By Kim Marxhausen
A teacher gets up at 4 o’clock every morning to deliver newspapers. Another fixes her family supper and then heads for the local grocery store to put in five hours of work after her school day. A principal sits in his office worrying about the credit-card bills that wait for him at home. A director of Christian education struggles with how he will pay his student loans when his congregation restricts him from taking a second job. And a pastor wonders if he can share with his elders about the mounting debts from medical treatments for his infant daughter, born prematurely.
Although these situations are hypothetical, chances are good that many who read this commentary know of at least one professional church worker in a similar situation.
Our church body is in the middle of an economic pandemic. Nearly half of our professional church workers struggle with debilitating debt -– debt that impinges on the family budget and requires time and energy that could be better spent on personal health, family, and ministry.
In 2004, a Daedalus Research Report commissioned by Thrivent Financial for Lutherans on behalf of the three largest Lutheran church bodies (including our Synod) concluded that nearly 47 percent of our church workers carry a debt load of $50,000 beyond their house mortgage.
The report found that unpaid post-secondary education loans and credit-card debt were the primary causes. A general lack of financial literacy and the disturbing rate at which debt has risen were primary concerns
While church workers have a lower percentage of “debt behaviors” (i.e., relying on cash advances from credit cards, paying only minimum balances, etc.) than found at the national level, they still carry an unusually high level of debt. One reason is that 40 to 60 percent of church workers are burdened with undergraduate/graduate debt. In addition, 45 percent require income beyond what is provided in their call to pay off their debt and to meet family expenses. This suggests two reasons why our church workers have this level of debt: high education costs and low income levels.
Each decision we make as children of God and as a church body has both intended and unintended consequences. Injudicious use of credit cards and reckless spending will create the consequence of debt. However, the debt of our church workers has other causes, too: namely, the unintended consequences of unrelated decisions made by our church body and its members.
Congregation members have gradually changed giving patterns. The unintended consequence of this trend is an incredibly tight budget for our national Synod. As a result, the Synod severely reduced its financial support to its colleges and universities, encouraging them to find alternative funding sources. The unintended consequence of this action was to shift the burden of payment for a synodical education to the church worker. Because of this and a nationwide increase in the cost of running an institution, a four-year undergraduate education (tuition/room/board) now costs more than $100,000. Compare this with the cost of an undergraduate education from the early 1980s of $10,000 — a 1,000 percent increase in 25 years. Students are leaving school with unmanageable debt loads.
The Synod’s For the Sake of the Church initiative is intended to help future church workers with education costs -– a good beginning to what is needed in order to allow students to graduate with more manageable debt.
A change in congregation giving patterns has caused other unintended consequences. Local church and school budgets are tight, too. This creates a situation where schools and churches have to rely on “fourth-source funding” to meet their budgets. A church’s first source of funding is the tithing of its members. The second and third sources of funding are income and fundraising. Fourth-source funding means the budget is balanced by low salaries, freezing salaries, and/or a reduction in support for healthcare costs for church workers.
One can easily see how a pandemic level of church-worker debt becomes an unintended consequence of budget balancing. Balancing the budget is done in the spirit of good stewardship. It is not done to punish the church worker. Unfortunately, when we balance the budget — without increasing income — the church worker is left paying the bill.
It is one thing to expect a worker to live within his means. But it is another thing entirely to ask him to live with a reduction in income when benefits are cut or salaries do not keep pace with inflation. Furthermore, ministry pays the price when overburdened and underpaid workers struggle to carry the load. The members suffer also, as their misplaced confidence in controlling the budget prevents them from trusting God through the act of tithing.
What is the most disturbing unintended consequence of these trends? We will have fewer people to do the full-time work of the church. The education is prohibitively expensive and the chance that the worker will receive a salary that is adequate to repay loans is not very strong. We also will lose church workers we already have.
The Daedalus report noted that 67 percent of the respondents knew a fellow church worker contemplating leaving the ministry due to financial issues. Additionally, our Council of Presidents currently has a policy that removes a church worker from the roster if he declares bankruptcy. We can no longer ignore the situation.
Synod President Gerald B. Kieschnick has charged the LCMS Commission on Ministerial Growth and Support(CMGS) to address this issue. Under the direction of the CMGS, an Economic Vitality Action Team is working on research, gathering resources for financial counseling, and creating alliances with other organizations that have a vested interest. Please keep the efforts of this committee in your prayers.
However, the solution does not lie in the work of a committee. It is only found in the work of God.
This problem will continue if we -– members of God’s Church — continue to rely solely on budgets and continue to ignore our responsibility to educate and provide for our church workers.
In Phil. 4:10-19, Paul thanks the church for the support they gave him in his ministry. He talks of these gifts as being a “fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.” Paul speaks of how the congregation would be blessed because of their giving. He uses the term “credited to your acco