. The church also made contributions to Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary to help gain a tuition break for Blair, and he worked a few hours in the seminary’s library each week. Finally, the church promised that if the support of individuals didn’t meet his needs, the church would make up the difference, up to $10,000 a year.
Blair sold his house, paid off his van (the only other debt he had), and moved his family to Greenville. He established a modest budget, and he worked as a landscaper during two of his summers in school before serving two summers as an intern at Matthews OPC in Matthews, North Carolina.
The support of his church and individual members allowed Blair to graduate from seminary without debt and without working during most of his studies. He says the freedom to focus on seminary and his family (which welcomed a fourth child during these years) was “beyond valuing.”
Even without full-time work, Blair still encountered the pressures of paying bills on a tight budget, studying for class, and tending to his family. He says the monthly check from his church represented more than a financial help: “The fact that I had been essentially sent by the church with their blessing and a tangible expression of confidence was very sustaining when things seemed difficult.”
Today Blair says OP congregations should assess a man’s gifts before he pursues the gospel ministry, but he realizes that not every church can offer financial help on the same level. “I recognize that not all churches can,” he says, “but sadly what I have discovered is that not all churches try.”
Keith LeMahieu agrees that more churches should consider trying to help. LeMahieu serves as an elder at New Covenant Community Church, an OP congregation in Joliet, Illinois. He also serves on the OPC’s Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension and as development director for Mid-America Reformed Seminary.
LeMahieu’s various roles have shown him the need for local congregations to partner with seminarians pursuing gospel ministry. His own church has helped the men in their congregation who have pursued seminary. (Much like Greenville Seminary, Mid-America Reformed Seminary keeps tuition costs particularly low, compared to other institutions, and LeMahieu says most of its students graduate without adding debt.)
LeMahieu says preparing students for gospel ministry is “first and always a function of the church,” and that churches and presbyteries should recognize their responsibility to help provide for men they’ve encouraged to pursue ministry.
He notes that the ministry—and particularly church planting—can present financial pressures, even if a pastor doesn’t have any debt. Going into the ministry without the burden of large debt can give a pastor freedom to pursue a calling wherever the Lord directs.
Offering financial help is also a way for churches to encourage gifted men to pursue ministry, even when the prospect seems daunting for them. “It’s about the broader church, and asking, ‘How do we prepare our best men for the gospel ministry?’” says LeMahieu. “A really good minister has a unique combination of skills, and we ought to be encouraging that in every way we can.”
Pastor William Shishko of Franklin Square OPC on Long Island has been encouraging and mentoring gifted men for decades. He says the last few pastoral interns the church has worked with attended Greenville Seminary, and that debt hasn’t been a major issue. But he says the session has still interacted with the men, asking about their financial health, and he thinks presbyteries should do the same.
Men coming under the care of presbytery should be open about their financial situation, he says, and presbyteries should be asking hard questions: “Are you able to pay your bills? Are you getting by? Are you in debt?”
Shishko says that that kind of involvement is part of the presbytery’s duty, as outlined in The Book of Church Order, to “show its continuing concern for the progress of all the candidates under its care, and … continually guide, counsel, and help them as they further prepare themselves for the work of the ministry.” Helping men avoid debt can help them to remain “the Lord’s freemen,” says Shishko.
Al Mohler of the Southern Baptist Convention made a similar point in strong terms to his denomination in 2012: “If your concern is to get young people into the churches or on the mission fields, the greatest enemy other than Satan himself is educational debt. Because there are far too many young people graduating who are slaves to debt when they need to be unfettered slaves to Christ.”
There is no formula for how churches or presbyteries should guide men or help provide resources for them as they pursue ministry, and the specifics will vary with each man’s needs. Some men may end up working, and Shishko notes that the apostle Paul worked as a tentmaker during his own ministry. He says working in a job can be part of preparation for ministry.
In any case, Shishko says: “I think a presbytery should ask itself how they can best help a man with his finances if they’re really serious that this man should be preparing for the ministry.”
Everett Henes didn’t make tents during seminary, but he did serve plenty of tables. Ordained six years ago as pastor of Hillsdale OPC in Hillsdale, Michigan, Henes faced a challenging journey to ministry in the OPC.
Before joining the OPC, Henes began his ministry in the Assemblies of God. He developed Reformed convictions at the age of twenty-five. By then, Henes and his wife had two children, and they faced a steep climb. Since Henes had completed Bible college, but not a four-year degree, he would have to go back to college before pursuing training at Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS) in Philadelphia.
That meant that instead of three or four years of seminary, Henes and his family faced seven years of school—both college and seminary—before he could pursue Reformed ministry.
But the young student and family man faced other challenges as well. He says his church plant didn’t have resources to help support him, and his presbytery didn’t have a fund for seminary students. So Henes says he and his wife “buckled down and did what we had to do.”
What Henes had to do was formidable. He worked more than full-time in the restaurant industry during both seminary and college, even as his family grew to eventually include five children. Establishing a budget meant living as frugally as possible and “not living in a great neighborhood” in Philadelphia. “For me, it was minimal sleep and a whole lot of work,” he said.
Even with a full-time job and a tuition break from WTS for students under care of a presbytery, Henes did borrow some funds for his education. He says the relatively low level of debt he incurred has been manageable since graduation, but he still thinks seminary students should take on as little debt as possible.
These days, Henes’s ministry in Hillsdale brings him into close contact with dozens of college students facing issues related to debt, careers, and calling. He devotes a full day of his week to mentoring and discipling college students. For young men interested in the possibility of ministry, Henes offers practical advice.
For example, he says delaying the start of seminary two or three years after college can be a good idea. It helps potential seminarians save money, mature, and test their gifts. “If it’s a call, then it’s not going to go away,” he says. “Getting a job and being around unbelievers and having to work that nine-to-five grind can be really helpful for their ministry, and help them better relate to their congregations.”
He also encourages college students considering seminary to take undergraduate classes that will provide a practical skill that could help them get decent part-time work while in seminary. He jokes about his own undergraduate degree: “I went to college and got a dgree in philosophy. All I could do was ask people why they wanted fries with that.”
But managing educational debt wisely is important for Christian college students who don’t pursue seminary as well, Henes says. Whether they go to seminary or not, Christian students should end up as members of local churches, and Henes says paying back a huge loan “really limits what you’re able to pursue and to give.”
David Winslow, an OP elder at Westminster OPC in Westminster, California, and a member of the Committee on Christian Education, agrees that a serious look at college debt is crucial. He encourages parents to have discussions with their deacons and pastors as they help their children make decisions. He says a good place to begin is asking, “In God’s providence, is there any way we can afford this?”
Not all Christian students appear to ask that question. A 2013 study showed that at least three major Christian colleges had student loan default rates higher than the 5.2 percent national average for private schools. David Haney, director of finance and planned giving for the OPC, has counseled many pastors and church members facing financial problems. He says a growing number of OP ministers are nearing retirement age, without adequate means to retire. That reality makes it all the more important for college and seminary students to plan well on the front end. When it comes to the problem of debt, Haney says it’s important to remember: “It’s not something that’s just out there. It’s in the church as well.”
The author is a member of Matthews OPC in Matthews, N.C. New Horizons, June 2014.