Challenges Facing Bishops in light of Clergy Debt

[1] An ELCA bishop recently asked a key synod leadership group: “How can we cultivate a culture of hopeful leaders?” What a great question! I asked him how the conversation went, and he said, “They had a hard time with it. We need to take it up again.”

Challenges Facing Bishops in light of Clergy Debt by Rick Foss

[2] Hope. Here is a bishop who serves in a synod not unlike many today. There are plenty of thriving ministries and healthy pastoral leaders. There is also a significant number of congregations who have been experiencing financial difficulties, including some who have been diminished by internal conflicts. Some congregations have left the denomination (with varying degrees of grace), some are no longer able to sustain a full-time pastor and have cut the pastor’s salary/call to less than full time, and some have found that their momentum for mission has been interrupted by financial or relational stresses.

[3] This bishop is mission-oriented and wise. He is lifting up mission and ministries that are thriving. He is preaching regularly from Scriptural texts that reflect God’s hand in “doing a new thing.” But he is not blind to the deep distress that has taken root in many pastors and other leaders within the synod, and he is asking about “cultivating a culture of hopeful leaders.”

[4] Donald Capps wrote an insightful little book entitled Agents of Hope: A Pastoral Psychology (Fortress Press, 1995). He writes: “In my view, what pastors have uniquely to give others is hope. Where other professionals may offer hope as a byproduct of what they do, the offer of hope is central to what pastors do. Oftentimes, it is all that they can offer. To be a pastor is to be a provider or agent of hope.”

[5] Of course, he is using “hope” in the deepest Biblical sense: a hope that emanates from the promises of a gracious God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

[6] Capps writes well about many facets of this hope. But in light of our topic (problems bishops face with the large number of pastors who are in significant financial debt), I want to call attention to what he calls the “three major threats to hope.” He names three major threats : 1) Despair: the closing of a personal future; 2) Apathy: state of desirelessness; and 3) Shame: the humiliation of dashed hopes.

[7] Of the three, I believe deeply indebted pastors are likely to be impacted by two. I don’t think there are many pastors beset by apathy. But when a pastor’s personal/family financial situation becomes overwhelming, I have seen a fair amount of despair. With debts mounting and basic needs of self and family going unmet, a sense of powerlessness, frustration and despair can set in. Secondly, for a pastor whose financial situation is out of control, a deep sense of shame is seldom far away. Most pastors entered the ministry with dreams of faithfully serving God and making a difference in people’s lives. Money, salary, or other financial issues were seldom considered, since they weren’t the motivation to enter this vocation. But when a pastor’s personal finances become unmanageable, there is often a sense of shame that accompanies the thought, “I’m called to speak for God and care for God’s people, and I can’t even manage myself or my own family in the basics of daily living?”

[8] Despair and shame, especially in a public leader, are devastating to all. Pastoral gifts and skills for ministry are largely sabotaged by the secret distractions of shame and the debilitating depression of despair. Over time, this will permeate the congregation and community with a similar angst. Eventually it will end up at the doorstep of the bishop, who is called to tend to the well-being of both pastor and congregation. Often it comes to the attention of the bishop too late to salvage the situation, and this painful “too-late” reality is likely one of the motivations for the aforementioned bishop to ask, “How can we cultivate a culture of hopeful leaders?”

[9] I no longer serve as a bishop, as I did from 1992-2008 in the Eastern North Dakota Synod of the ELCA. For these past four years, I have been serving as the Director of Contextual Learning at Luther Seminary. It is an “administrative faculty” position, intended to help seminarians integrate classroom work with ministry experience. It is a delight to walk with students in these paths, including internship, just as it once was a delight to walk with pastors in their calls to congregations and other ministries.

[10] When I was first asked to write this piece, I declined. It seemed to me that it should be written by a current bishop. But when asked again by current bishops, I agreed. I consented mostly because I have been deeply troubled by the financial challenges of many pastors and families for a long time, a situation that doesn’t seem to be improving.

[11] I became alarmed by the rising indebtedness of pastors in 1999. Although it took me a while to discern the depth of the problem, it was apparent that for many pastors, their modest salaries could not sustain a healthy lifestyle while repaying student loans. Despite our efforts, the situation throughout the ELCA, as well as in other denominations, had worsened by 2008. While I no longer serve as bishop, I am certain that things have gotten even more difficult in the past 3-4 years, given the general recent economic recession. I hope we (all of us together) can find a way to make it better in the future.

[12] Let me begin with two assumptions, which I hope you share:

1. No “pastor worth having” is in ministry for the money;

2. While a pastor’s financial compensation may be somewhat low compared to their level of education and ability, it should be sufficient to provide a healthy life for the pastor and family.

[13] Historically, pastors’ salaries have been modest, but other compensation has been quite good. These other elements of “total compensation” often included a parsonage, medical/dental insurance, above-average retirement contributions, and other considerations that made it feasible for the pastor and family to flourish.

[14] I do not want to be naive about the past. Pastors have always had financial challenges, and have been good at “belt-tightening.” But the systemic financial stresses of recent years seem to have taken a much greater toll on pastors, families, and their calls than in previous generations. Consider these common realities:

1. When a pastor worth having (smart enough to see reality; caring enough to want a healthy life for self and family) looks at $50,000 in student debt (about average for our new seminary graduates) and minimal assets, he or she is going to be influenced far more than they should be by the salary package a congregation can/will offer. An excellent match of gifts, interests, and ministry capacities will likely be abandoned for a salary that offers a bit more relief to the checkbook. This not only eats away at the soul of the pastor (who, after all, did not go to seminary to maximize his or her salary options!), but is deleterious to the flourishing of many congregations who have only moderate financial capacities.

2. Home ownership is expensive. When the “values” of homes were rising, that expense was reasonable. Also, the need to sell a home to accept another call was not a burden when homes sold easily and at a profit. But when one’s home is hard to sell, or the sale would be at a loss, there is great pressure to stay in one’s current call despite knowing it is not life-giving for pastor or people.

3. Pastors lead congregations with sizeable budgets and complex financial issues, yet have often had little education or experience in those matters. Money is always a regular part of a pastor’s life, just like anyone else. Pastors are called to be wise stewards, and that should entail being competent with money, both personally and congregationally. Fortunately, seminaries are beginning to teach and coach students in various financial matters. I am grateful for several such programs here at Luther; they were not available when I was a student. Few pastors went to seminary because of financial interest or acumen, but we clergy need to be fiscally competent and attentive enough to help ministry flourish and navigate finances in our personal lives.

4. Long before “money stresses” manifest themselves in overt difficulties with call or mobility, I believe they are nagging at the fabric of marriage and family in clergy families. This is often under-reported, since most people wait too long to ask for help; this is a common pattern for pastors, who feel they are supposed to “have it all together.” Excessive debt undermines the health and well-being of pastors, clergy marriages, and clergy families. In listening to several bishops agonize over pastors’ situations, it is clear that this is a huge and complicated issue, often hidden from view by confidentiality and shame. That’s bad enough, but when there is undue stress in the family, the ministry suffers, too.

5. Bishops care deeply about pastors, pastors’ families, and the health of congregations and ministries. Bishops are called to tend the flock, in the broadest sense. So when pastors, families and congregations are beset by money issues, bishops hurt, too. They lament. They pray. And they do things like ask, “How can we cultivate a culture of hopeful leaders?”

[15] What can be done? I do not believe pastors’ salaries can — or even should — be a lot higher than they are currently. But we need to re-think the way we fund theological education and pastoral ministry. I don’t know how to address the housing issue, although in some settings it might be helpful for parsonages to make a comeback. I don’t see a quick fix for the student debt issue, although I believe that if synods, seminaries, and the whole church work together, we can improve that situation. I don’t think pastors should be transformed into financial geniuses, but I am heartened by our seminaries’ effort to talk openly about finances and provide helpful coaching. In addition, a number of candidacy committees are setting limits to indebtedness, another hopeful sign. In short, the situation is indeed dire, but there is hope.

[16] The Lilly Endowment is currently working on a pilot project that addresses the “Economic Challenges Facing Indiana Pastors.” Through grants and coaching, they are working with 16 denominations. While the specifics vary from denomination to denomination, the financial stresses and challenges are significant and similar in each one. We all may learn from their work.

[17] Some ELCA synods, including the one I previously served, have initiated endowment funds to help address the problem, and it helps. Churchwide, leaders in the ELCA have acknowledged the issue, and are trying to find ways to improve the situation. As I said earlier, seminaries are also working to find solutions. But we’ve had a difficult time coordinating all these efforts, and as of today, many (probably most) pastors enter into call with significant financial distress in their lives. That’s a problem, and impacts pastoral leadership in many ways. For example, pastors may become embarrassed non-tithers, simply unable to make the dollars go all the places they want them to (and consequentially they become ineffective stewardship leaders). Or the pastor’s money problems may function as a shameful secret in his or her life, leading them to become increasingly distracted from the missional needs at hand.

[18] In sum, bishops who know their people well and care deeply are confronted with a situation that is eroding ministry, demeaning pastors and families, and making life miserable for many. The call/mobility process is hampered, pastoral life is diminished, and good people feel embarrassed and helpless.

[19] I offer no simple solutions. But I encourage the bishops to openly engage us all in conversations that bring the problems into the light and allow us to find mutual responses to the challenges. It isn’t just the bishops’ or synods’ problem. It isn’t just the pastors’ problem. It isn’t just the congregations’ problem. It isn’t just the seminaries’ problem. It isn’t just the ELCA’s problem. It is a systemic problem that calls for us all (!) to work together faithfully and creatively. “How can we cultivate a culture of hopeful leaders?” may be a good place to begin.

Rick Foss is a former Bishop of the Eastern North Dakota Synod of the ELCA. He is currently the Director of Contextual Learning at Luther Seminary.

Rick Foss

Rick Foss is a former Bishop of the Eastern North Dakota Synod of the ELCA. He is currently the Director of Contextual Learning at Luther Seminary.