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Kyle Verage, his wife, Grace, and their 9-month-old son, Peter, shop in the co-op on the campus of Concordia Theological Seminary, where Verage is a seminary student.

Debt risks ministry careers

Financial burden limits opportunities for young pastors

Verage, preparing to ring the bells before a chapel service at Concordia, faces a situation common among today’s ministry professionals – heavy debt.

Tuesday mornings tend to find Kyle Verage, his wife, Grace, and their 9-month-old son, Peter, grocery shopping at a free food pantry on the campus of Fort Wayne’s Concordia Theological Seminary.

Kyle is in his last year of studying at the seminary to become an ordained minister in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

Verage has an on-campus work-study job, and his wife works part time as a seamstress. But money is tight, he says.

Between loans for his and his wife’s undergraduate degrees from Valparaiso University and his seminary training, he figures the couple is about $75,000 in debt.

“Our plan is to continue to live as we’re living now. We live meagerly – very meagerly,” he says. “And we will devote as big a chunk of money from my salary and Grace’s to student loans to pay them back as soon as possible, ideally within eight to 10 years.”

But, Verage, 26, adds of the debt: “It seems to us right now just an insurmountable amount of money.”

Nonetheless, the Verages’ situation is about average for many of today’s ministers-to-be, national and Fort Wayne-area church leaders say.

It’s a situation that has broad impacts not only on ministerial candidates and their families but also on congregations and denominations as a whole, as ministers struggle to pay back amounts that far exceed median salaries of $41,000 nationally. In the Fort Wayne area, the average salary for pastors is about $36,000 to $39,000 a year.

An oft-cited study from 2005 by researchers from Auburn Theological Seminary calls theological graduates’ debt “a gathering storm that threatens the next generation of clergy and lay church professionals.”

The study uses data from 2001, when about 20 percent of graduates had borrowed more than $30,000. But an updated, soon-to-be-released edition from 2011 finds that more students are borrowing, and there has been an “alarming” rise in individual debt, according to one study author, Sharon Miller, quoted last year in an online article for the Association of Religion Data Archives.

Some local church leaders are inclined to agree.

“Yes, guys have always come out of seminary and college with debt, but education costs have risen so much lately that it’s kind of snuck up on denominations,” says the Rev. Steve Jones of Fort Wayne.

Jones is central region director for The Missionary Church, a Fort Wayne-headquartered Protestant denomination with about 500 congregations nationwide.

“We have guys coming out of seminary with $50,000 or $60,000 in debt,” he says. “It’s not like a pre-med guy who says, ‘It’s only a matter of time before I’ll be making a lot of money.’ These (ministerial) guys are intelligent, they’re passionate and they’re very articulate. But they don’t know how to handle the debt. It’s just a lingering load on them.”

The Rev. Bill Hossler of Fort Wayne, national president of The Missionary Church Inc., says more of the denomination’s pastors are finding they must become bi-vocational – meaning that they need “a regular job” in addition to their ministerial work.

“They have to find a job somewhere in the secular market, so they can do what they want to do, which is being engaged in ministry,” he says. “And we’re finding in many cases it (debt) hinders where they can actually serve.”

That’s because a pastor with a tenuous financial situation generally must seek out a position as an assistant or associate pastor in a large congregation, Hossler explains. That leaves smaller congregations, often rural or in the inner city, with vacant pulpits or staffed only on a part-time or interim basis.

In the Presbyterian Church USA, says the Rev. Arianne Lehn, who is associate pastor with her husband, the Rev. Jeffrey Lehn, at Fort Wayne’s First Presbyterian Church, seminary students aren’t automatically placed by the denomination.

“A number of at least Presbyterian seminary students have trouble finding positions after graduation, so there is not the immediate assurance of having the ability to pay back loans once graduation happens,” she says.

“Some of the seminaries are really doing their best with what they have to help students with the financial burden, but it’s still an obstacle and a barrier for a number of students.”

Indeed, experts say, some denominations are finding that finances are changing the kind of people going into ministry – with more older candidates seeking ordination as a second career after they’ve earned and saved enough to pay for school or to take a lower starting salary.

For similar reasons, in denominations that allow women to be ordained, more candidates are women who are part of a two-earner family. In other denominations, more wives of clergy with debt must work, which cuts into time they traditionally would have devoted to the church.

The Missionary Church’s Jones says an unappreciated impact is on the mission field, where that denomination has about 15,000 congregations.

Pastors with a high debt load, he explains, are ineligible to serve abroad, because it’s too difficult for them to raise a salary high enough to cover living expenses and U.S. obligations in remote locations or underdeveloped countries.

“Many of our potential missionaries just hit a wall,” he says.

Although denominations with less strict educational qualifications may be less affected by the financial situation of potential pastors, few denominations are unaffected.

Even Roman Catholics, whose priests, brothers and religious women take vows of poverty, have felt the pinch of student debt.

A study last year found that some candidates for religious life were being turned down because they had too much undergraduate loan debt. Seven in 10 religious institutes surveyed turned away at least one person because of educational debt, the study for the Chicago-based National Religious Vocation Council found.

And, many communities asked young people to delay applying because of debt. The reason is that nearly half – 42 percent – traditionally assumed at least some of the educational debt of those entering.

About one in three of the 15,000 serious inquiries made in the previous 10 years had educational debt in excess of $28,000, about $3,000 more than the national average, the study found.

In an era with a well-documented shortage of priests, the situation led study authors to comment that some debt-laden candidates “are too poor to take the vow of poverty.”

The Rev. Mark Sheafer, Concordia’s director of admissions and financial aid, says seminaries are beginning to tackle the debt issue.

About 90 percent of Concordia students end up borrowing through federal student loans, he estimates.

In December, Sheafer says, Concordia received a grant from the Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly Foundation, which supports study of religion, education and community development issues, to document the debt situation among students and recent graduates.

Already the seminary provides, through donations and an endowment, up to a 50 percent reduction in tuition based on financial need. And, the seminary’s ministerial candidates’ expenses are cut somewhat in their third year, when they are assigned to a vicarage. It’s a sort of ministerial internship, in which the church to which they are assigned pays a salary and provides housing.

Recent graduates are also eligible for new federal repayment programs that allow reduced payments based on income, debt load and family size, Sheafer says.

Concordia also has developed a program that shortens the traditional four-year route to ministry by a year and has more online courses. Plus, some congregations may agree to pay part of new minister’s educational expenses, and an Adopt-a-Seminarian program encourages congregations to provide direct donations to ministerial students.

In The Missionary Church, the Lilly Endowment has funded the Financial Fortress Initiative, a fund to help pay ministers’ educational debt if a local congregation matches the money. The program has assisted four pastors since 2009, church officials say.

Meanwhile, the Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church has a Lilly grant to offer Rejuvenate, a program for clergy, clergy spouses and congregations that teaches financial management and can provide some debt relief to pastors.

Jones says more ministerial candidates are being advised of the financial realities at the outset of their studies.

He says that’s partly to solve a denominational problem with “a relatively large pool” of pastors whose status is now “secular” or “in transition” – meaning they are in the process of leaving active ministry.

“Often what happens is not that a person says, ‘I’m not going into the ministry.’ They go into the ministry, but the erosion of their financial position or financial pressure causes them to leave the ministry and go into secular work,” he says.

“It’s very rare that they’re bitter against the church, but it’s not rare for them to be bitter against the system.”

Verage says he feels fortunate because his family has been adopted – to the tune of $100 a month – by a women’s group from a congregation in his native Wisconsin. He and his wife donate time to the food pantry in exchange for its wares and have used a campus clothing bank.

Verage adds that he wouldn’t change his choice of profession. He’s excited about the ability to soon share the Gospel with a congregation; this year’s graduating class faces a selection process April 30.

“I came to seminary largely because I couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” he says. “I think I would be qualified for other things, but when it came down to it, ministry was the only thing that I really wanted to do.

“And that, with other people telling me, ‘You’d be a good pastor,’ was what factored into my sense I had a calling.”

But, in hindsight, he might have done things differently.

“Honestly, my wife and I, if we could do it again – meet each other and get married and have our son – we would have gone to a state school, because the cost of a private college is just too much,” Verage says.

“We just didn’t know any better.”