The High Cost of Seminary and the Role of the Entire Church

Recently, The Christian Post published an article where Don Davis, the president of The Urban Ministry Institute, argues that the cost of seminary is too high.

He says,

The only way to get through seminary is to have wealth or know somebody rich. The working poor need not apply. I say this honestly.

Davis is blunt and correct. The cost of seminary is extraordinarily high. Depending on the school, the average cost of an education can run annually in the tens of thousands. The average cost is more akin to the price for a law or medical degree. When considering it takes a student between three-to-four years to complete seminary, a student could enter the pulpit with close to a hundred thousand in school debt.

Every student must take responsibility for their education by coming up with financing, either through financial aid, scholarships, or some type of employment. All options have their risks and rewards and a student must be willing to investigate these options before enrolling.

However, I believe financing a seminary education may be a secondary issue. The primary issue may answering what role does the church have in regards to the high cost of seminary.

Soon the church will face a pastoral leadership gap in our churches, because many of our leaders are nearing retirement. The church must prepare the next generation of leaders who will soon be the leaders of our churches. The entire church has a role in making sure new leaders are equipped and able to handle the responsibilities of pastoral leadership.

Seminaries must be willing to examine their finances and ask tough questions. Is the tuition fee an adequate representation of the institution’s true educational costs? Does the school provide enough financial aid resources to help students find adequate financial assistance? At the same time, schools must be willing to look at what they are investing in. Bricks and mortar projects are great, but these investments take up a lot of financial resources. Is spending on building improvements needed and, if so, are students having to pay for them in their tuition costs? Schools must be willing to ask the tough questions about their own finances, which students pay into through their tuition fees.

Churches must claim its missional role in caring for the future witness of the Jesus Christ through the church’s next generation. This means preparing and equipping future leaders, which also includes financial help. Where can the church find additional money to help offset the cost of seminary education? The United Methodist Church does a great job in providing assistance through the Ministerial Education Fund, but how can we strengthen this for future generations? Local churches, as well, should be willing to invest in their students. This was a great benefit to me while in seminary. I received a generous scholarship from my childhood church in West Virginia, which helped cover some of the costs for my books.

Laity will receive the fruits of what the seminary plants, which would be men and women who have come to a deeper level of faith in Christ through an engagement of both their head and heart. Laity also receive some of the negative consequences of the high cost of seminary, which include pastors who struggle while trying to pay off their loans. Laity should encourage and partner with potential students, especially those who come out of their church. At the same time, laity should be loudest advocates for an examination of seminary costs, because of their close interaction with and new for a well-trained clergy.

Finally, students should not expect a free seminary education. It is presumptuous to believe the church will completely finance one’s seminary education. That is not possible, nor should the church do that for everyone. When a student takes some financial stake in their education, I believe they will have a better appreciation for it and get more from it. Students should seek more information from schools and churches about the cost of education and the amount of available support. The information is out there, but it is up to the individual to seek it. At the same time, students should expect to have people within the church walk with them and help them to make honest and prayerful decisions about their education.

The cost of post-secondary education, especially a seminary education, impacts everyone. There are no easy fixes or solutions to the high tuition bills for seminary students. However, the entire church has an opportunity to work together to address this issue and promote sound financial practices for the next generation of leaders and students.

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Free Advice for Seminary Graduates

About this time last year, I was celebrating the fact that the world did not end. There was another celebration, which was for my graduation from seminary.

Much has changed  in my life since I graduated from Asbury Theological Seminary last May. I’m blessed to serve two congregations and humbled to share life and ministry with some amazing people as a result. I’m doing something that I am enjoy and love doing each day. With that, I’ve experienced everything a first-year pastor experiences (which will be the focus of a post at some other point in time) from the joys and the agonies.

One thing I quickly realized is that seminary did not fully prepare me for ministry. That is no fault to Asbury, my professors, or even to my own studies. The fact of the matter is theory can only go so far. Theory must be met with practical application and that can only be learned in the midst of ministry. Seminary is about teaching theories of ministry and it is up to each pastor and leader to take that theory and apply it to their specific circumstances.

As many seminary students graduate this month and enter their first appointments in the coming weeks, I offer some suggestions. These are added, I know, to the mounds of unsolicited and solicited advice that many graduates receive. I don’t pose myself to be an expert. I am simply giving advice as a recent graduate and pastor and as someone who desires to see all servants enter ministry prepared for the journey ahead.

My first piece of advice is to hire a good CPA. This may not seem like a ministry-related task, but it will be beneficial to you and your family. The tax code is complicated enough, but becomes more complicated with specific laws surrounding pastoral salary and benefits. Prior to this tax year, I did my own taxes and could file quite easily. The combination of my taxes and my wife’s taxes became a burden and a stressful endeavor. Give it over to someone who knows the tax code and has experience working with pastors. In other words, do not go to your neighborhood H&R Block and expect them to know your about pastoral taxes. Find a quality CPA in your area or ask other pastors whom they use. If you have trouble finding someone, seek guidance from your denominational representatives on whom they would recommend.

Recognize that you will make mistakes and it is OK. When we enter a new appointment, there is a tendency to want everything to be perfect. Perhaps it is because as students we’ve had three or four years to think about what we would do in those first few months. While we should seek to be the best pastor we can be, we should be aware that we will make mistakes. It is only natural. Plans will fail to gain traction. You will deliver a sermon that doesn’t quite elicit the response you had desired. You will forget someone’s birthday. You will make a typo in the bulletin and sometimes several. It’s OK. It’s not the end of the world or your ministry. The moment you realize that is the moment you will begin to learn from your mistakes and grow from them. It takes time, and I admit that, but it will happen and growth will occur.

Carve out family time and be intentional about making it a priority. This might seem like a no-brainer, but family time is one of the first things that gets ignored in ministry, especially in the first year. When a schedule becomes full family time always seems to be the first to go. It sends a message to our spouses and children that the job of ministry is more important than our calling and our family. Be intentional about having date nights with your spouse and family time with your entire family. That doesn’t mean everyone sits around the television while you are working on the sermon. Instead, be willing to walk away from what you are working on and embrace doing things with your family that they enjoy and that you enjoy doing.

Take time for physical and spiritual self. One of the things I ignored in my first year is my physical health. I had prided myself on losing weight in seminary. However, when I began serving my physical health was the last thing on my mind. I struggled with telling someone “no” on food or even carving time to go for a walk or play a round of golf. Be diligent about caring for your physical self. If you are tired and do not  have any energy, then you will have nothing to give to your congregations and your family. At the same time, grow spiritually. Take time to be a disciple and to find time in the Lord’s presence. You need it.

Finally, make sure you laugh. Ministry is hard. Preaching is hard. Find things in your life that makes you laugh. Your soul will thank you.

Five Things That Should Be Addressed About Seminary Education

I have often said to friends and in classes that I am thankful for my time in public policy before entering seminary. It has helped me to gain a deeper appreciation for consensus building in the church, and for articulating a clear message to get your point across.

Even more, working in higher education public policy has given me a perspective of what takes place at a normal seminary institution. From that point, I recognize there are things that needs to be addressed – and, I’m not speaking of the normal student complaints of more food options in the cafeteria, or more time for assignments. There are serious issues in how we train the next generation of leaders in the church, and simple solutions are not going to fix the problems. Here are five issues that, I believe, should be addressed by institutions seeking to train and equip the leaders of the church.

1. Tuition costs place a burden on students and their ministries: One of the more difficult truths of seminary education is the high cost of tuition at many institutions. We forget, at times, that these are private institutions, and because of that tuition is going to be higher than your average four-year college. That being said, tuition can be reduced by cutting costs and streamlining programs that are not working. It is easier to raise tuition and place the cost of a new professor or, even, updates to the school upon a student, but the real challenge is for institutions to be willing to make cuts and offer the lowest possible rate. As it is now, the high cost of seminary I believe will place a burden on churches – pastors struggling to make loan payments may need to find a second revenue stream – and may prevent second-career individuals who feel a call from leaving their jobs to enter seminary.

2. Students do not have “Real World” life experiences: As the country’s economic situation continues to falter, younger students will continue to stay in school and pursue graduate degrees that, in better economic times, might have been pushed off for a year or two. The result is that seminaries are filled with younger students. This has a positive in that we are building a desperately needed younger crop of leaders for the church. But, it also has the negative in that these new leaders do not have life experiences outside of college to fall back upon. The danger, here, is that a new leader coming out of seminary may not be able to relate to the farmer who has to close the farm, the single mother who struggles to make ends meet, or the husband who works two jobs to put food on the table. Younger leaders who go straight from college to graduate school do not have the experiences of finding a steady job, being out in the world on their own, or, for that matter, an understanding of how to interact with the world. A mandatory one-or two-year break between college and seminary will help in providing those life experiences. Those who fill a call would be wise, in that time, to seek a job that is outside the church that will help them to experience what the world is like from outside the “church bubble.” God’s calling will still be there after the two years.

(A personal experience, I was given some great advice to wait a year before entering seminary. Even as a second-career student, that one year helped me to grow in my faith, experience the world differently, and prepare for the four-year wilderness experience.)

3. Reduce the amount of hours for the Masters of Divinity: Currently, at least at my seminary, a Masters of Divinity degree requires 96 hours. To put this into perspective, my undergraduate degree required something around 128. We are requiring students to get a second bachelors by filling the required course listings with classes that, at times, repeat themselves, or, even worse, have no educational value at all. An intense review is needed of the course offerings and what is required for graduation. This will require the work of seminaries, accreditation agencies, and denominational leaders to come up with a solution that is practical and properly trains our future leaders.

4. Courses should be added to the required listing: While it may seem contradictory to in one point suggest to reduce the amount of hours and then, in the next, to suggest a reduction, I am arguing here for courses that will better help train pastors to be stronger leaders in the church. Specifically, I believe schools should require a finance/accounting course and/or an economics course. We will be responsible not just for the souls of our congregations, but also the financial stewardship of the church. It would be wise for students to learn basic accounting and economic principles that will help guide them in their leadership in financial matters. Right now, a financial course for church leaders is an elective, at my seminary, and was offered at a time that may be difficult for some to take.

5. Redesign Mentored Ministry: This one is specific to my institution, but can be applied generally as well. First, the concept of mentored ministry is great. Students are required to get practical leadership, both inside and outside the church, before graduating. This is needed. We do not want leaders coming into churches without having experienced what it means to plan and shape the life of the church. That being said, the problem with mentored ministry is that there is only so many opportunities to go around for students. The danger becomes if students use churches to get this requirement checked off, and then lose connection to that church or organization. I don’t think mentored ministry should be done away with, but I think we should encourage students to take an active role in their churches, outside of the mentored ministry program. Instead of taking on a role for a semester, we should encourage students to be active at all times. This may be difficult to build in to the program, but it needs to be encouraged more from school leadership.