Seminary graduates are leaving school with more debt than ever before. Mer Chau/Flickr

Managing ministry on a budget

Student debt plays a big role in the lives of brand new pastors

Few enter ministry to get rich. But with more and more students willing to take on massive loans to pay for schooling, debt is becoming a real issue for first-time pastors.

According to Service Canada, the average annual income for ministers of religion was $34,315. Fresh out of seminary and likely starting at smaller churches or lower level positions, even that figure might be more than what some first-time pastors receive.

Compare that to the amount of debt they may have incurred while studying.

While Canadian statistics aren’t readily available, U.S. researchers have noticed a trend in the growing debt load of seminary students. The Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary saw a disturbing jump from only one per cent of seminary grads borrowing more than $30,000 in 1991, to one in five graduates borrowing more than $30,000 in 2001.

It’s a heavy debt load for men and women doing their best to serve their congregations.

Colton Willms, a junior youth pastor in Calgary, Alberta, came out of school $15,000 to $20,000 in debt, although the total had been bought down by working through the summers. Newly married, both Willms and his wife brought student loans to the marriage.

For the Willmses, debt has made it difficult to save for a down payment on a house.

“Looking for places to rent is the most difficult part,” he says, between the high cost of living and the starting wage for new youth pastors.

“Can the church take a larger role in equipping their leaders so our pastors don’t have an arm tied behind their back?”
“Can the church take a larger role in equipping their leaders so our pastors don’t have an arm tied behind their back?” Bart Everson/Flickr

He says their situation has also had a negative impact on their ability to minister. Debt has forced the couple to live on the north end of the city, far from their congregation in the south, where rent is higher. Not only does it create a longer commute, but it also means hosting members of the congregation in their home isn’t feasible because of the distance.

Mike Strathdee, a Stewardship Consultant at Mennonite Foundation of Canada (MFC), says new pastors emerging from school with a “pretty big mountain of debt,” need financial training, the earlier the better.

Justine Stratton, a children’s pastor in Ontario, says she and her husband are better positioned than most because budgeting was taught in her family at an early age.

“In ministry, you’re not necessarily going to be financially well off,” she says. “You need to learn to live within your means. It’s something that should be discussed in school.”

However, she admits it’s not easy to pay off debts on a ministry salary, although she says getting married last year has helped.

“How could you be single and pay off loans and buy a house?” she asks. “It’s impossible.”

However, while getting married and combining incomes (and debt) is helpful, for young pastors starting a family debt can add an extra strain when one parent is no longer working. Orin Saunders, a youth pastor in B.C, just became a father.

“It has been quite a few transitions,” Saunders says.

Combined with his wife’s student loans, together they feel the weight of debt and it’s large monopoly on their paycheques.

“It’s discouraging,” Saunders says. Now that they’ve started a family, buying a house has gone to the back burner, despite careful budgeting.

Along with integrating more financial literacy into schooling and at home, Strathdee says an obstacle facing pastors is the church’s willingness to talk about the issue of debt and wages.

“It’s the last taboo, talking about money in church,” Strathdee says.

Jesus talks about money in many parables, Strathdee points out, as well as the spiritual implications of money more than any other topic.

While it can be tempting after graduating to wait for a job in your field, Stratton says sometimes while you’re waiting it’s okay to pick up work to pay the bills.
While it can be tempting after graduating to wait for a job in your field, Stratton says sometimes while you’re waiting it’s okay to pick up work to pay the bills. Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr

“Are church sermons doing the same ratio [of teaching about money]?” Strathdee asks. “We are stewards, we are accountable to what has been entrusted to us. God owns it, we manage.”

However, he says, MFC consultants are seeing more churches that are willing to talk about debt, as well as incorporate money holistically into their approach to running church.

“Can the church take a larger role in equipping their leaders so our pastors don’t have an arm tied behind their back?” he asks.

Some denominations also offer scholarship programs and bursaries, which can go a long way in preventing financial strain down the road.

But for now, those living and working in ministry under the burden of debt are learning to make do.

Stratton’s husband has found work as a custodian at the same church where she works while he waits for a full-time ministry position.

While it can be tempting after graduating to wait for a job in your field, Stratton says sometimes while you’re waiting it’s okay to pick up work to pay the bills.

“You may be called to ministry, but while you’re waiting get a job wherever you can,” she says. “God can have you minister at Tim Hortons too.”

Her husband is in good company, Stratton adds—Paul made tents, Jesus was a carpenter and while His disciples were fishers of men, on occasion they also fished for, well, fish.

“It’s not what he dreamed,” she says of her husband, “but God is good, He will work it out, if we’re willing.”

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