A new place with my debt

Like a lot of ministers, I borrowed a lot of money to get my Master of Divinity degree and early on served churches that didn’t let me pay it down. And should I even mention paying for a car engine rebuilt with a credit card or living without medical insurance? I know a lot of you understand this implicitly, ordained or not.

Well, in recent years I’ve hammered away at my credit cards (plural), loan against my life insurance and student debt. Now I’m down to just the student debt.

  1. I know to within a few dollars what I owe on it.
  2. I pay about four times the minimum payment on it each month (or really, twice as much each paycheck.)
  3. It will be retired within the year, well before my goal of my fortieth birthday.

But something happened today that let me know I’ve made peace with my debt and have my eyes on a new target, namely co-home ownership.

The event? I was watching a game show and the host asked the finalist what he would do if he won the big prize of $5,000. For the first time, I did not fill in the answer “Pay off my debt.”

That’s all. If you have something to add about your feelings about debt, feel free to comment. For this post, you may be anonymous as long as you leave a legitimate email address and — as usual — I’ll keep your identity private.

Categorized as Debt

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. This will sound quite harsh, but I believe it to be true: any Christian denomination that requires its ordinands to go into debt, especially debt to the denomination or one of its entities, in order to fulfill their call to ministry is committing a grave sin. All things being equal, having graduate-educated ministers is a nice thing (alongside a whole lot of spiritual formation, which is sadly lacking even at many denominational sems, not to speak of div schools), but it’s not nice enough to force people to go into debt if the denom itself can’t pay the bill.

  2. This was a serious reason as to why I did not go into the ministry. A) I couldn’t afford Harvard and B) I knew afterwards I couldn’t afford that debt. I feel that we are a denomination of scholarly snobbery and I hate that. Then we don’t pay our ministers enough to live and pay for that burden. Something has to change. Interesting to note, I am now looking with my daughters for colleges and scholarships and there are no UU scholarships. NONE. That is just amazing to me for a group that worships education. Where is the walk to that talk.

    Oh, sorry… I just blurted out there. Congratulations on your debt. I just got fired up!

  3. Yes, a big congratulations on your just-about-completion-of-debt payment. I hope to be there soon.

    I’m quite taken with Fr Chris’ idea about sin. For me, my debt issues are a broader issue than just div school. With hindsight, I shouldn’t have been allowed (and encouraged) to take on as much undergraduate debt as I did. That really started the problem. I feel that my elders should have protected me at seventeen and not let their own dreams about ivy league (or potted ivy) education be so influential. Perhaps that’s naive of me to hope that, but I feel that debt education in this country is just about non-existent. I hardly ever hear anyone say, “I can’t afford that.” And that’s what I should have said to private colleges. Period.

  4. When I was seventeen, I also knew NOTHING about student loans and debt. We teach our high school students almost nothing about finances, and yet this is such an important part of adult life.

    We need to teach debt management as surely as we need to teach responsible sexuality. At least let our teens learn what their choices and consequences are.

  5. This is a topic that has really surprised me. We have wealthy UUs, we have UUs who like to give to worthy causes, we have UU’s who strongly revere education. Wouldn’t you think this would come together?

    And especially when we have divinity students coming from our midsts … we can’t pay for everyone, but shouldn’t there be something, even if it’s just symbolic? I remember when I went to undergrad, I got little scholarships here and there — $100 from the Rotary club, stuff like that. Shouldn’t there be things like “The Northern Kentucky UU Scholarship”? “The greater LA UU Scholarship”? Nothing endowed or guaranteed every year. Heck, just a $1000 would make a difference.

  6. But not much of a difference.

    There was a time — when ministerial students were few — when school was paid or very cheap, but those days are past. I don’t have a solution but neither have I much patience for token amounts or “stipends” that accomplish little — other than taking the pressure off stakeholders to find a more substantial solution.

  7. I was surprised to learn that the rising costs of seminary education took denominational leaders by surprise relatively recently. (In the UUA, less than two decades ago.) I wish I could remember enough about a Christian Century article a year or two ago to be able to point people to a study about this phenomenon across the mainline Protestant world, but I only remember enough to say that we weren’t alone in this regard.

    I believe one of the reasons for the introduction of the regional MFC meetings for UU seminarians was to put some mechanism in place that would ask students about their debt load before they made it all the way to graduation. In the UUA, after all, individuals apply to and enroll in and can graduate from seminary without any input whatsoever from the denomination, as I did. Perversely, because the seminaries depend on enrollment, even from students who borrow heavily in order to attend, it isn’t in the interests of the schools to discourage students who can’t attend to go.

    The cost of an M.Div. has gone up at such an extraordinary rate in the last few decades that no denomination could hope to pay that cost for its incoming clergy. There’s clearly a major problem here, and I’ve yet to see a realistic solution proposed.

    As for scholarships for UU college students, there are actually a few. There’s one for children of UU ministers, students at Antioch College or Harvard (the poor dears), and students studying art or law.

  8. What struck me as my husband went through seminary is that there were more funds available to him on the denominational level for the years he didn’t need as much — once he was getting a stipend from consulting ministry and didn’t need to take as many classes, which is the only thing he could use some of those funds for, rather than paying for groceries or making up for the lack of the second income while living in high-rent Chicago.

    From the schools’ point of view, I suppose it kind of makes sense — they don’t necessarily want to invest in first year students until they see what kind of potential they have for making it all the way through the program and into settled ministry. Meadville did recently come up with ONE “full ride” scholarship for each entering class, but even that is kind of a risk for them.

    Personally, I would rather see scholarships for UU seminarians distributed by the UUA, so that students have a better choice of where they go to seminary. I think it could be done in such a way as to even the playing field, so that the same kind of aid is available no matter which school a student chooses. But, I would also rather see these scholarships based more on merit, like the majority of graduate scholarships/assitantships/etc. This might seem harsh, as ministerial formation can follow such different paths for different people, but why not fund the students who show more promise in their future ministry to a fuller extent than those students who went to seminary on a lark (yes, there are some of those. . .) ?

  9. So far as paying ministers’ salaries, this sounds like one of those problems that belongs to us (UUs). And not just ministers’ salaries, but other staff, as well (many of whom have graduate degrees yet are making $30K a year positions).

    Do we UUs need to start giving more to our congregations? Do congregations need to look at how they spend the money they already have?

    I don’t know the answer. But I do need to catch up on my dues.

  10. Scott — yes, and I’m happy for the direction they seem to be taking, though not sure that just outright cutting funding to the schools is a good idea. Money needs to fall out of the sky, I think, the keep the schools both solvent but also allow seminarians to choose to go elsewhere.

    Hafidha — Yes, members do need to give more to congregations! In many congregations, money is a taboo subject, and maybe there’s some muttering when people sign the membership book about a minumum pledge. I think typical members need to be asked to do more — most will step up if they’re just asked.

  11. Philocrites writes:

    no denomination could hope to pay that cost for its incoming clergy

    Definitely not true — I can think of several whose seminaries offer free tuition and whose congregations do a decent job of making their seminarians’ ends meet in terms of living expenses. The very first that comes to mind is the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod. As far as I know, they’re not perfect, but far fewer of their seminarians go into debt than most mainline denoms. (My younger brother has just started seminary in St Louis to become an LCMS pastor.)

    In general, the denominations that send students primarily to their own schools and take raising money for seminaries seriously don’t have anywhere near the debt problems you find in, say, the UUA or the United Church of Christ.

    But that’s not really my point. My point is that if ordaining only MDivs is not a luxury a denomination can afford without putting a majority of its ordinands deep in debt without hope of repayment, maybe that’s a luxury the denomination can’t afford, period. Pastors can be trained through serious spiritual development in their home congregations, directed reading, occasional courses via correspondence, internet, or short-residence programs, and local (non-graduate credit) courses organized by dioceses/conferences/associations, perhaps in concert with ecumenical partners.

    Maybe the process would take longer than three years, maybe it could be shorter for some candidates. But why are we all so invested in four years college + three years MDiv + internship + CPE that we’re willing to put a generation of clergy into staggering debt rather than rethink things a little? Is this really the only way to form decent clergy?

  12. I did not even consider going to seminary, even though it was suggested to me several times by different people, particularly after being aware that I would need to go into debt for quite a few years to pursue it. We may have our own defects, but in Europe people do not need to borrow money to have high education (unless you want to study with the élite in some specific countries such as Great Britain). And absolutely not if you plan to go into the ministry.

  13. Thanks, Chris. I did not know that about the Missouri Synod Lutherans. Setting up a denominational seminary, requiring candidates to attend it, and paying their way to go has some appeal. At any rate, you’re right that the current system is dangerously broken.

  14. I believe one of the reasons for the introduction of the regional MFC meetings for UU seminarians was to put some mechanism in place that would ask students about their debt load before they made it all the way to graduation.

    While I had several forms to fill out regarding financial planning and my “understanding” of my debt incursions, there was very little said face-to-face, at least by the regional or national committees, about the debt load of seminary and the (lack of) income potential in ministry. In fact, rather than advising students against debt incursion, I’ve watched a regional committee send one student back for more field education for several years running, incurring more debt along the way, rather than acting as the gatekeepers they’re supposed to be and assessing why this student appeared before them year after year seemingly unprepared to move forward in their ministerial formation. A reluctance to do the “hard thing” meant more debt for a student — in this case, unnecessary debt as they finally recommended this person leave the program . . . after three additional visits to the committee and the loans that went along with those years. This part of the system is broken.

  15. Oy, I feel your pain! I was lucky to have a very supportive Bishop and to go to a Seminary which could offer me a full scholarship. However, I was NOT so lucky in my second round of grad school and ended up with student loan debt to go with my undergrad debt, plus the depletion of my savings.
    I found the difference came from experienced clergy in my denomination: in Seminary, we had several excellent scholarship funds that had been established by clergy who themselves faced these money problems and wanted to fix it so new clergy would not have this sort of debt to face themselves. Clergy who are now financially secure give generously to scholarship funds like the Society for the Increase of Ministry and the Seminary so those groups can give the new Seminarians scholarships. It took more than the clergy saying “ouch, Seminary hurts!” It took the clergy being willing to say, “ouch, Seminary hurts! here, let me make my Seminary one of my charities.”

    It takes us, as we become slowly debt-free, to give back and help be the solution. Of course, we were also told “you were helped. Now it’s your turn to help!” It’s expensive to give, but when it comes time to give, I say to myself, “Would I like to take this $250 and buy a bookshelf or get a few pairs of cute shoes?” and if I say, “Yes! I’d love the shoes! They’re cute!” I figure I have the money to spend. I can afford to share a little. (But not right now, not while I’m in job search! Ask me once I’m re-settled.)

  16. Thank you for calling attention to the destructive role of seminaries which feel no responsibility to either the solvency of their students or the future of any denomination. The pernicious effect burrows on into the years of ministerial service, for we who aspire to organize action groups, whether for scholarship, social justice or pastoral developments — are forced into philanthropic organizations with working boards of directors. As such, these leaders are forbidden to compromise themselves/ourselves by accepting substantial remunceration for work they/we are doing. The time-honored process for staffing these organizations was for these ministers to find “a quiet congregation, without much ambition,” and neglect any of its inclination to move forward in favor of their own “denominational interests.” The congregations were expected to bask in reflected glory, in lieu of enjoyng their own direct ministry. Now that this dysfunctional relationship has rightly been rejected, leadership of some affiliated organizations is really suffering.

  17. Got here from Peacebang…The very reason I went to Harvard for Divinity School was because they had money to give. Starr King, BU, Meadville etc offered me little to no money. Harvard gave a me a full ride (including health insurance) in a scholarship for “aptitude for the ministry.” I couldn’t and wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise. Even so–I still have about 45K in loans for my living expenses for 4 years. I worked part-time to supplement my income but I still had CPE (which I had to pay for, not get paid for), an internship year, books to buy, etc. I had to buy a car so I could do my internship, and renting in the Boston area is crazy expensive. It all added up, even with a ramen diet. But I made it and I hope to have those loans paid back in under 10 years. It takes some comitment though, especially since my take home pay as a new minister is only about 37K after taxes…I can only imagine the freedom I’ll feel when those loans are finally gone and I can finally say I am debt-free! Til then, I read Michelle Singletary (financial columnist, church-goer, mom, tither) religiously and talk myself out of buying anything.

  18. Before entering seminary and the ministry I sent off for applications for graduate programs in history. I will never forget the prospectus from the University of Chicago History Department that stated something to the effect, “Those applying for graduate education in history should give serious attention to the financial means and obligations that such might incur.” The warning was clear and it was in the introduction to the program. It made me think and gratefully, decline to apply to any history program.

    Seminaries ought to list equivalent warnings. . .

  19. I too find the disconnect between UU wealth (congregationally, individually, on the association level) and support for UU ministers-in and out of school-strange.

    Moreover, I wonder why some UU congregations bother with schooled ministers at all; in recent years I have seen such a strong participation of laity (“worship associates”) that the minister was sometimes a secondary or tertiary figure. I think lay participation can be a great thing; but if that is the norm in UU congregations then it seems fair to me that UU ministers seeking fellowship ought to be able to get an education for less, since much of their work ends up being shared with the congregation.

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