I learned the other day that a candidate for the ordained ministry in another annual conference was deferred ordination not because he didn't measure up to doctrinal or psychological issues or didn't have the gifts for preaching or teaching; he had too much educational debt (for those of you not United Methodist, ordination candidates are asked, "Are you presently in debt as to embarrass you in your ministry?").
After doing some checking, I discovered that the average student gets out of undergraduate school at a public university with about $21k of debt, a 108% increase from 10 years ago (God only knows what the average debt is from a private school). In looking around at United Methodist related seminaries (the encouraged education of UM clergy), the average seminary debt (3 years of graduate school) is presently running around $30k. That's really not that bad, considering a year's tuition and at Duke Divinity runs $21,640, a year at Emory runs $15,500, a year at Asbury $14,400, and a year at Garrett-Evangelical $15,600 (I didn't include yearly living expenses, which estimates run $11k to $18k a year).
So let's say an ordination candidate gets the minimum education required and comes out of undergraduate and graduate school with "average" educational debt. That will be $51k. The problem is that the minimum salary for seminary graduates ranges from $25k (Rio Grand) to $47k (Western New York). In other words, the debt load (at least from a financial institution's viewpoint) is unacceptable given the income of the individual.
My education has served me well: I have diplomas from the University of Tennessee and Emory University hanging on the wall of my office. My educational debt? $0. I got 1/2 of my undergraduate tuition covered since my father was UT faculty, and I was able to work to pay the other half. I received a fellowship for seminary that paid my tuition and served as a student pastor for a place to live and living expenses. My situation was not - and is not - the norm, I fear.
Are we pricing ourselves out of ministry? One blogger suggests so ("Can We Afford Seminary?"). And more to the point, does the M.Div really serve the Church well? Has it contributed to the life of the Church or exacerbated clericalism? Do we see the role of clergy as "keepers of the faith" or do we see clergy leadership and preaching as part of what the Church does as a whole body?
I am convinced that God doesn't need our M.Div degrees, but I am equally convinced that God does not need our ignorance either. However, we might be better served going back of the very traditional model of local seminaries and apprenticeships as opposed to a professional degree. For one, it's much, much cheaper. For another, the last 50-70 years when M.Div's have become the norm have not seen a marked increase in the number of Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, etc. - in fact, we have gotten smaller.
Perhaps we would be served much better by a work-study type of program, night classes, online study, and the like. Some say this is dumbing down - but the reality is, especially in the United Methodist Church where the "average" church is less than 150 folks, that we probably need fewer M.Div graduates and more folks who are spiritually formed and called. It certainly worked for 1900 years.
The other alternatives are not viable ones: higher clergy salaries are not realistic. Raising church apportionments to cover the total costs of seminary graduates is unrealistic as well. And as a seminary education necessarily takes place in a private university, private education is not cheap. I am just wondering how long this present model will work: we can't require folks to get an education to be qualified and then tell them they are carrying too much educational debt so we won't ordain them.
I think are kidding ourselves if we think this problem will simply go away. If I were 44 years old with a family and felt the call to preach, I don't think I could do it in the United Methodist Church: I couldn't afford it unless a rich uncle paid my way... and I am fairly sure I don't have any rich uncles.
Perhaps a model the General Board of Ministry should consider is a localized seminary option (it worked in the Early Church for a long long time). Maybe we've bought into American consumerism too much and just tried to "buy" what we need instead of doing the hard work ourselves.