Debt, Ethics and a Seminary Education

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I am pleased to offer this provocative “guest column” by Bethel San Diego seminarian Matt Jeffreys. It is an abridgment of a research paper Matt recently wrote for a seminary ethics course.

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A recent New York Times article described a successful financial advisor who was losing his home due to excessive debt.   He said that processing what had happened raised profound ethical questions.  Americans have slowly come to accept debt, even extreme debt, as a normal way of life.  And Christians appear to be the same.  Believers seem to borrow just as much, and just as fast for everything from cars and houses, to furniture and vacations.  Churches are now filled with, and led by, people who are often drowning in debt and struggling to think about much else.  Even closer to home, debt has reached crisis proportions for those of us who venture to study at America’s expensive seminaries on our own dime. Maybe this is just wrong.

 

 

Every year in the U.S., thousands of students enter seminary in the hopes of getting an education that will both aid in maturing their faith and help prepare them for vocational ministry.  Most churches of any size still require some kind of theological degree for its ministerial staff.  Certainly for those who preach and teach, if not for all their staff.  This is a good thing.  The demands of ministry are extreme, the culture we lead in complex, and the need for correctly handling Scripture crucial.  Local churches rightly expect their leaders to be spiritually formed, passionately committed, and educated enough to be credible. 

 

The costs, however, are extreme.  The vast majority of seminary students take out loans to get through, and many still have loans from undergraduate degrees.  Typically loan after loan is taken out to pay for each successive quarter or semester.  Often there is little thought given to how the loans will be paid back, or the many years it will take.  Nor is much thought given to the fairly modest pay most seminary students will earn in early years after graduation.  Additionally, very little is done by either seminaries or local churches to help students understand the reality of graduating with thousands in debt.  Most seminaries do little to no substantive financial counseling for incoming and current students.

 

And churches are worse.  The overwhelming majority of local churches do relatively nothing, at least nothing significant, to help fund seminaries and make no offers to help pay back seminary loans for staff members who serve them.  Churches seem quite content to require years of expensive higher education for their pastors, offer them low salaries starting out, and leave them to spend years paying off loans acquired to better serve the local church. We live in a culture that has adopted debt as a way of life, and unfortunately, the church has followed suit.  It is a pitiful system throughout.

 

I believe the rising cost of theological education is ultimately unsustainable.  I’ll go even further.  I believe it dishonors God.  And it seems, when you look at some of the more innovative and effective churches in America, that God is beginning to provide alternative ways for his servants to be equipped for ministry.

 

Debt is more than an economic issue. It is fundamentally a moral one. Upon examination it becomes clear that the Bible has much to say directly, or indirectly, to the issue of debt. The challenge to those of us who profess to be Christ-followers is whether we will allow biblical instruction in this area to effect the changes needed in our behavior.

In Deuteronomy, Moses reminds the Israelites of what it means to be the people of God.  Moses, when speaking about the year for canceling debts, tells the people that the Lord will bless them and they will lend (out of their abundance) to the other nations . . . and will not borrow (Deut. 15:6).  Moses is speaking to the reality he anticipates once God’s covenant people are living in the land.  The idea is that when God’s people live in faithfulness to him, there should be no need to borrow.  God’s provision will not only meet their needs, but supply enough abundance that they can be a blessing to other nations.  Part of the truth here is that God would supply more than enough for his people so there would be no need to borrow from surrounding nations and become subject to them.  This gets to the very heart of debt.  It makes slaves out of the borrower.

 

This truth is seen quite clearly in the book of Proverbs, God’s great storehouse of wisdom.  The borrower is slave to the lender (Proverbs 22:7).  In this relationship, the writer of Proverbs 22 says that the “rich” rule over the “poor.”  The point is that until the debt is paid back, the borrower lives with a form of slave/master relationship. This runs contrary to the freedom that Christ came to bring.  This represents an economic fact that must be faced by those who are to take the Bible seriously.  Most who have faced mounting credit card debt or a house payment they’re struggling to pay know the absolute truth of this verse.  Even in the closest of relationships, things are different when one is the lender and one is the borrower. 

           

One of the reasons debt is so serious is because it limits our ability to live out certain biblical imperatives.  Throughout Scripture believers are exhorted to give back a portion of their earnings to God as a declaration of trust and an act of worship (Lev. 27:30; Mal. 3:10; Matt. 23:23; 2 Cor. 9:6-7).  There are countless Christians in America who limit their giving due to the amount of debt they have.  I have personally talked with scores of believers over the past 6-8 years who “wish they could give more” but are hampered because they’re so heavily in debt.  Debt also limits our ability to be open-handed with those less fortunate.  It’s not that believers should sell everything they own and give the money away.  The issue is that people live with such debt that they often cannot sell significant things and use the money for kingdom purposes when they see needs.  One of the ethical implications of debt is that those weighed down by debt simply cannot fulfill the mandates to give like Scripture teaches. 

           

I’ve often heard Ephesians 5:18 quoted.  “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.”  The universal principle here is that believers are to be controlled by the Spirit of God and nothing else.  When people live with debt, it becomes a major driving factor in their thinking and decisions.  Instead of being free to go, give, and live as the Spirit would lead, those strapped with debt are consumed with making the payments.  Many will take on a second job or work extra hours at the expense of their family, kingdom service, and own spiritual health.  Debt often causes people to have their minds attentive to their own dire circumstances instead of the Lord himself.  It is hard to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, “mind,” and strength when every waking thought is about how much you owe and how you are going to make it.  It is virtually impossible to maintain a lifestyle of debt and live a responsive, Spirit-filled life.  Debt is a form of bondage, from which we must be set free.

           

The Bible warns us about debt, calls us to live in ways that are nearly impossible to do with chronic debt, and makes clear that our thoughts and actions should be guided by the Holy Spirit, not how much we owe and how we will meet our obligations.  These are real issues that affect the lives people every day.  It is a problem in the nation.  It is a problem in the church. And it is an acute problem for seminarians in America today.

           

Accepting debt as a way of life is an unwise and potentially unethical way to live.  It has monumental ethical implications for believers.  Believers are warned in Scripture about the enslaving power of debt.  Christ-followers who embrace a lifestyle of debt are unable to live with the kind of open-handed generosity that is to characterize them.  Debt robs us of the peace that Christ offers.  Our attitudes and actions are often more directed by the crushing pressure of what we owe, instead of the Spirit of God.   The Bible, however, tells us there’s another way.  Passages like Proverbs 6:6-8 and 22:9 teach the wisdom of saving for the future.  What a thought!

 

Paul said to the church in Philippi that he had learned to be content in all situations (Philippians 4:11-12).  Contentment is one of the best cures for the American debt crisis.  Contentment empowers us to live with what God has already given us and trust him for what we hope to have or achieve in the future.  Paul also said that “godliness with contentment is great gain (1 Tim. 6:6, emphasis mine).”  I pray that the church in America, myself included, will begin to embrace contentment and shun debt to the glory of God and the good of our nation.

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12 Responses to Debt, Ethics and a Seminary Education

  1. Editor February 1, 2012 at 5:03 pm #

    There is no “maybe” about it. Debt is wrong, and up until the 20th century Christians of most denominations were united on the subject. But who can remember ever hearing a modern minister ever mention staying out of debt as being any part of Christian life? It wasn’t so in past generations. You can read what others from days long gone have said about it in these two posts from last August.

    http://bibletruthchatroom.com/2011/08/the-financial-times-part-1-the-servitude-of-debt/
    http://bibletruthchatroom.com/2011/08/the-financial-times-part-2-the-spiritual-reality-of-debt/

  2. JVD January 31, 2012 at 8:50 pm #

    Thanks for the article and the thoughts here. There are a number of factors in play with this issue. The MDIV is a very comprehensive degree that used to be subsidized heavily by churches and denominations, and like all of higher education, was a lot more affordable in the past.

    The MDIV is still a great degree – but it is less affordable than it once was.

    More and more students are choosing MA degrees simply because they are more affordable and they would rather have some training than none. I know many students at Bethel Seminary who are supported by their local churches through internships and tuition reimbursements. This definitely has taken a hit (like all budgets) the past few years after the economy took a nose dive.

    I know Bethel Seminary is pressing into leaner and meaner degrees as we are in the process of revising our curiculum. This is in part an effort to continue to make what we do accessible to as many as possible. It is challenging no doubt.

    One person mentioned placement and we do have a placement website that helps students get connected to job opportunities – it is located here:

    http://seminary.bethel.edu/placement/

    Thanks again for this article and discussion.

  3. Michael Cox January 30, 2012 at 8:23 pm #

    I’ve been ruminating on this as well. My own proposal is similar to Dave Harvey’s above. I believe that a major problem with seminarians and debt is that a ‘call to the ministry’ is viewed as a private issue–an issue between the one called and God. It seems that churches have a responsibility, even a debt (pun), to confirm that calling. This confirmation by the community should result in support and accountability in all areas of the student’s life–from grades to spirituality to sexuality. (Such accountability is also a major need for seminarians.)

    I’ve come to see the issue similar to marriage: when we gather at a marriage, we, by our very presence, affirm some things. (Think: “We are gathered here in the sight of God and these witnesses…” and “if anyone has any reason why this man and woman should not be married, speak now…”) We affirm that the couple is mature enough to marry. We affirm that the couple is ‘right’ for one another. And, more, we affirm that we, as the community of believers, will hold them accountable to their vows. They are making promises to one another, to God, and to those present. It seems that a call to ministry should involve the same sorts of commitments from both parties–churches and seminarians.

    This story doesn’t quite fit this mold, but it’s a fantastic solution:
    I know of one church who recruits at a seminary. They hire newly minted seminarians as fellows for two years. Students make out well: a stipend, the last year of seminary paid, no job hunting during their last year of seminary (a major plus!), and, most valuable to them, on the job training and mentoring that will set them on the path for their entire ministry.
    The church, too, makes out well. They can be choosey; their program is, for obvious reasons, highly competitive. They select new folks who are excited about ministry. These students, in many ways, are on top of their game, even if a little green. Not only can the church staff their ministries, but they also minister to the seminarians and other churches where their fellows will serve in the future. They, in effect, create a network of ministers. Their selection process is manageable: it’s contained to a few visits to campus each year for advertising, interest meetings, and interviews–rather than flying candidates around, they fly to (all of!) the candidates. Finally, they often hire their fellows as full-time staff members after their fellowship is complete. So, in some ways, their program is a kind of extended interview. This is such an exciting program! I’d love to see other churches do it even if on a smaller scale.

  4. Craig Hurst January 30, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

    Matt, this post struck a cord with me. I was working on my M.Div. and had to quit because I could not both provide for my family and pay for school. This is a big issue that needs to be addresses. This is more of an issue for guys with families than single or married guys with no kids.

    There was a day when the denominations paid for their future pastors education and we need to get back to that.

    If a guy gets an M.Div.he has effectively earned a PhD is other fields but will not receive the wages those fields will in order to pay back their loans in a much more reasonable period of time.

  5. David A Booth January 28, 2012 at 9:37 pm #

    Matt,

    Thank you for the article. I think that one of the issues is that most lay people have no idea that this is such a significant problem. Even a very knowledgeable Elder that I spoke with recently was stunned to discover how expensive a seminary education has become.

    The issue is actually pretty straightforward. We pay for graduate education primarily in one of two ways:

    1. Some professions pay really well. So, I student can reasonably borrow a lot of money to go to a good law school or business school because their increased income makes this a reasonable choice financially.
    2. In many fields such as English and History, students receive teaching assistant-ships or students work as RA’s.

    Regretfully, evangelical seminary students face high costs and lower future salaries. This is simply dishonoring to the LORD. God, His word, and His people deserve the best training that we can provide for pastors.

    David

  6. Glen G. Scorgie January 26, 2012 at 6:46 pm #

    David, I think your focus on paid internships in churches is brilliant. it would provide the needed experience as well as keep the costs of seminary education manageable. I think we should press this option here at Bethel. Thanks for this great idea! GGS

  7. John Mustol January 25, 2012 at 3:45 pm #

    Great article, Matt! I applaud you for pointing to the problem of economic debt in our modern context. The modern American church is saturated with this worldly paradigm, but of course, the church has struggled with the problem debt and usury ever since the time of Constantine and probably before.

    As you point out, we American Christians should be deeply concerned with the problem of economic debt and what to do about it. But it is a sad irony that we ignore the massive ecological debt we are running up against God’s creation as we continue to dump billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere, deplete ocean fisheries, degrade soils and lands, destroy God’s ecosystems and creatures, consume resources and then waste them by failing to recycle – all in the relentless pursuit of ever-increasing wealth, convenience, and power.

    You rightly point out that “the rising cost of theological education is ultimately unsustainable.” Likewise, the rising cost of our self-indulgent lifestyles and “prosperity” is also ultimately unstainable. Where this will all lead, I do not know. But it may turn out that a “day of reckoning” in which our ecological debt comes due (probably for our children or grandchildren) will be far more painful than the day when our economic debt comes due.

  8. Dave Harvey January 25, 2012 at 12:29 pm #

    Matt-

    I think one concern – from the student perspective – is that not enough thought goes in beforehand to assess the cost of undergrad & graduate degrees and how those loans will be paid off over time. I think too many seminarians go to school to get their M.Div without having a clue as to how they are going to pay back $70k+ in student loans, esp. on a pastor’s salary. Churches are complicit in this, as they normally require such a degree as a prerequisite for hiring in many positions, yet take no action to either subsidize the education or provide a salary that allows one to pay off those debts and still provide a reasonable income to live off of. Some churches may provide stipends or scholarships towards a degree, but a few thousand dollars is really just a drop in the bucket when compared with the overall cost of a graduate degree.

    I don’t think the seminaries themselves are really to blame – there is a fixed cost associated with providing education, and they still have to pay for the buildings and salaries of their staff. In a sense, they’re selling a product – and it’s the responsibility of the “buyer” to do their due diligence to determine if they can afford the cost. Even if Bethel were to cut the cost of a degree in half, that would still leave $35k in loans that one would assume – so we’re right back to figuring out a way to pay those loans off.

    I think a better alternative would be for churches to hire more interns – pay their cost of living and educational expenses in return for a guaranteed job at that church for a set number of years. If the individual church cannot afford to do so, then perhaps the denominational headquarters (like the Baptist General Conference/Converge Worldwide) would be able to either provide the funding and/or assist the individual in job placement with a church who could make use of their willingness to serve. Currently, I don’t believe that Bethel Seminary or the BGC offers any sort of placement for seminary grads, other than a small binder in the office upstairs listing church openings (which are usually limited to youth pastors or worship leaders). I know that I found it surprisingly difficult to find any sort of pastoral job once I graduated; most churches, in addition to the M.Div requirement, also want their candidate to have 3-5 years of pastoral education before hiring them. The military also requires a minimum of 2 yrs *post-graduate* pastoral experience before accepting them for the chaplaincy. Where are we to get the experience if no one is willing to hire us?

  9. Caleb January 25, 2012 at 3:17 am #

    @Seth, it is my understanding that the BSSD expansion is entirely paid for through grants and gifts (which is why it’s taken so long to get the dough for it). Dr Lillis has felt very strongly that the expansion should not cause our tuition to increase.

    So that’s nice.

  10. Scott January 24, 2012 at 12:35 am #

    Matt,

    I really appreciate your insight on this one, what I am curious about is the individual implications of this ethical standard. Are you arguing that the Church is acting in an unethical manner by not supporting their students and seminaries, that the seminaries are acting in an unethical manner by requiring a tuition so high that it requires students to take out loans, or that the students are acting in an unethical manner by taking out loans in order to provide for their education? All of the above maybe to some degree?

    The ethical standard you have pointed out suggests that the current system needs to be reformed. As a seminarian with debt from educational loans I may be a little bit biased toward your point of view, however; I also feel stuck in the current system. What suggestions do you have for breaking the Church/seminary/student of this cycle of debt?

  11. Dave Harvey January 23, 2012 at 6:34 pm #

    It would be interesting if the church were to follow the military in regards to how they recruit doctors and chaplains. Once recruited, they offer to pay for medical school in return for a set number of years of military service in return. For chaplains, the Guard and Reserves offer a $10k enlistment bonus as well as a $20k Chaplain Loan Repayment Program paid over a 3-yr period, with another $20k offered for an additional 3-yr stint.

    What if churches did the same thing? What if we “recruited” from within our own ranks – guiding and mentoring the next generation of church leaders from within – and then offered to pay for the cost of seminary in return for a designated number of years of service at that church? How many more young people would pursue full-time ministry if such incentives were offered?

  12. Seth January 21, 2012 at 8:43 pm #

    This makes me wonder about the necessity of BSSD’s expansion project, which almost surely will lead to a hike it tuition costs. Yikes!