Robyn Carnes moved to Denver from Hospers, Iowa, when her husband, Jay, accepted a position with the Colorado Children's Chorale. Shortly after moving, she applied to Denver Seminary to become better equipped for family and children's ministry.
Because of the sluggish economy, Robyn had a tough time finding a post related to her interests, so she took a job as a waitress. The Carneses agreed to dip into their savings and take out some loans to finance her degree, and Robyn started classes in the spring of last year.
"Once we'd lived here for a few months," Robyn recalls, "we didn't know if we'd be able to continue." After working at the restaurant for several months, she resigned because of the strain it placed on her schedule. But a few weeks later, she accepted an on-campus position as a student ambassador, assisting with recruitment and admissions. This ten-hour a week job quickly developed into twenty hours per week. The extra income helped Robyn and Jay as they adjusted to the higher costs of living in Denver, but the financial strain was still substantial.
Then in the fall, Robyn got some good news. She was one of three women awarded the seminary's Julia Amen Scholarship, which assists female students. This scholarship paid a substantial portion of Robyn's tuition.
Not long after, Robyn was offered a position as an intern at a local church. During her job interview, the director of children's ministry asked, "Would it be helpful if we could, in part, fund your education?" As part of the seminary's church partnership program, this congregation agreed to pay half of Robyn's tuition. Between working, help from a local church, and scholarship aid, Robyn will be able to complete her seminary education with very little debt. This means she will be able to focus on her studies and on her true passion—ministry to children.
Robyn Carnes's story could be told of students at theological seminaries and graduate schools all across the nation—people who took a step of faith in response to God's call, then watched the hurdles they thought might stand in the way of their ministry goals disappear.
Nathan Bettger was confident that God was calling him to attend seminary in preparation for ministry, even though he had no idea how he would be able to pay for a seminary education, especially since he had accumulated significant debt from college. But he stepped out in faith and applied to Bethel Theological Seminary. Then he was nominated for and received a full-tuition scholarship from the Kern Family Foundation. Money is a factor in higher education, but not a deal-breaker for most students pursuing theological degrees.
Jumping the money hurdle
Theological training is different from other forms of graduate education in several ways. One way is money.
Those who pursue graduate degrees in business or psychology or education—almost any field, in fact—typically do so with financial considerations in mind. Many of those pursuing graduate degrees do so with an eye toward increasing their earnings potential. Thus, if they have to borrow money—even several thousand dollars—it's not a big problem since the projected increase in income can fairly quickly cover the investment and more. Sometimes lots more.
Education that prepares men and women for ministry is different. Those who attend seminary give a variety of answers to question of why they have made that choice. Some say it's because they have a passion to serve people. Some say it's because of a call from God. Some say it's to fulfill a particular ministry dream. But one would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would respond, "To increase my earnings potential."
Even though those attending theological schools aren't thinking of getting richer, this doesn't mean they need not think about money. But instead of money being a motivating factor as it is in other fields, it often presents a hurdle, sometimes a major, seemingly insurmountable hurdle. The call from God to ministry might be crystal clear and the response to the call appropriate and sound. But this does not release those pursuing that call from their financial responsibilities.
Covering education costs has become tougher over the last few decades. And the trend away from denomination loyalty has had negative financial impact on some church-related institutions.
In days gone by, many pastors could attend a denomination-subsidized seminary, get a solid education, and graduate debt-free or virtually so. Short of becoming a best-selling author, the pastor wouldn't count on becoming rich, but he could enter a seminary program with some confidence that a comfortable ministry position—and not a major burden of financial debt—would be waiting on the other side.
Times have changed.
In today's world men and women who are contemplating seminary education must—unfortunate though it may be—consider how they will be able to afford it. This is the reality in part because many seminaries and other graduate theological institutions are themselves challenged by financial limitations. By and large, the schools would like to offer a free or inexpensive education to as many people who would like to receive it. And that's exactly what many schools are trying to do. But the capacity to do so—as with any institution—is determined by two basic factors known as "income" and "expenses." In order to remain viable, institutions must ensure that the former factor equals or exceeds the latter.
Enrollment remains strong
The downturn in the U.S. economy has affected seminary education—as it has virtually all individuals and institutions—at more than one level and in more than one way. Not all those effects, however, have been negative, as some might expect them to be. A "down economy" can have a positive effect on student enrollment, for example. That's the case at Asbury Theological Seminary, according to senior vice president Steven G. W. Moore. "We have seen a number of students who have come to seminary as a result of the impact of the current economic downturn. In nearly all these cases, students tell us that they had been making plans to come to seminary and the economic downturn in some way released them to follow a dream and a call that they had been sensing.
"From another perspective," Moore said, "students report seeing the amount of spiritual need and the increasing spiritual hunger resulting from the impact of down economic times, and have reported that it simply became a greater motivation for them to get preparation to respond to the increasing need."
Current economic trends cut in both directions. "We have students enrolling because of job loss and transitions," said Joseph Dworak, director of admissions, recruitment, and financial aid at Bethel Theological Seminary. "On the other hand, we have students who were admitted and decided not to enroll because they lacked the needed finances to afford a seminary education.
"There seems to be a trend of younger students waiting to attend seminary until their college debt is paid off, while older prospective students who have lost a job, or are seeking a change in career, have continued to apply and enroll in seminary," Dworak concluded.
The downside of a downturn
While the slow economy does not appear to be hurting overall enrollment, it has had a negative effect in other ways. Dorothy Totten directs the financial aid office at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary: "Students are having a more difficult time finding part-time jobs. Financial support bases have diminished due to family incomes falling below expectations. And churches and foundations are more cautious about grants." On a positive note, said Totten, "Due to sound investment decisions by school administrators at Southwestern, the amount of available endowed funds has decreased only slightly."
Indeed there is a relationship between an institution's overall financial health and its ability to offer financial assistance to students so that they can graduate with as little debt as possible. "The economic struggle of recent years is felt in the decrease in income from the scholarship endowments," said Peter Paulsen, director of the office of communications at Emory University's Candler School of Theology. "While Candler's School of Theology's scholarship program is still quite healthy, the projected reduction in endowment in-come, coupled with rising tuition costs, will necessitate a significant reduction in the number of scholarships available to prospective students over the next few years."
Denver Seminary financial aid specialist Kristine Pfeifer added, "I definitely see students taking out more loans. Many of our students aren't working because of the slump in the economy." The increased student loans are not a result of Denver scaling back its financial aid to students. In fact, even though endowment interest income decreased last year, Denver Seminary increased its scholarship aid to students.
It is important to Denver (and to all other theological schools) to enable their students to move out into their ministries with as little debt as possible. Otherwise the ultimate goal—to prepare men and women for effective Christian ministry—is threatened. Candler School of Theology does a particularly good job in this regard, Candler's Paulsen noted. "Studies of Candler student educational debt upon graduation show that the average debt of United Methodist M.Div. (master of divinity) graduates is approximately 24 percent less than that of M.Div. graduates overall."
Long-distance learning limits costs
Technological advancements over the last decade have required educational institutions to make major investments in technology in order to remain current. But those changes have made positive impact on both the accessibility and the affordability of theological education.
Those enrolled in Bethel's InMinistry distance education program, for example, receive a 15 percent discount on tuition. This program offers three degree options: the M.Div., the M.A. (master of arts) in Children's and Family Ministry, and the M.A. in Transformational Leadership.
Students don't have to uproot and relocate to seminary, and that's an even greater incentive. "Those who take online courses can continue living at home," Southwestern Baptist Seminary's Totten observed. "They can keep their job and work on their own time schedule. They have no moving or transportation costs, no houses to sell."
Roy Allinson, director of graduate admissions at Biola University (Talbot School of Theology) emphasized the importance of focusing not just on tuition, but on containing costs. Talbot's D.Min. (doctor of ministry) program offers very affordable tuition at just $996 per course. If a student's church pays $500, Talbot will match $250, resulting in tuition of $250 per course and just $1,500 for the entire program. The program does require students to be on campus for ten days in June, but during that time they have access to low-cost room and board.
In sum, it is fairly evident that theological institutions have weathered the storm of a down economy. Students—and the schools they attend—may think more about affordability issues than they did in the past, but it is not money that drew them to seminary in the first place, and, for most, concerns about money will not stop them from preparing for ministry.
It didn't stop Kevin Henson from relocating to Asbury Seminary, even though he could have stayed at home and gone to school part-time at another local seminary. Kevin and his wife, Kerry, started full-time positions with Asbury. But after Kerry became pregnant, the Hensons made the choice for her to stay home with the baby and for Kevin to work part time while going to seminary full time.
They weren't always sure how they would manage. But the Hensons' home church pitched in with $100 per credit hour. A family in the church committed to pay $4,000 of the tuition bill each semester. As a result, Kevin will graduate from seminary with no federal loans to repay, a modest amount of debt, and, most importantly, an M.Div. degree signifying readiness for pastoral ministry.
Randy Frame, a freelance writer and editor, also serves as Executive Director of Marketing and Communications at Palmer Seminary.