Second of two parts
Seminarians' debt is weighing heavily on the nation's religious bodies.
In Catholic circles, it is preventing some men and women from taking up religious vocations. Among Protestant denominations, it is saddling beginning ministers with tremendous financial stress.
How can religious organizations respond? There are several answers.
>> Religious-training institutions can explore new options for delivering their instruction and handling their costs and financial aid.
Creativity in delivering instructional services is imperative, says Rita Lester, a professor of religion at Nebraska Wesleyan University. The problem can't be tackled if schools hold rigidly to status quo, tuition-driven instructional policies. Schools also need to put greater focus on placement services for seminarians, she says.
At Creighton University, officials are well aware of the student debt problem, and Creighton's master's program in divinity studies has been made more flexible to try to hold down the expenses for its students, says Eileen C. Burke-Sullivan, who holds an endowed professorship in religion and directs the program.
At least two Catholic colleges — Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., and Magdalen College in Warner, N.H. — have programs in place to provide debt relief for those pursuing religious vocations.
Louisville Seminary, a Kentucky-based school affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), has adopted a plan to provide full scholarships to its master's degree candidates by the fall of 2015. To make the policy financially doable, it has reduced its enrollment by 13 percent, to 130 students.
Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., has begun a pilot program to repay graduates' student loans over a specified period if they agree to work in underserved communities.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America provides grants to participating ELCA seminaries that the schools must then match.
>> Religious bodies can give the issue greater prominence, helping congregants to understand the scale of the problem.
Creighton's Burke-Sullivan says the Catholic community generally has been better positioned than many Protestant bodies to provide support. Catholic worshipers have an annual call for contributions for seminarians, although there is less aid for ordained deacons and none for professional lay ministers, she says.
>> Men and women in religious vocations need to be attentive to their personal emotional health, and congregations need to be more understanding of those needs.
Wesleyan's Lester, as well as Creighton's Burke-Sullivan, stressed that congregations would benefit greatly from paying more attention to the emotional needs of priests and pastors.
A large percentage of Protestant seminarians are older and have families, Lester notes. Financial pressures often weigh heavily on those students and continue into their ministry.
The Rev. Richard Foss, a former bishop for the ELCA's Eastern North Dakota Synod and now with Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., says the financial strain can be tremendous, especially for rural ministers: “It feels like the pastor is trapped. ... Even if you want to serve in a small congregation, you don't feel like you can. In the end, the ministry is hurt.”
Foss had worked with the Lilly Endowment to create an innovative fund in Indiana. It disperses funds to pastors in 16 Protestant denominational bodies in that state. The funds provide student debt relief, health coverage and personal financial counseling.
>> Church bodies, individuals and philanthropic organizations can pursue endowments and other tools to provide financial help and instruction on personal financial management.
In the Catholic community, Corey and Katherine Huber of Alexandria, Va., have established charitable funds that have covered the minimum monthly payments of a sister's or brother's student loans. More than 55 grants have been issued since 2004.
A Catholic charitable fund established by Minnesota businessman Cy Laurent works with the aspirants to help them develop lists of family, friends and others from whom they can solicit tax-deductible contributions to a central pool. The funds then help candidates reduce their debt before entry into religious life. More than 80 candidates have been helped.
In North Dakota, whenever an ELCA minister makes a payment on his student loans, an ELCA endowment provides a dollar-for-dollar match to speed up the retirement of the debt.
In a 2007 article in the National Catholic Register, Michael Browne — managing partner of Labadie Communications, a database marketing group based in Lincoln, Neb. — expressed optimism about getting the word out to benefactors.
“Over the next 45 years,” he said, “older generations will leave $41 trillion to their heirs, government and charities. If donors knew that potential vocations were being turned away because of money, they would react. There's never been a better time to face a problem such as this.”
That's sound advice, for all religious affiliations.