Seminary debt is church’s burden

Apr 11, 2016 by

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When people ask why I, a lifelong Mennonite, chose not to get my graduate degree at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, I usually offer the easy answer: As a lifelong Pacific Northwesterner, four years at Goshen College was all the Midwest I could handle. The joke’s on me for pastoring today in suburban Chicago.

Hillary Watson


The second answer, which I rarely offer, is no joke: I didn’t think I could afford it. I admired the AMBS faculty. I always had positive experiences on campus. At that time, I wasn’t aware of the Next Generation Scholarship and was sure the school would be unaffordable. Instead, I attended the well-endowed Candler School of Theology on a full tuition scholarship and stipend.

As a young pastor with no seminary debt, I’m an anomaly in theological education. According to a 2011 Auburn Seminary study, more than two-thirds of seminarians took out loans, with an average debt of about $40,000. In 1991, the average debt was $11,000, and fewer than half of students had loans.

Education is expensive. The more distressing reality is that the average pastoral position — if you’re fortunate enough to work full-time — pays about $44,000. The average new pastor with the average new loans is not taking a vow of poverty but a vow of indebtedness.

In other social service fields, one solution is to work at a nonprofit for 10 years in exchange for government loan forgiveness. Even some employees at Mennonite Mission Network qualify for this program. Seminarians working in churches can’t qualify because they are doing explicitly religious work. Who will ease their debt?

The solution requires congregational, denominational, personal and secular systemic changes. One idea is to add “student loans” as a category in the Mennonite Church USA Salary Guidelines. The concept is simple: When a congregation formulates a sustainable salary for their pastor, they include the debt that pastor incurred in order to follow the call.

Churches are often tempted to underpay: Our institution is pursuing the greater good, we don’t have money to spare to pay our staff a living wage. Workers aren’t being exploited; they’re making utilitarian sacrifices. But how can we stock our cabinets with fair trade coffee and shop at Ten Thousand Villages if we expect pastors to make an unfair exchange of their labor? If we can’t do justice to those closest to us, how can we be instruments of justice around the world?

That’s the function of the Salary Guidelines. Like many parts of church, they need updating for each generation. More congregations want seminary-educated pastors. Like purchasing a hybrid car, the congregation should expect to pay more. Ethical capitalism is expensive. Not accounting for debt in salary structure is a way for congregations to avoid paying the “real cost” of a pastor. It’s like purchasing staff with a credit card — the debt will stack up and eventually make it very difficult (if not impossible) for the pastor to continue working.

Including a debt category on the Salary Guidelines not only makes the church a more just institution, it is a pastoral care for the pastor. It affirms the pastor’s value, slows burnout and increases job tenure.

Part of the church’s mission is to witness to an alternative economy. Let’s begin with our pastors.

Hillary Watson pastors at Lombard Mennonite Church in suburban Chicago. She blogs at

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