Pressure Points (May)

with Dr. Bruce Hartung

Q: What are the church and seminary doing to reduce tuition costs and prevent students from going into significant debt?  My stepson attends Concordia Seminary and is supported by his district and our congregation, and even with the $11,400 grant from the seminary, he is short thousands of dollars each quarter.  I understand some of this is from fixed expenses, such as housing and textbooks, but the amount of debt seems really high.  To expect our future pastors to carry such a debt seems to be a problem for them and for the congregation.

A: I come to this issue wearing at least three hats: my own personal views about seminary funding and student debt, my vocation as a faculty member at Concordia Seminary, and my authorship of this column.  And, some of the data reportHartung, Bruceed below comes from the seminary’s Advancement Division.  Still, I’m hoping my response also will reflect the experience of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, as well, but I am confident that I will be corrected if it does not.

1. Your concern is real.  It is one thing to have significant debt and move into a position that pays an annual salary of $100,000-plus (as St. Louis law firms do to attract the best students).  It is another thing to move into a position that pays $30,000 to $50,000 per year, including housing — the typical LCMS salary for new seminary graduates.  If our graduates leave our seminaries with significant debt, they will be working to repay this debt for a long, long time.

2. Your concern does not apply only to seminary graduates.  Educational debt also is a concern for DCE, deaconess, and teacher graduates as well, perhaps on a somewhat lesser scale.

3. Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, receives only 24 percent of its income from tuition and another 3 percent from academic fees.  A full 53 percent of the seminary’s funding comes from gifts and bequests.  The Synod — as in LCMS Inc. — contributes a meager amount.  This represents a very different situation than when I was a student and the national church body supported our seminaries in substantial ways.

4. Increasingly, students are the ones carrying the financial burden of their university and seminary educations.  How do they do it?  By working (often many hours) during their academic career, by having their spouses work, and by going into debt with educational loans and credit cards.

How can we solve this dilemma?  Here are a few ideas that might help:

1. What if every LCMS congregation put a line item in their budget of $5 per communicant member?  That would raise $12 million that could be divided proportionately between the seminaries to help pay tuition for students studying for the ordained and deaconess ministries.  The money could go to the Synod’s Joint Seminary Appeal, or congregations could proportionately divide and forward their offerings to the seminaries themselves.

2. Every congregation that receives a new pastor could pay off at least 10 percent of that pastor’s educational debt, in thanksgiving for receiving him.

3. Most parishes are doing a wonderful job supporting their own members who attend the seminary.  But what about congregations that don’t have a member studying for the pastoral ministry?  Why couldn’t they adopt a seminary student and develop a personal relationship with him — inviting him to visit, preach, and tell his story?

4. Individuals who are committed to seminary education could include in their trusts or wills a grant for student aid (or for building upkeep or whatever is really attractive to them in the life of the seminary).

5. Seminary alumni could take individual students under their respective financial wings as a personal commitment to the continuation of excellent ministries in the LCMS.

6. Districts could sponsor annual thank-offerings for their new pastors that could be used to help them reduce their educational debts.

7. And, a word to congregations that are receiving new graduates from our seminaries: please take the time to review their compensation packages to ensure that they are seriously viable ones.

Readers, feel free to weigh in on this crucial topic.

Dr. Bruce M. Hartung, Ph.D., is dean of Ministerial Formation at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and can be reached at hartungb@csl.edu

Posted May 1, 2008   

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