Ministerial Debt is a Systemic Problem

I was fortunate enough to go through seminary without incurring student loan debts. I went later in life, and my spouse has a good job.

Many of our newer ministers accumulate significent student loans while preparing for the ministry.

This is a not personal problem for them; it is a systemic problem in the way that ministers are formed in our present system.

  • Seminary education is expensive and getting more so all the time. We don't provide a lot of scholarships.
  • UU's require an internship as part of the preparation, and yet churches pay very little to interns. Often seminaries require internships as well, and charge tuition for the intern supervision.
  • UU's require Clinical Pastoral Education which pays nothing and costs money.
The inevitable result is that the candidate not only has to pay for the expensive seminary education, they also must take considerable time out of their working life to fulfill requirements of the practical side of their education. Without independent wealth, or a well-employed partner, debt is the best option.

Not only are large student loan debts the predictable consequence of the formation process, those debts have systemic effects.

New ministers spend the first parts of their careers trying to get out of debt, so they can start saving for retirement. As the age of incoming ministers get older, there is less time for retirement accumulation, assuming that it slowed or stopped during the formation period. Ministers who are debt-ridden have to shape their ministries around their paychecks. It means that more ministers become parish ministers in established churches. Church planting, startups, mission and evangelical ministries are out of the question. Community ministers gravitate toward the better funded institutions and agencies. Again, the bold, untried, experimental ministries and projects which are not well-funded are out of the question.

If you wonder why Unitarian Universalism is more "out there" -- creating ministries in poor and marginalized communities, among the young adults, away from the major metropolitan centers and university towns, in communities at risk, and with less safe and more controversial messages, part of the reason is the our system of formation burdens our newest and most fired up ministers with big student loans, and then pretends that they are the result of their own personal failures in financial planning.


  1. jinnis5:20 PM

    Much truth. While personal responsibility is very significant, your observations resonate with my experience. And I have heard the anxiety in the search committees whose options are very limited because they can't afford a full time minister, but would be well-served with a part-time professional. If I had less debt, I would have more freedom to go where I am needed most, not just where I can keep up with my bills.

    Curious to note the lack of responses.

  2. Hello,

    I recently published an article on the dangers and benefits of student loans and other forms of college financial aid – here is a quote from it, in case you are interested:
    Student loans repayment can be a real nightmare without adopting some strategies that would help the new graduates to organize their social and financial life. Here are some strategies they can use to do this:
    - An additional part-time job;
    - Freelancing is another option (meaning that they can do particular pieces of work for different organisations, without working all the time for a single organisation);
    - They should try to keep their living expenses as low as possible (live in a smaller apartment, live with a roommate to share some of the expenses, find an apartment that is closer to the job, to eliminate the extra-expenses for transport etc.);
    - To apply for forbearance (this is an immediate solution for hard times when the new graduate is in impossibility to re-pay the amount of money and the need for student loan consolidation becomes apparent; it is a temporary period, when the graduate can postpone or delay his or her re-payments until a later time on a federal or direct loan after the beginning of the re-payment, and when the student doesn’t qualify for deferral). The forbearance must be applied through the lenders of the loans.
    - To consolidate the payments.
    If you feel this helps, please drop by my website for additional information, such as federal student loans information or additional resources on private student loans .




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