In recruiting students for our master’s program, the number one reason students give for not pursuing graduate ministry training is that they don’t want to rack up more debt. What they’re telling me is that they are still paying on their undergrad loans and they don’t make enough money simply to pay as they go in grad school. Financial advisors like Dave Ramsey who preach the evils of taking on debt have heightened the wariness of potential students.
Truth is, student debt for those pursuing ministry, who have meager income prospects, is a problem. An MDiv doesn’t necessarily result in a higher income trajectory. A recent article that calculated return on investment for various degrees ranked ministry in the bottom four, beating only hospitality services, psychology, nutrition and communications. The picture is bleaker when you consider that ROI decreases significantly when that education passes through a private institution, which is nearly always the case for ministry. Also, ministry also typically requires graduate school (it would always require it if it were up to me), which adds significantly to cost and subsequently decreases ROI.
Now, no one gets into ministry for the money. But they also don’t get into it to live in indentured servitude. We have created a recipe for financial hardship for many of our ministers and their families.
This might be a part of the overall decline in numbers experienced by seminaries in recent years. One seminary I know of that was regularly admitting around 50 Mdiv students per year accepted under 20 this year. While overall, graduate programs across the board have experienced about 10% growth in recent years, seminary numbers are down across the theological/denominational spectrum. I heard someone say recently that up to 40% of ATS schools are in serious financial difficulty.
While I think part of the decline is that many who feel called to ministry no longer see traditional congregational ministry appealing and most seminaries are imagined around these kinds of outcomes, the fact is congregations will continue to be with us and will have leadership needs that require training and preparation. We need to attract quality people in ministry who see it as a sustainable, joyful life.
Ministry isn’t just about delivering a good sermon or teaching an interesting class. Ministry is about interpreting the presence of God in the world, helping others to see God’s presence, and to join in. This takes every resource you can bring to bear. This goes way beyond knowledge of the bible. We tend to be very myopic, interpreting God according to our very limited experience and calling that the Holy Spirit. We need ministers who have drunk deeply from other spiritual wells, who have walked with church mothers and fathers through the centuries, and who know those places where the church has thrived or lost its way. We need ministers who have been deeply formed, not just informed, and this takes preparation.
As with all higher education, there are things to be done on the seminary side of the equation to change the way we deliver ministry training to make it more effective and affordable. But I think congregations should also step up and pay for the continuing education of their ministers or help them shoulder part of the debt they accumulated along the way. What a great gift it would be if congregations identified young people in their midst and offered to help them pursue ministry. We should make this both imaginable and possible for more people.
And if you are an alum of a Christian university who has seen a significant ROI educationally speaking, establish a ministerial scholarship. The lawyers and bankers and doctors will be able to repay their student loans and then some. So, help someone who has determined to spend their lives in leading God’s people. It will take all of us to find, prepare, and send the best and brightest into full-time ministry.