For aspiring ministers, heeding God’s call has become expensive.

The total cost of pursuing a three-year Master of Divinity degree — a prerequisite for serving as a pastor in most mainline denominations — can approach six figures. The average debt incurred by Lancaster Theological Seminary’s 2016 graduates using student loans to finance their seminary education was $56,830. That, said DeMarco, is similar to other seminaries.

Concerned that seminary graduates are carrying an unsustainable debt load, the Lilly Family Endowment and the Association of Theological Schools in 2012 offered grants of $250,000 to 16 seminaries, including Lancaster Seminary, to address the student loan crisis.

“Theological schools play a critical role in preparing pastors and are uniquely positioned to address some of the economic challenges they face,” Christopher Coble, vice president for religion at the Lilly Endowment, said in announcing the initial grant.

The grant came with few strings, said Cheryl DeMarco, who manages the grant for the local seminary.

“What (Lilly) told us,” she said, “was, ‘We want you to do things and see what works.’ ” She considers that one of the most beneficial aspects of the grant: the ability to tweak programs to make them work.

After consulting with other seminaries, Lancaster added courses in financial literacy and assigned financial mentors to help students understand and maintain personal as well as church budgets.

Restructured courses

Under the project, titled Managing Student Loan Debt for Vitality in Ministry and Life, the seminary also restructured courses to assist the many students who work full or part time.

And as part of the seminary’s outreach, staff members have met with local church leaders to educate them about the financial challenges new pastors face.

“All of that happened because of this grant,” DeMarco said.

Since the program began, she said, “we haven’t had anyone drop out for financial reasons. The ultimate goal is to have them take less student-loan money and to send them out of seminary with the financial wherewithal to handle their own personal financial situation as well as their church’s.”

Although Lancaster offers several plans at varying prices, including a weekend plan, the maximum annual cost of attendance, which includes $17,125 in tuition, fees, room/board, transportation and incidental expenses — is $38,655.

That is a huge obstacle for students, who who can expect to earn $35,000 to $50,000 annually as new pastors — depending upon their position and the size and location of the church — if they can find full-time work.

Coupled with a shrinking number of full-time pastoral positions, DeMarco said, “this debt burden makes a life in ministry difficult if not impossible.”

Outmoded model

There was a time when seminarians had the financial backing of denominations and local congregations. But that model has largely disappeared. Students are often responsible for footing the bills themselves.

The Rev. Randy Riggs, who serves as the seminary’s community engagement liaison, said older pastors often are not aware of the financial demands that new pastors face.

And the cost to attend seminary is not the only factor.

“Something that often is not calculated when adults go back to school is income that’s lost along with the debt we acquire,” said Andrea Vassell, a third-year student from New York City.

Sherry Merrill, a Realtor with Lusk & Associates and Sotheby’s International Realty, Lancaster, has served as Vassell’s mentor.

“We talk about finances and how to budget expenses,” Merrill said. Giving students an idea of where the money is coming from versus where it’s going is empowering, she said.

Riggs said seminaries do a great job of teaching students how to deal with the spiritual needs of their parishioners. But when it comes to discussing the financial needs of the church, pastors often find it hard to ask people to give more money.

“It’s called ‘Making the Ask,’ ” Riggs said. “Even for a seasoned (pastor), it’s still the hardest thing to do.”

It’s doubly difficult for new pastors who find themselves overburdened with debt. “It’s very hard to preach stewardship if you are not doing stewardship yourself,” he explained.

Matching scholarships

This year, Lancaster Theological Seminary received an additional $118,000 Lilly sustainability grant over three years. It will be used for course development and to upgrade new technology for online education.

Beginning this month, the seminary also is initiating a matching scholarship program of up to $2,500 for students who raise money to support their education. The funds go toward their 2017-18 tuition.

The scholarship match has excited students, DeMarco said. The 19 students who are part of the program can raise funds in any number of ways. Some may use social media: a Go Fund Me account, for example.

Students also are encouraged to go to their home churches and ask members of the congregation to help support their education. That, DeMarco said, amounts to on-the-job training “because fundraising is such an important part of what any pastor will do.”

Riggs said it is important for pastors to be honest with parishioners about the cost of running a church.

Vassell said discussions of finances have helped her better understand how to budget and to “make the ask.”

“It speaks to authenticity in church leadership,” she said. “It is almost impossible for one to be authentic ... if our own finances are not in shape or intact.”

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