I remember a recent Facebook post by a new ELCA pastor. The post was titled something like “Called by God — to have a ton of debt.”
This bold post featured a discussion of the rising cost of seminary education leading to a huge graduate debt load often in the tens of thousands of dollars and the reality that many congregations do not have the means to pay a salary that allows their pastor to pay back that debt while also being able to pay for the necessities of life.
This is a huge burden and one that will lead to a shortage of pastors if we don’t remedy it. Educational debt is not something that plagues pastors or the church only, while skipping over the rest of society. Rather, it seems all degree programs lead to a fair amount of debt — from lawyers to doctors, teachers to accountants — everybody has it.
Yet, perhaps the church should be different.
Support from congregations
I’ll never forget the conversation I had with Pastor Jamie the summer of 1999. I found myself working at Klein Ranch, one of the ELCA’s outdoor ministries and was pretty sure seminary was in my future. Pastor Jamie told me straight out that I needed to go speak with my home congregation and let them know of my plans and while I was at it to ask them to support me financially.
He said, “All congregations need to find ways to help support the cost of seminary, especially if one of their own is going to go.” He then added, “If Pastor Bruce has an issue with that, you tell him to call me!”
I did talk to Pastor Bruce and the wonderful people of Trinity Lutheran Church in Madison, S.D., about the calling to seminary that I was feeling. They were an amazing support for me and answered the call to support me financially in my journey of acquiring my degree.
The amount of money was truly a blessing but the most important aspect was the fact that I knew they believed in me and were promising to support me in prayer as well as by sending a check each year. I still graduated with quite a bit of debt, but without their support it would have been a much harder road and one I may not have taken.
It starts locally
So what do we do? Personally, I think it starts locally. Every congregation that is blessed to raise up someone who feels called to go to seminary owes it to them to walk with them and share some of the burden of finances.
We hear again and again in the ELCA that we are the church together — this seems like a great way to be that church. Synods can join in the game as well. I am blessed to be part of a synod that gives in excess of $10,000 dollars a year in scholarships to seminarians in addition to one every four years for full tuition. Of course, this is only possible through the generous gifts of individuals and congregations.
I love the ELCA; I have never been more proud to be part of it. We are doing amazing things as a denomination and the future is bright. I wonder though, are we, as Mark Hanson, our presiding bishop, challenged us to be, open to the moving of the Holy Spirit to lead us to where we need to go?
If we are, I think we all — individuals, congregations, synods and the churchwide organization need to continue to be serious about supporting our seminary students. If we don’t, many of them will simply go away and even more will never come.
Justin Grimm is the pastor of Advent Lutheran Church, Lake Ann, Mich. He received his theological degree from Lutheran Seminary in 2005.