Study: 23 percent of church workers `uncomfortable` with debt

By Roland Lovstad

While three out of four LCMS-rostered workers are comfortable with their current levels of debt, about one-third of them say debt has negatively affected their personal lives or ministries sometime during their careers.
Rising health insurance costs was the most frequently mentioned financial concern in a study conducted last May and June by Behavior Research Center Inc. and funded by the Lutheran Church Extension Fund.  Concerns about health insurance were cited by 83 percent of those surveyed, followed by retirement planning (71 percent) and paying for their children’s education (56 percent).
The survey found 31 percent of the church professionals saying they are “very comfortable” and 46 percent “comfortable” with their level of debt. Twenty percent of workers are “uncomfortable” and 3 percent of them are “very uncomfortable” with their debt levels.
The information was gathered through telephone interviews with 1,000 church-worker households. The research firm considers its findings to be a representative sample of the 15,496 church-worker households in the Synod.
One in three church workers says debt-related stress negatively affected personal life or ministry at some point during his or her career.  Two-thirds of that group says the issue is resolved.  The study also found that 16 percent of church workers have considered leaving their ministries because of financial issues.

Indebtedness is a personal issue, yet it also is a personnel issue for the church, according to LCEF President Merle Freitag.  He said LCEF commissioned the study because of concerns about worker debt and to validate a 2004 study of workers in three Lutheran church bodies. That research found 20 percent experiencing personal financial stress.

Another reason for the new study was to explore an earlier finding that pastors with debt were reluctant to speak about stewardship, Freitag said.  This year’s research found 17 percent of the LCMS pastors (plus 31 percent of teachers and 21 percent of other commissioned ministers) saying personal debt negatively impacts their desire and ability to support healthy stewardship principles in the congregation they serve.

Behavior Research Center identified a “risk group” that includes 11 percent of pastors, 18 percent of teachers, and 19 percent of other commissioned ministers.  They are workers uncomfortable with their current debt level, concerned about providing basic family needs and, for some, aware that debt is negatively affecting their ministries or family lives.  Combined, the “risk” figures represent 15 percent — about 2,264 — of the 15,496 LCMS churchworker households.

Those who fall into the “risk group” are more likely to be younger, new to the roster, female, serving in smaller congregations, and earning a lower income.  They also are more likely to be commissioned ministers.
Behavior Research Center asked about both educational debt and household debt other than mortgages.  The study found 48 percent of LCMS professionals borrowed money for their educations and 11 percent of them currently have outstanding educational debt.  The median educational debt is $15,600.  (Median is where half owe more and half owe less.)  Among those with outstanding educational debt, 45 percent have served less than 10 years.                      

As to consumer debt, the research reported 68 percent of all church workers owe less than $10,000 — excluding home mortgages and educational loans.  It found 17 percent owe between $10,000 and $24,999 in consumer debt; 11 percent owe $25,000 to $49,999; and 4 percent owe $50,000 or more.

The study did not ask for mortgage balances, but it did report 83 percent of all workers own their homes.

Among other findings of the study:

  • 88 percent of all workers say they are able to pay all their current bills 12 months out of the year.

  • 4 percent of workers have credit cards that are “maxed out” and 33 percent have continuing balances on an average of 1.8 credit cards.

  • 65 percent of rostered workers say they never considered the financial ramifications when they considered church work as their calling.

  • 52 percent of households receive financial support beyond church work through family support, trusts or inheritances, income earned by spouses, or other sources.

  • 70 percent of church workers are not aware that the Synod has programs and services to assist workers who are experiencing debt problems.

Posted Nov. 15, 2006

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