My friend and colleague Dr. Don Sweeting, President of Reformed Theological Seminary Orlando has written an important and timely article called The Pastoral Debt Crisis. It is a topic that should concern all church members. The load of educational debt is having an impact of seminarians, seminaries and future ministries (and thus the churches).
1. Students are bringing historically high undergraduate debt (north of $30,000) to seminary with them, and then are going further into debt while in seminary. Many seminaries worsen this problem by encouraging students to take out further loans in order to pay their educational costs in seminary.
2. Seminaries (because many of them are already struggling financially) are reducing the required course load of the MDiv degree (and other degrees) in order to reduce the overall cost of seminary. The unfortunate side effect of this is seminarians are getting sometimes 15-35% less of the education, course work, knowledge and preparation they would have received in a solid MDiv program, even just a few years ago.
To give you an example, the Reformed Theological Seminary MDiv has 106 credit hours. Many seminaries now require only 70, 80 or 90 hours for an MDiv — a significant loss.
3. Future ministries are being hampered. Some are unable to go to smaller churches, or into campus ministry, or to the mission field, because they are carrying too much student loan debt. Some leave the ministry after only a few years because of the financial burdens. On the other hand, students who are studying at institutions that have lowered credit hours and requirements are graduating missing things they need to know for ministry. I regularly hear about graduates from institutions who have trimmed credit hours not being able to pass ordination exams, and lacking biblical and theological knowledge necessary for shepherding the flock.
At RTS, we have responded to this conundrum, not by lowering standards, not by cutting course requirements, but by giving the most generous scholarship assistance of any seminary in the Reformed and evangelical world. Almost 90% of RTS students graduate with no seminary-related debt (and we don’t participate in Federal Title IV student loans, on which so many other seminaries base their budgeting).
I regularly tell prospective students, “I can’t save you the hours and the effort you will need to put in for an RTS MDiv or MA (because we require more than other schools), but I can save you the money.” At RTS, our students get more for less. We hold down costs and we distribute scholarships generously. Furthermore, despite having more credit hour requirements than other seminaries, we are committed to getting students through their programs expeditiously and onto the field of ministry. We have even structured our scholarship plan in order to incentivize timely completion of seminary study. All of this is aimed at the well-being of the student, future pastors and church leaders, and the local church.
We are committed to serving the churches by getting pastors and church leaders prepared, unencumbered by burdensome seminary debt, as quickly as possible, fully equipped to fulfill the work of Gospel ministry. Almost 90% of our students receive scholarship assistance and our tuition rate is competitive, or lower, than that of our peer institutions.
Today’s pastors need to know more, not less. But more than ever, they need to get that more (education and preparation) for less (cost).