Everyone is In Debt!

[1] In June of 2019, I wrote a letter to the bishop of my synod[1] after I was called into his office to let me know that I had been flagged by the larger denominational structure for “indebtedness.” I was extremely embarrassed by the situation: there I was, explaining why I was in debt, and if I was “okay.” I tried to explain that I did not have access to the same resources that my white counterparts had had in my own matriculation, and I told them that I had assumed that the reason that I had been called into the office was because I had done so well in my pastoral work. They, however, were much more concerned about whether I was living in a way that was integrous: whether I was living in line with Vision and Expectations’ expectations of fiscal responsibility.

[Editor’s note: Vision and Expectations now has been retired and the ELCA Church Council has officially decided not to replace it with a new document until a need arises.  However, this writer’s experience explores the philosophical and theological issues that were raised about the origin and use of Vision and Expectations.   The greater issues about student debt, inequities, how policies are created, and the nature of integrity are important issues for ethical and practical reflection.]

[2] Student loan debt is skyrocketing in the United States,[2] and unfortunately, seminarians around the country are not exempt from this reality. As the reality of seminarian (and pastor) financial indebtedness continues to be uncovered, there will have to be a radical reimagining of what it means to have “integrity.” In the ELCA, Vision and Expectations and its corresponding adjudicatory practices linked the ideal of integrity to a minister’s fiscal responsibility, which unofficially intimates the carrying of little to no debt. This paper will argue that under such parameters, an integrous minister will become much more difficult to locate considering rising seminarian debt costs, and moreover, that tying debt to financial privilege is ultimately a form of discrimination. This paper will describe the history, function, and layout of Vision and Expectations. Then it will outline the prescriptions for fiscal responsibility therein. Following, the paper will discuss data around seminary student indebtedness. Then, I will trace Aristotelian virtue cultivation, link it to Vision and Expectations, and expose the incompatibility of Vision’s virtue model. Next, I will imagine a new theological vision of integrous living, which includes the reality of indebtedness, ultimately calling for this to be part of a new clergy ethics. Finally, I will situate myself in this and future work as a practical theologian.

[3] Rev. Joseph M. Wagner, Executive Director of the Division for Ministry, introduced Vision and Expectations to the ELCA Church Council in 1990.[3] The thought surrounding the document was to create a broader statement for conduct in dialogue with a previously existing discipline statement. In describing the document, Wagner said that “it is not a juridical document that is to be used in an official sort of way. It is rather a document that describes the behavior of clergy. It is not a prescriptive document.”[4] The document was termed a “teaching resource” providing “a teaching opportunity about the shared expectations which this church has of its ordained ministers.”[5] Rev. George W. Forell suggested that since “many seminary students [did] not have a Lutheran background…a clear-cut statement of expectations [was] needed.”[6] Despite some pushback in the committee that people were “very distressed” by the document, Vision and Expectations was adopted by the ELCA Church Council in October of 1990 and was recommended to be sent to “congregations, pastors, and seminaries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.”[7] In 1993, the ELCA Church Council adopted a version of Vision and Expectations for lay people.[8] In 1997, the “board of the Division for Ministry adopted ‘Guidelines for the Use of Vision and Expectations in the ELCA Candidacy Process.’”[9]

[4] It was not until 2009 that there were any further changes made to Vision and Expectations, which centered around questions of same-sex unions and ministry; there was a move toward revising Vision and Expectations to be more inclusive of LGBTQ individuals.[10] However, the problem around seminarian indebtedness remained untouched in any revisions to Vision and Expectations.

[5] Vision and Expectations was an agreement to which candidates for ministry were bound during candidacy, when ordained, and when seeking a new call, and while Rev. Wagner above suggested that it would not have juridical power, it is clear from people’s seeking to revise it that it did hold sway in decisions of candidacy, ordination, and possible calls, and it must have had some juridical power for me to be called into the bishop’s office concerning my indebtedness, which was expressly mentioned in Vision and Expectations..

[6] Vision and Expectations was divided into four major headings, which are I. Call to Ordained Ministry; II. Faithfulness to the Church’s Confession; III. Ordained Minister as Person and Example; and IV. Faithful Witness. Each of these major headings had applicable subheading material listed underneath.

[7] When I was questioned in the meeting with the bishop, he simply said that during the routine ELCA background check, the bishop simply said that I was “flagged for indebtedness.” Background checks are done to ensure the safety of the congregation (mostly), and they are readily tied to a minister’s not only being “safe,” but integrous as well.

[8] The “flagging” did a lot to injure my confidence as a minister: instead of my being uplifted as an upstanding example of some of the new clergy in our Synod, who had been successful in a church with seemingly insurmountable odds, I was having to explain to two people that the debt that I had accrued was not because I was a rapscallion, but because I had tried to do the best that I could to prepare myself to be God’s vessel, and that this undertaking cost a significant amount of money. Furthermore, I told them that I did not have some of the same opportunities that my white counterparts had had. Where their churches had endowments and were willing to support the financial costs of their members who wanted to go to seminary, I had to borrow money.  There was never a time when I was in school of any kind where I had not had to work to supplement the cost of general and theological education. After the meeting, I felt utterly ashamed that I had done what I needed to get through school and that I somehow needed to defend my own integrity as a minister and student.

[9] There was also a power dynamic in the room: I was “interviewed” by the Bishop of the Synod, and the Synod Vice-President, the highest-ranking lay position in the Synod. They were both white, with high-powered jobs. I felt as if my wrist were being slapped for being in debt.

[10] I was led to consider the question as to whether really leads to the greater question as to whether or not the denomination has confidence in all of its ministers, or just a select few who are deemed trustworthy because they have been afforded the privilege to have little to no debt? What are the parameters that decide what “fiscal responsibility” is? Is it the background check machine, or has a group of people gathered to uncritically make a list of what it means to be fiscally responsible? A plain reading of this requirement seems like this is not such a big issue, but it can easily become an issue when trustworthiness and integrity of the minister are questioned uncritically. When assumptions are made about why or why not a person is to be deemed fiscally irresponsible, people can often get hurt in the process.

[11] According to a study by Auburn Seminary,

[i]n 1991, more than half of Master of Divinity students graduated with no educational debt. This decreased significantly to 37 percent in 2001, but the rate of decline slowed to 36 percent with no educational debt upon graduation. The average level of debt, for those graduates who borrowed, grew from $11,043 in 1991, to $25,018 in 2001 and $38,704 in 2011. The major concern for many is the rapid rise in those who are most indebted. In 201, 20 percent of graduates borrowed $30,000, or more. This had grown to 35 percent in 2011…more theological students are [also] entering seminary with undergraduate debt.[11]

Other data from the study showed the following debt numbers showing the distribution of “M.Div. Graduates’ Theological Debt in 2011:”[12] 36 percent owed nothing, 8 percent owed $1 to $10,000, 10 percent owed $10,000 to $20,000, 11 percent owed $20,000 to $30,000, 9 percent owed $30,000 to $40,000, 7 percent owed $40,000 to $50,000, and 19 percent owed over $50,000.[13] These numbers are simply startling.

[12] This study by Auburn cites many factors as to why seminary student debt is rising, including “availability of low-interest loans,” which allow students to borrow large sums of federal money to fund their educations; “changing cultural attitudes toward debt,” which suggest that borrowing money has become more widely acceptable by students and administrators alike; “changing theological school/denominational financial aid opportunities,” which mean that schools are not able to fund students in the ways that they have in the past; rising living costs, which lower the economic value of the money that schools can offer. [14]  Also at play are “changing student demographics;” seminary’s student population now consists of a larger population of older seminarians who are married with families and have significant financial obligations, rather than previously younger student populations, who were able to save more money by taking advantage of school amenities. [15] In addition, the “otherworldly attitudes,” such as saying that “God will provide,” often keep people from being realistic about the financial burden that they will have to bear. [16]  Finally, the “approach of individual theological schools” can play a pivotal role in determining the student’s debt; quite frankly,  often theological schools fail to commit to properly approaching debt, tuition, and living expenses, along with its awarded financial aid.[17]

[13] Certainly, Auburn’s study places the responsibility directly in the hands of the borrower for their indebtedness, and that is not unreasonable. In fact, it is what the borrower should expect. But indebtedness should not be tied to the student’s integrity as a person, in fact, many took on debt to follow what they perceived to be God’s call, and to this end, Auburn does not ultimately place the responsibility of getting out of debt just on the borrower, but also on the theological institution.[18]

[14] The Episcopal Church has tried to take on the task of tackling seminarian debt as well. In one of its periodicals, the Episcopal Church lifts its distinctiveness in carrying the gospel, while simultaneously acknowledging the debt of its seminarians, saying that such debt weighs down the pastor in their ministries and personal lives:

In a survey of the class of 2009 at 11 Episcopal seminaries, two-thirds of the students had debt. The average debt was $48,978 only halfway through their training. By the time they graduated last spring, their projected debt load average nearly $59,000. The debt repayments and debt service on such loans totals more than $12,500 per year. Meanwhile, the annual median compensation package (including housing allowance) for new Episcopal clergy is $48,584. It’s like having a mortgage with no house to show for it.[19]

While this data takes place a little earlier than the Auburn study, the seminarians in the Episcopalian church, by 2009, were already at the topmost rung of the Auburn study’s “over $50k” designation, so that by 2011, the students who were halfway through their programs in 2009 were even more indebted by the time of the release of the Auburn study. Reasons that the Episcopal Church cites for seminarian indebtedness are both similar and different to Auburn’s findings: “increased costs of undergraduate and seminary education; a very recent trend of younger seminarians who do not have accumulated financial resources; lack of adequate funding sources for those pursuing a Master of Divinity degree in preparation for full-time ministry.”[20]

[15] While Auburn and the Episcopal church both cite rising costs, their findings are opposite in that where Auburn speaks of older students with more financial responsibilities, the Episcopal Church’s experience is that of younger seminarians without accrued financial resources. They both speak of rising costs, and it can be assumed that the need to borrow is ultimately due to lack of financial resources to provide for ministerial aspirations.

[16] These findings are not in conflict, but instead speak to the widely debilitating and encompassing nature of seminarian debt. While some students are able to receive aid from sponsoring parishes and diocesan sources, the amount of resources varies widely.[21] This can be summed up by an Episcopalian seminarian who said, “If only the rich or those who can find rich people to support them can answer the call of God, then we’re not giving our Church a fair shake at all the gifts God has provided us.”[22]

[17] In the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, Joy Coltvet addressed the seminarian debt crisis in the ELCA back in 2012.[23] In addition to revealing similar statistics that this paper has already mentioned, Coltvet shed light on what she calls the “systemic brokenness’ of the debt system:

Over four years, a yearly cost of $35,000 adds up quickly to an insurmountable amount of debt. The greatest indicator of student debt graduating from seminary is the amount of debt a student brings into seminary. However, this is not due only to a student’s level of responsibility or irresponsibility; it relates also to a whole system of privilege that, in fact, raises additional ethical questions.

Who are those who tend to bring less college/university debt? They are (1) students who have parents whose wealth can pay for a college degree and (2) students who excel academically and who earn multiple scholarships. These students are likely to receive these same debt-reducing rewards at the seminary as well—they will still have parents who are likely to be able to support them generally or in times of crisis, and they will receive the same types of academic merit grants at the seminary level by schools anxious to attract gifted students.[24]

Moreover, specifically in the ELCA, debt makes it increasingly difficult for the disadvantaged to be able to be viable pastors in the denomination. According to Pastor Mark Olsen,

the poor and disadvantaged, especially those who are young adults, have little chance of becoming pastors (or other rostered leaders) in our church. The obstacles are too many; the resources available and dedicated to enable them to do so, too few. And most of us just shrug and say, ‘well, that’s the way it is.’[25]

[18] Adding insult to injury is the reality that people of color also suffer disadvantages when it comes to access to opportunities of funding:

Students who bring debt to seminary are more likely to acquire debt in seminary because there is not the same foundational wealth, safety nets, or institution-funded resources for certain students. This is a particularly challenging question in our complex U.S. culture in which people of color have systematically been prevented from gaining wealth, financial security, and the kinds of early educational resources that white students receive.[26]

Coltvet also zeroed in on the crux of the argument that the doors of service to the church are purported to swing open in the ELCA, but the reality is that debilitating student debt often precludes students of color from participation.[27]

[19] In the ELCA, 83 percent of 2014 Master of Divinity graduates had some form of debt. Forty-five percent had debt before coming to seminary, and seventy-eight left seminary in debt. Forty-Four percent of the graduating students had between $10,000 and $50,000 in debt, while seventeen percent of the graduating class had between $50,000 $70,000. Sixteen percent of the graduating class had debt greater than $70,000.[28] Like the Episcopalians, the rate of student debt repayment far outpaced the beginning salary of the first-call fulltime pastorate.[29]

[20] There has been much research on this topic, and with this research in the ELCA having been done on the topic in 2015, by now, the research is almost dated: student debt rates are continuing to climb nationally, and it would stand to reason that the data on this issue needs to be revisited in the very near future, to generate more accurate data.

[21] Importantly, is under the context of this data that Vision and Expectations stood. I would argue that it resembled an Aristotelian code of ethics, both in its purpose, and in flaw. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics[30] is concerned with the human’s attaining the ultimate good, which is happiness.[31]  Happiness is considered by Aristotle to be the most excellent thing in accord with virtue, and this ultimate good attained is a concrete good—a practical and real good that is attained through the examination of things that are readily observable.[32] Attaining the ultimate good is done through the intellectual and moral cultivation of virtue, with the belief that each person (within reason) has the ability to control themselves (and subsequent emotional passions), and is thus able to be oriented toward a good and serious life.[33]

[22] In a preface to the document, then Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson stated:

Vision and Expectations—Ordained Ministers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America expresses the church’s vision for ordained ministry and the high expectations it places on those who serve in this way. This document outlines the importance of the ordained minister’s faithfulness to the church’s confession, leadership through faithful service and holy living and faithful witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.[34]

Though the foundational methodology governing Aristotle’s work and the work of Vision and Expectations are vastly different, they were both still dealing with the cultivation of certain behavior habits. Both Aristotle and the ELCA were seeking to cultivate virtuous or faithful living in service to the larger community. Aristotle’s method of virtue cultivation included understanding of the mean, which was finding the center between several different poles of action.[35] The eleven moral virtues that Aristotle seeks to cultivate are courage, moderation, liberality, magnificence, greatness of soul, ambition, gentleness, friendliness, truthfulness, wittiness, and justice. The intellectual virtues include technical knowledge, practical reason, and contemplation.

[23] As mentioned above, Vision and Expectations was broken into four major headings, and it seems as if the first heading of “Call to Ordained Ministry” is supported by the three other major headings. In short, the other three offer the how to understand the way in which one lives out their call to ordained ministry. To this end, there are also supporting expectations or virtues to ensure that these are properly lived out. They are integrity and trustworthiness, trustworthiness in relationships, trustworthiness in beginning, sustaining, and ending marriages or same-gender relationships, trustworthiness in sexual conduct, faithful witness through evangelism, compassion, confession, hospitality, peacemaking, justice, and stewardship of the earth. Aristotle has eleven moral virtues. The ELCA appeared to have thirteen. These do not have how-to instructions, like Aristotle’s does, but they are an outward sign of balanced and faithful living within the community.

[24] The topic of fiscal responsibility (indebtedness) came under the heading “Holy Living,” which states that “[t]he ordained minister is to be an example of holy living so that the ordained minister’s life does not become an impediment to the hearing of the gospel or a scandal to the community of faith. The qualities of such a life include the following:”[36]

Integrity and Trustworthiness

The ordained minister is expected to be honest and forthright in dealings with others while protecting privileged and confidential communications. The ordained minister should strive to develop a public reputation for integrity and to nurture trustworthy personal relationships. Ordained ministers must avoid conduct that is dishonest, deceptive, duplicitous or manipulative of others for personal benefit or gain.

The ordained minister is expected to be fiscally responsible and is to be a faithful steward of time, talents, and possessions. The ordained minister is to be an example to the community of generous giving.[37]

Fiscal responsibility is tied here to integrity and what it means to be trustworthy. Aristotle does not speak of integrity, but he does speak about truthfulness, suggesting simply that someone that has the virtue of truthfulness is simply a “lover of the truth,” and that a person who genuinely is cultivating the virtue will tell the truth both when it is convenient and when it is not.[38]

[25] Aristotle’s truthfulness is preferred over the ELCA’s model of integrity because Aristotle’s model does not place financial parameters on what it means to tell the truth, or to cultivate the virtue of truthfulness.  Moreover, I assert that it may be easier for people who are either aspiring ELCA ministers or are currently ordained with debt but have not yet been flagged to be able to be honest about how hard it is to live with debt, without having to be silent for fear of being called before an ELCA authority to account for their sins of indebtedness.

[26] Aristotle’s virtue model has a flaw, however. His school of learning, where he invented his virtue ethic was a place that was available only to a select few who had the resources and ability to withdraw from the hardness of daily work and toil. Aristotle’s model was one that allowed for a (male) student to leave his already carefree life, and cultivate his virtues from youth to adulthood, which had already begun in his highborn well-to-do family. Aristotle would leave the responsibility of ruling the state in the hands of these privileged men.[39] Aristotle’s flaw is one of process: who makes all the decisions, which will trickle down to the masses? His rich, privileged, and insulated students. To be fair, Aristotle does acknowledge that wealth and privilege derive from moral luck which makes virtue attainable.[40] He also notes that this is at least more democratic in a democracy than in an aristocracy. Luck is a far sight better than birthright privilege, but even this improvement can stand some critique: is there ever a question as to who is often the one anointed in our society to be deemed “lucky?”

[27] If we rewind back to 1990, the decision to implement Vision and Expectation was done by a few powerful people. While they had been imbued with power from the denomination, can it be said with certainty that the policies that they created without critical nuance, tying integrity and fiscal responsibility together, were representative of those who were not also in the room? While Aristotle meant well, and we can still even find great inspiration in his virtue ethic, there were many people who were left out of the conversation; hence this was a flaw in Vision and Expectations.

[28] Am I saying that there does not need to be any accountability, and that virtue cultivation, or faith and corresponding behavior cultivation is negative? No. What I am saying is that there always needs to be a representative group of people in the room who help the powerful make these kinds of decisions. I would go ever further to say that tying fiscal responsibility would not be overtly wrong if there were not hidden loopholes and unwritten rules that were set to trap unsuspecting pastoral practitioners. I was caught unaware, not knowing that the ELCA’s definition of “fiscal responsibility” could be interpreted at that time to include having too much student debt. I was paying the loan payments on time, but that did not matter. It seems to me that the paying of the obligations is what constitutes responsibility, and hence, integrity, rather than just having the debt in the first place.[41]

[29] Furthermore, I am in a privileged position. I can pay my loan payments each month, but there are others who simply cannot, for different reasons. Does this make them bad people who are not trustworthy or integrous? I think not. I would say, rather, that they are probably victims of the broken system.

[30] One of Coltvet’s final questions comes to mind: how can the ELCA say that all the baptized might be called by God to serve as pastors, regardless of race and class, when the statistics suggest that people with less means are precluded from serving?[42] When John the Baptist was in the wilderness baptizing people by the Jordan River, while clothed in camel’s hair and a leather belt, he announced the coming of One who was coming after him, whose sandals he was not worthy to untie.[43] The question that we must ask in light of the Lutheran tenet which states that we are justified by grace through faith, is, who is worthy to untie the sandals of Jesus? Who is worthy to proclaim Jesus? Those with the least amount of loan debt, or is the real answer no one? No one can say, “I am worthy to come to do this work of Jesus, because of who I am and how much resource I have been afforded.” No! We respond to the work of Christ in our lives by living into our respective calls, and it does not matter how much debt we have. What matters is the condition of our hearts.  Martin Luther, in his Lectures on Galatians said,

Therefore, the Christian remains in pure humility, feeling sinful in a real and true fashion, worthy of wrath, the judgment of God, and eternal death…through [Christ] the Christian rises against the feeling of divine wrath and judgment and believes in the love of the Father, not for one’s own sake but for the sake of Christ the beloved. Thus, it is certain how faith justifies without works and how the imputation of righteousness is necessary. Sins remain in us, which God particularly hates. Because of them, it is necessary that we have the imputation of righteousness, which occurs for us on account of Christ, who was given to us and is grasped by us in faith. Meanwhile, as long as we are alive, we are supported and nourished at the bosom of divine mercy and forbearance, until the body of sin (Rom. 6:6) is abolished and we are raised up as new beings on that day.[44]

[31] Luther makes no distinction between who receives the gift of God through Christ. All need God’s righteousness, regardless of earthly disposition. Moreover, forbearance has become a financial term in relation to the inability to repay one’s student loans because of hardship.[45] Forbearance is patience from the entity who is owed. Luther’s depiction of forbearance, which comes from God, is given to all, not just those with student loan debt. It is the hardship of sin that brings all to the bosom of God. In short, all are indebted, and what will matter in our service to God is not how much our student loans are, but whether we have yielded to God’s call and allowed the righteousness of God to become our righteousness through faith.

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. They will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation.[46]

[32] This Psalm is a form of virtuous cultivation as well, but like Aristotle, the cleanliness is not tied to access to resources, but to how one lives: the condition of their hearts. Truthfulness is tied to purity of living and intention to live into God’s truth. At the end of the day, however, we cannot achieve this purity on our own; it is with God’s help that we find worthiness. All are in bondage to sin and death, and consequently, we are all indebted to God’s grace in and through Jesus Christ. With this universal indebtedness, we do not have the liberty to reason in silos about what constitutes integrity. We need the assent and participation of the community to reason together: Aristotle believed that virtue required wealth, and thusly, it was the role of the senate to make sure that had enough money to avoid debt and still have leisure time. For Aristotle, the “damned pagan” according to Luther, it was not about being saved by God, but about society (community) stepping up and helping people have what they need so that they can also live virtuous lives.[47]

[33] Coltvet’s prescription for the student debt crisis is to point to the ELCA’s history of funding theological education for anyone who has been called. This is ultimately a reversal of values, in that the burden of funding one’s education is not on the one who is called into ministry, but continues to be on the granting denominational institution.[48] Seminaries, to this end, are undertaking the difficult work of discussing how their resources are allocated, how to be more transparent about money, creating funds for students to defray cost of attendance, and empowering students to find ways to finance their education before they begin to matriculate.[49]

[34] This reversal of values or shifting of responsibility to the institution that has both the power and the means to make life easier for its ministers is really an issue of justice. The Vision and Expectations document was a one-way set of values to which ministers and lay people alike are held. But what would it mean for there to be an agreement that goes both ways? What has the denomination committed to do in a document that helps it to witness to its own faithful actions, not in the world, but to its own? In Vision and Expectations, the minister was expected to life a life of justice. The document reads:


The church is to witness to God’s call for justice in every aspect of life, including testimony against injustice and oppression, whether personal or systemic. This church expects its ordained ministers to be committed to justice in the life of the church, in society, and in the world. The ordained minister is expected to oppose all forms of harassment and assault.[50]

[35] What if the church’s work was not just an outward expression, but also was responsible for condemning injustice within its own ranks?[51] If it is still indeed the will of the “powers that be” to create a document, we need one which speaks of two-way support, wherein the church would witness to God’s call for justice in the life of its ministers, and would use its resources to curb injustice both within and without. As it currently stands, the denomination is itself a system that consumes minister’s gifts but does not often offer its ministers the same justice that it demands. This may sound harsh, because the pastor is most often getting paid a wage, but because of the way that the ELCA polity functions, the pastor is usually paid by the church, not the denomination.

[36] Karl Marx asks why someone works for wages in the first place: “Why does he (sic) sell it? To live. But the exercise of labour power, labour, is the worker’s own life-activity, the manifestation of his own life. And this life-activity he sells to another person to secure the necessary means of subsistence. Thus, his life-activity is for him only a means to enable him to exist.[52] In the case of the ELCA minister, they are selling their life activity, certainly, but beyond subsistence, the ELCA speaks of the minister working in response to a call from God, and to that end, the institution should fight against the structural injustice that the minister must bear to realize their vocation. The denomination should make provisions to create a two-way covenant, or else, the system in which the minister works is just another corporate institution.

[37] As it currently stands, the denominational institution functions with the gifts of the pastor, but the only real responsibility it has is providing a place where pastors can buy insurance, and a repository for the storing of pensions, and each of these is contingent upon whether the pastor can afford it. If this is not a one-way relationship, I am not certain what would fit such a definition. In short, the message to the minister is “follow our rules, and you may be able to work for us.”

[38] In addition to a general theological outlook that acknowledges that we are all indebted before Christ, there also needs to be a covenantal relationship that is more than transactional. The Parable of the lost son depicts this clearly, specifically at the point when the younger son finds himself employed by the stranger in the far country.[53] The son is receiving a wage from the hired hand, but his being in foreign territory with zero connections has rendered him destitute. In just that moment in the text, there is a famine, some disaster that breaks the integrity of the system, and the younger son, though he is actively working and earning a wage, is not satiated. We do not know for certain, but maybe the stranger’s connectedness in the far country allowed him to survive and continue paying the younger son amid a broken system. What would it have looked like if the relationship between the younger son and the stranger were more than corporate or transactional? Perhaps the younger son would have been better taken care of if the relationship were different. Both the stranger and the son benefit from a covenantal relationship, because the younger son can continue to serve in the stranger’s institution (farm) and be well.

[39] Howard Thurman in his work Jesus and the Disinherited speaks about a radical relationship between a marginalized person and a person of power.[54] In this rebalancing of power, the powerful person must see the worth in engaging the marginalized person, and the marginalized person must see the value in forgiving the person in power, who has often been responsible for their own pain. In that same way, the dominant culture must see the value in a renegotiated relationship, and the marginalized culture must extend enough forgiveness so that an invitation to dialogue together can begin. This is a challenging task, but a worthy one.

[40] Ministers are struggling to make ends meet in the broken system. Student debt is skyrocketing, and they are working in a system that seems full of strangers, in that, the people who are writing documents are in secluded spaces where there is not a multiplicity of voices, and while the ministers secretly struggle with the debt that they have accrued to fulfill a call, they are doubly injured when their integrity is questioned with a document that claims to have no authority in the first place. The stranger is indebted to the son for working, and the son is indebted to the stranger for providing shelter, and in the meantime, both are indebted to God.

[41] It is quite understandable that there should be an educational system that supports upward mobility through education, but this is proving not to be the case. This Western system of education and the taking on of debt ultimately becomes a problem in the theological world, notably in the ELCA: the task group asked to work on the Vision and Expectations document came up with a practical set of virtues including fiscal responsibility, which also unofficially is used for justification when the topic of student indebtedness arises. This denominational group made decisions about the norms that should govern its ministers based upon their own theology and worldview, presupposing that their worldview was the only worldview and way of being in the world. To date, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is, according to a Pew Research Report, the whitest denomination in America.[55] To this end, their theology and worldview was almost certainly centered in whiteness and Eurocentrism, and when put into practice, the ELCA created a document with all the trappings of what Tom Beaudoin and Katherine Turpin call “White Practical Theology.”[56]

[42] Beaudoin and Turpin outline the key features of White Practical Theology as follows: firstly, they focus on the individual.[57] “Attention to the rights owed to, the virtues developed by, and the property owned by individuals stand at the center of white culture.”[58] Secondly, White Practical Theology has an inherent belief in progress: “the future lies within the mastery of those near the center of the social-ecclesial structure, a congenital confidence in progress toward an imagined end-state that surpasses our current reality.[59] Thirdly, White Practical Theology has all of the markers of white supremacy, which creates a strong visceral reaction, because it is associated with hate groups. But its appearance is much more subtle than this: “more common is a low-key “preference” given to white cultural norms as morally, organizationally, and aesthetically superior.”[60] The field of Practical Theology was governed and normed by “largely white, middle-class, mainline Protestant, historically male-governed, and more or less connected to European ecclesial-theological heritages,”[61] and naturally, their own worldviews would prevail in legislating policy, or writing Practical Theology for respective denominations. Fourth, White Practical Theology touts orderliness and procedural clarity: “white Europeans and their cultural descendants share a long cultural history or organizing procedurally, often in order to increase efficiency and convenience…[a]s an expression of cultural privilege of whites and an inherited proprietary disposition toward setting the terms of the field, one would expect a white discipline to be preoccupied with questions of method, indeed of defining the method that would “govern” the whole field, and that then would be assumed to be “applied” (with local variations, of course) to local or indigenous communities.”[62] Lastly, White Practical Theology establishes a meritocracy and belief in the system, such that “fair institutions will give any person who works hard and perseveres due credit award virtuous behavior.”[63]

[43] White Practical Theology’s fingerprints could be seen all over Vision and Expectations, in that it privileges the formation of its virtues as created by white people, believing that faithful living will bring about the progression of Christ’s advent into the world. In addition, the document’s being crafted in the ELCA, by nature of the ELCA’s makeup, suggests that it was formed within the boundaries of whiteness. This formation is prominent, particularly regarding procedure and convenience: even amidst protest, Vision and Expectations was thought to be the best model for everyone. Moreover, the comment made in the 1990 meeting that some of the people who are coming in may not be trained like Lutherans, further creates a chasm of us vs. them, which is an ugly dichotomy that has undertones that undergird the historical structural inequity in American society. As an ordained minority Lutheran minister who has not received “Lutheran training,” I cannot help but to think that George Forell was referring to me, or someone like me.[64]

[44] The framers of the document believed that what they were prescribing would not be difficult to uphold, so long as people just did what they were supposed to do. Unfortunately, however, the educational system had left many without reward.

[45] The problem ultimately is how White Practical Theology forms its norms. It (arrogantly) makes general theological claims about humanity that ends up not really being fully inclusive, makes objective claims that are taken for granted, and claims contextuality, but is much too broad to really take context seriously.[65] It is in this context that Vision and Expectations was born, and in defiance of this context that it needed to be resisted.

[46] The argument can be made that none of this matters, because Vision and Expectations is gone, but the larger issue deals with process. The question should always be, who is in the room making these decisions? Who is not in the room, and what are the norms that govern and frame our decision making? What blind spots have we run into in the past, and are we a Church who doubles down when its minority voices speak up, or do we ignore protests and push through legislation from the top-downward? The future is in somebody’s hands, but the ELCA needs to make sure that the future is in the right hands.

[47] Future work around this project certainly includes the clarification of the relationship between the denomination and its ministers, what “calling” and “vocation” mean to both the institution and its members, what that entails for their working relationship together (or separately), and what justice looks like both within and without. There are already conversations happening about funding sources and programs that are either trying to get in front of the debt crisis or seeking to alleviate injury done to the financial plight of either pastors or seminarians.[66] The ELCA can find ways to appropriate resources to its own ministers, proving that it is willing to broaden its relationship with and to its ministers.

[48] Limitations of this study are that it may be quite narrow, as it only really focuses on the ELCA, although I employ The Episcopal Church as one of the other conversation partners. There needs to be more up-to-date data on student indebtedness: the most recent information is four years old. In addition, the old paradigms and structures may be too ingrained for the suggestions of re-appropriation of resources to work.

[49] This project illustrates how I have come to understand my work as a Practical Theologian. I am a Black man who is an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and my experience stands directly in contradistinction with and to the general worldview and reality that the Vision and Expectations document prescribed, and to that end my own experience nullifies the experience of the dominant culture. My struggles with student debt do not just end with me but inform and point towards the experience of countless others. This work has been done methodologically using a “community autoethnographic approach,”[67] with some slight modifications.

[50] Autoethnography “is an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze (graphy) personal experience (auto) to understand cultural experience (ethno).”[68] Research becomes an act concerned with social consciousness and is carried out using both autobiography and ethnography.[69] Thus, autoethnography is both a “process and product.”[70]

[51]The rise of postmodernism in the 1980s “introduced new and abundant opportunities to reform social science and reconceive the objectives and forms of social science inquiry.”[71] Social science was increasingly limited in terms of its “ontological, epistemological, and axiological” claims,[72] and scholars began uncovering ways in which so-called “truths” could only be as reliable as the vocabularies and paradigms in which they had been formed.[73] There was no longer any need for general, universal narrative, and furthermore, the individual stories of people revealed interesting new relationship that could create phenomena which had the ability to teach “morals and ethics, [could introduce] unique ways of thinking and feeling, and [could help] people make sense of themselves and others.”[74] Scholars, then, began to move the social sciences away from science “proper,” toward more of a literary sensibility, centering value, rather than pretending to have no values at all:[75]

Many of these scholars turned to autoethnography because they were seeking a positive response to critiques of canonical ideas about what research is and how research should be done. In particular, they wanted to concentrate on ways of producing meaningful, accessible, and evocative research grounded in personal experience, research that would sensitize readers to issues of identity politic, to experiences shrouded in silence, and to forms of representation that deepen our capacity to empathize with people who are different from us…Furthermore, scholars began recognizing that different kinds of people possess different assumptions about the world—a multitude of ways of speaking, writing, valuing and believing—and that conventional ways of doing and thinking about research were narrow, limiting, and parochial. These differences can stem from race, gender, sexuality, age, ability, class, education, or religion. For the most part, those who advocate and insist on canonical forms of doing and writing research are advocating a White, masculine, heterosexual, middle/upper-classed, Christian, able-bodied perspective. Following these convictions, a researcher not only disregards other ways of knowing but also implies that other ways necessarily are unsatisfactory and invalid.[76]

[52] Autoethnography eschews rigid definitions of research and opens a wider understanding of what it means to be in the world,[77] and though Vision and Expectations does not center on research per se, it was still crafted within the bastions of the previously-held universal paradigm, which renders it unhelpful to the non-majority groups listed above at best, or is insidious, at worst. Autoethnographic methodology brings in narrative and story that shrinks the too-general context that White Practical Theology claims to have, while also assigning new values and problematizing produced works, such as Vision and Expectations. In short, it puts real-life bodies into the narrative that do not fit the narrative that the research (or document in this case) posits.

[53] There are many different forms of autoethnographic research, but the one that I have employed is called a “community autoethnography.”[78] Community autoethnographies “use the personal experience of researchers-in-collaboration to illustrate how a community manifests particular social/cultural issues. Community autoethnographies thus not only facilitate ‘community-building’ research practices but also make opportunities for ‘cultural and social intervention’ possible.”[79] While my research was not undertaken along with other researchers, it was undertaken using other research work in addition to my personal narrative. The reason that it was important to use other research was because it makes sense that I would be interested in a problem that involved my own experience, but it did not seem right or fair to examine a problem with which only I was dealing. Thus, the narrative that I shared about myself was buttressed with other research to form a more communal outlook, which is a much more convincing argument to make toward change. If this indebtedness problem were only my narrative, it would be considered a “personal problem.” But as it is a nationwide issue, my experience provides a window-view into a much deeper issue.

[54] James Cone points towards this kind of work in The Cross and the Lynching Tree.[80] Using his own experience, Cone excoriates white, liberal theology’s failure (embodied in Reinhold Niebuhr) to take the suffering of black people into account. After beautifully laying out Niebuhrian theology, citing his “transvaluation of values” as one of the central tenets of Niebuhr’s Christian realism, Cone excoriates Niebuhr on the same grounds on which his theology is built: for Cone, Niebuhr’s “Christian Realism” had failed if it could not see the blight of the black experience before him.[81]  Cone criticizes Niebuhr for his ambivalence in dealing with issues of racism in America, as well as his unwillingness to call out the evils of lynching.[82] Ultimately, Cone is also disappointed that for all his theological sophistication, Niebuhr fails to see the connection between the cross of Christ and the lynching of blacks.[83] Cone even goes further to argue that Martin Luther King’s railing against gradualism was a direct result of Niebuhr’s unwillingness to act or speak.[84] Cone suggests that Niebuhr cannot locate these critical issues, because he is limited by his own context.[85] Cone does indeed include personal narrative in his work, but his story also points to the plight of others who have experienced the same pain that he has, and is buttressed by evidence and sourcing from other Black “researchers.”

[55] Howard Thurman takes the same approach. In Jesus and the Disinherited,[86] Thurman seeks to answer the question as to whether Christianity was of any benefit to people with their “backs against the wall.”[87] He has some personal experience, but his experience as a Black man in America points to a much larger phenomenon.

[56] Autoethnographic research is not without its limitations. As part ethnography, it is often dismissed for not being rigorous enough, or that it is devoid of theory.[88] It has also been described as too emotional, aesthetic, or therapeutic.[89] It is also accused of being done by “navel-gazers [and] self-absorbed narcissists who don’t fulfill scholarly obligations of hypothesizing, analyzing, and theorizing.”[90]

[57] As part autobiography, “autoethnography is dismissed for autobiographical writing standards, as being insufficiently aesthetic and literary and not artful enough.”[91] Furthermore, autobiographers accuse autoethnography of disregarding the imagination needed to be artists, while instead trying to cater to social and scientific sensibilities.[92]

[58] Autoethnography is rejected both by the science which undergirds ethnography and the art which undergirds autobiography. To this, however, the authors suggest that art and science are not at odds with each other, and that autoethnography disrupts the boundaries between the two: “Autoethnographers believe research can be rigorous, theoretical, and analytical and emotional, therapeutic and inclusive of personal and social phenomena. Autoethnographers also value the need to write and represent research in evocative, aesthetic ways.”[93] Furthermore, Authoethnographers feel that it is a waste of time to debate methodologies, but are instead interested in the telos, or goal of their research, which, they admit, is probably different from that of their science-only or art-only peers.[94]

[59] This is where I have arrived for this project, but it is still missing something. I believe that as a practical theologian that personal, or even social experience and science is not enough. The research must be supported with a theological component of some sort.

[60] If I had to identify myself on the spectrum of practical theology today, I would most resonate with the Revised Correlational Method. Don Browning and David Tracy, who sought to create a mutual dialogue between theology and the arts and sciences, developed this method. Questions of inquiry can come from either theology or the arts and sciences, and the answers to said questions can come from either theology or the arts and sciences, since they are considered in this model to be equal sources of knowledge.[95]

[61] Some practical theologians have decried the Revised Correlational Approach because it gives too much weight to human experience,[96] but I argue that human experience envelops all the human being, including what they know and how they know it,[97] and this includes knowledge of God, or theology, which is (purported to be shaped by) revelation. How does theology shape the imagination? Theology should undergird imagination, while sourcing real life experience and material. I do not believe that theology exists in a vacuum, but that it is mediated through the sieve of human experience and knowing. How else can humans perceive God, except through their own limited experience? To this end, it stands to reason that no theologian can do theology outside of human experience, so that any perceived revelation of Jesus Christ is always limited and bounded by human frailty.

[62] We are in bondage to both sin and our human ways of perceiving revelation, even as we attempt to apprehend God. Paul said, we see through a glass darkly (or, in a riddle[98]), but one day we will see face to face.[99] The “one day” has yet to come, and so we grasp for God with the tools that we have been given, which is why, as society changes, theology and revelation seem to change with it. It is so interesting, for instance, how the revelation of freedom has expanded over the last 150 years to include black bodies. There are other countless examples that suggest that theology and lived social experience reflexively inform each other. Furthermore, who is to say that social science and on-the-ground reality is not, in fact, revelation of God in new ways? Can we not suggest social science and theology can have equal weight and be in conversation with each other because all knowledge can serve the telos of knowing God?

[63] This is why there is a “Black Theology” or a “White Theology” in the first place, because someone’s lived experience did not line up with someone else’s revelation of God. Context matters, even in thinking about revelation. Revelation and resulting theology that is limited to only one group of people, cannot ultimately be liberative. Steven Bevans suggests, “There is no theology, only contextual theology.”[100] Theology must always be undertaken with context in mind. In this way, the theologian and people in the theological enterprise can be certain that their perspectives are included in the theology. Instead of a “top down” theological approach, this approach offers the ability for the practitioners to remain relevant in their specific contextual realities. In the place of a “universal” theology, however, how can contextual theologies seek to create a unity outside of themselves? Perhaps this is not even an aim. Maybe the only aim is to address the ills that a certain group of people are experiencing, and I am the first to admit that this is a worthy enterprise, but what is lost in the contextual silo? As context is the fodder for actual contextual theology, one can see that if a person’s context is limited in scope and imagination, so also will resultant theology and practice in the world be limited as well.

[64] Homiletician John McClure talks about this in part. Using Emanuel Levinás’ work, McClure talks about seeing the “glory of the infinite” through relationship to the Other. This relationship to the other, however, requires the self-erasure of the dominant being’s boundaries of self, to engage the Other.[101] So long as the individual’s boundaries remain closed, they remain an insulated contextual being. For dominant (white) theology to learn from contextual theologies, there must be the willingness for boundaries of whiteness to be fluid, so that there may be some integration (within itself) of contextual material. Universality (or even the guise of such) is pretty much out of the window with the abolishing of an “objective” theology. With the growing consensus that marginalized people are no longer responsible for teaching the dominant culture, the dominant culture and its theology must be willing to self-erase its boundaries toward inclusion. It must be said, however, that there are some contextual realities and theologies that would not wish to be broken into by dominant culture because of past abuses, etc. Maybe the answer is that it is better to have theologies for all (as is currently the case), rather than a theology for some, with the reality that some will pass like “ships in the night,” never meeting. If all goes well for the individual who seeks to expand their contextual realities to include the marginalized, it would only be so because they desire to do so, and are invited to do so.

[65] Revelation is what shapes theology. To this end, we must be careful of setting up categories of “pure” revelation, or generalizing markers of what it means to “know” God, because without paying attention to contextual and social realities, we run the risk of making the same mistake that the Vision and Expectation document made: creating a “universal” way of being, citing “revelation,” which in turn, ultimately limits people from being in and with Christ. In short, I affirm Bevans’ assertion that there is only contextual theology, but would push the boundaries to also say; there is no revelation, only contextual revelation. Contextual science and contextual revelation come together in a Revised Correlational Approach to know God.

[66] Pete Ward is clear that a theologian is supposed to place themselves into whatever they are studying.[102] He says:

Whatever the specific issue and whatever your chose method, it is important to spend some time thinking about yourself. Think through how you have been shaped and formed as part of the Christian church. Try to identify how specific experiences of theological perspectives that you carry with you might help to shape or indeed pull out of shape your attempt at theological reflection. If this is a piece of writing, then putting yourself into the study in specific ways may not simply be desirable—it might be essential. After all, this study must matter to you or be of importance to you for some reason. Naming this is a fundamental part of theological reflection.[103]

I think that as I do work in the future, I will hope not to always come into the study as one of the marginalized victims, though this is the real possibility of what it means to be a practical theologian who is always a minority in some way. Community Autoethnography was how I was able to study Vision and Expectations, but I do not think that all my studies will use the autoethnographic methodological approach, or even a community autoethnographic revised correlational approach, because, at some point, I hope I also have gifts not just for the indebted or Black church, but also for the larger Church. There are issues that traverse lines and boundaries in the Church that certainly may have contextual nuance but are widely experienced. How, then, would I not just be creating a universal Practical theology, which is the same accusation levied at those who traffic in White Practical Theology? The answer is embodiment. I am, admittedly, being trained with the tools of White (Practical) theology, but my embodied self comes to different conclusions than the ones who formed the tools and the structure.

[67] James Cone speaks of his own education and reformation:

I had to do something…[t]heology was my trade—all I had to show for nearly thirty years of living. I had a Ph.D. in systematic theology, but I didn’t know how to use it in the fight for justice since nothing I’d read spoke about what black people were going through. I had no models to follow. The few Negroes who had studied theology imitated white theologians, as I’d done, while writing a doctoral dissertation on the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. The Detroit rebellion deeply troubled me and revolutionized my way of thinking. I could no longer write the same way, following the lead of Europeans and white Americans. I had to find a new way of talking about God that was accountable to black people and their fight for justice. I was the only Negro professor at a white college in a Midwestern city of about 25,000 people, which included, as far as I could tell, no more than fifty Negroes, including me.[104]

Over time, Cone had a renaissance, learning to reconcile his own need to be able to create a theological expression that included black people’s problems, but used the tools of his formation to express himself anew:

When I started to trust my experience, I began with verve and self-confidence to write my first essay, “Christianity and Black Power” (1968). “If the gospel is the liberation for the oppressed,” I wrote, “then Jesus is where the oppressed are—proclaiming release to the captives.” I also emphasized the prophets’ call for justice, which prefigured Jesus’s solidarity with the poor. I quoted sixteenth-century reformer Martin Luther, Swiss theologian Karl Barth, and French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus to show that I was academically informed in theology and philosophy. I made them say what I wanted to say, even though I knew that they probably would reject the blackness I saw in the gospel of Jesus.[105]

[68] Cone’s embodied being allowed him to use the tools differently. By virtue of his embodied self being in direct contradistinction to the tools that he used to do theology, perhaps his work is always autoethnographic in nature. Despite my hopes, then, that all my work will not be community autoethnographic, I realize more and more that this may not be the case.  At the very least, however, it should always be theological, in that it takes seriously claims about God and how we understand our call to live in light of (contextual) revelation; contextual, in that theological enterprise should also seek to understand the time and place in which its subjects live, and that times, places, and expressions differ across locales; and communal in nature, in that it is always a dialogical enterprise between all who engage (or will be engaged by) the theological enterprise. Theology and science are never to be done in a vacuum, but in a covenantal community.




Appendix A

 This is the letter that I submitted to my Synodical Bishop after I was “flagged for indebtedness.” It was shared with many of the “higher ups” at the denominational headquarters.

Bishop X[106],

I hope this letter finds you well. Today I met with you and Q[107], Vice President of the Synod. One of the topics that came up in our conversation was a background check conducted by the ELCA that had “flagged” my “indebtedness.” In that moment, I felt laid bare and ashamed—and a little piqued that once again, in some small way, I needed to vouch for my fitness as a pastor in the Synod. Though this was not at all the spirit in which my indebtedness came up (it came up as a point of concern for my wellbeing), this line of inquiry, in my opinion, points to a larger issue that should be addressed on the institutional level.

As of 2019, over 44.7 million people owe 1.5 trillion dollars in student loan debt[108], and I am one of those people. When I went to college, I was under the impression (as were many of my generation) that the poor could upwardly progress through education. To this end, I achieved, and worked hard. Despite stellar grades and academic performance, I still had to accrue quite a bit of student debt with the hopes that I would get good gainful employment. I knew that I wanted to be challenged academically, so I chose one of the most prestigious divinity schools in the country and attended. Without denominational support, local church support, or access to other similar grants, my student loan debt skyrocketed. With this taking on of debt, I prayed that God would make it possible for me to be able to reasonably live, support my family, and pay my loan payment each month.

As Providence would have it, I graduated from seminary and was able to land some excellent jobs: I worked as the Director of Family Ministry at Christ Lutheran Churches-Charlotte; as the Associate Minister of Youth and Young Adults at The Riverside Church in the City of New York; and have served as the Pastor and Mission Developer at The Christ Center at Transfiguration in Harlem, NY. I have been able to make my loan payments on time, while also living reasonably. I served in my previous posts with honor and great accomplishment—all while indebted to the federal government for my student loans, and also after also having passed multi-layered background checks without being flagged.

The inquiry from the ELCA points to a larger issue. When we take calls as Lutheran pastors, we are expected to be good stewards of our financial resources. And it makes good sense that if pastors will have oversight of the resources of churches and other ministries that they should be able to demonstrate their ability to care for themselves and their personal responsibilities. At first glance, this seems to protect the institution from people who are in some desperate financial straits.

The issue arises with the reality that the mandate that pastors have little to no indebtedness privileges people who either: have denominational support to attend seminary; attend a seminary that seeks to provide means of support for students (I am especially thinking of ELCA seminaries); have not come into the denomination as an “outsider;” and are not ministers of color (because we know that people of color overwhelmingly graduate with more student loan debt, face longer wait times for calls, and the calls that they get are in places with overwhelmingly scant resources—and this affects women of color in our denomination more than any other group[109]).

Certainly, people make mistakes financially, and may not be fit to oversee the resources of others. That is fair and just. But what is unfair and unjust is lumping everyone into a category and simply calling it “indebtedness.” The unseen reality is that black and brown clergy have to “pay to play” to get into seminaries, then after getting subpar calls, they cannot afford to maintain their lives because they are helplessly participating in a circuitous capitalistic system that does not serve their interests. We can talk about the wonder of diversity in our churches all day, but we must reckon with the reality that for many, including me, my black body serving in an ELCA church came at a cost. This does not, however, make me any less qualified to do my work—and to illustrate this, I can point to my great work in my pastorate in Harlem: we grew in numbers, we grew in faith, and we (against all odds) were able to steward what resources we had to show Christ to our community. I wonder how the great work would have been stifled in Harlem if the people there would have been made to wait additional time for a pastor because I was “flagged for indebtedness.” As Providence would have it, the whole process had been bungled, and the background check was not completed until after I had been already working and cultivating the community for almost a year and a half, and so, like everywhere else I have been, God was present, creating anew.[110]

Instead of measuring my fitness or being concerned for my “wellbeing,” I hope that this letter will begin a much-needed conversation on a larger level. Does a person’s (especially one who is a minority) “indebtedness” and inability to access the resources of their white peers make them unfit for service? While I appreciate the question of “are you okay,” I would like to make it clear that as a black man in America, I have well become used to surviving in stifling systems, and I come from people who have done the same. It is nice when I am asked, “How are you able to do it?” “You owe a lot of money, are you okay?” But the shadow side to those questions is directly related to my fitness. If we are going to use indebtedness (especially from educational expenses) to disqualify people, or at the least, raise questions, then as the statistics show, our churches, which are already suffering from a clergy shortage, will suffer all the more. Using the brokenness of the educational system, which itself is driven by capitalistic aims, to question the abilities and fitness of people of color, is alarming and needs prayerful adjustment. I understand that when a background check comes back as flagged for indebtedness, it will not say “student loans.” But those flags will continue to increase over time, and we need to alter our stance on financial stewardship based upon the reality that different people have had very different experiences as it relates to educational pursuit and the incurring of debt. In short, we as a church should be looking for ways to dismantle the system, not disqualify the servant.

Who is worthy to untie the sandals of Christ? The one with the least amount of student loan debt? I think not. The people worthy to proclaim and serve should be those washed, claimed, and called—those with clean hands and pure hearts—we unlikely and unqualified people who have been called according to God’s purpose. I hope my feelings of shame and frustration can serve a greater purpose to help those who will be coming behind me in service to Christ.

I write and submit this humbly.

In God’s Peace,

The Rev. Kevin Vandiver



[1] See Appendix A.

[2] Nitro. “Student Loan Debt: A Current Picture of Student Borrowing and Repayment in the United States.” 2019. Accessed 6/25/2019. Web. https://www.nitrocollege.com/research/average-student-loan-debt

[3] Evangelical Lutheran Church Council Meeting Minutes, October 1990. https://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/ELCA_Church_Council_Minutes_1990.pdf. Accessed 12/16/2019.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “VE_Doc_History_Flowchart” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. https://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/VE_Doc_History_flow_chart.pdf. Accessed 12/16/2019.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Sharon L. Miller, Kim Maphis Early, Anthony T. Ruger. “A Call to Action: Lifting the Burden: How Theological Schools can Help Students Manage Educational Debt.” (Auburn Seminary, April 2014), 3.

[12] Ibid, 3. Figure 1.

[13] Ibid, 3. Figure 1.

[14] Ibid, 4-5.

[15] Ibid, 4-5.

[16] Ibid, 4-5.

[17] Ibid, 4-5.

[18] Ibid, 4ff.

[19] Episcopal News Service. “How to Solve the Seminarian Debt Crisis.” Episcopal Life Weekly. (The Episcopal Church, 2009). https://episcopalchurch.org/files/elife_insert_092709_eng_bw_lettersize.pdf. Accessed 12/13/2019.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Joy McDonald Coltvet. “Seminarian Debt: Ethical Challenges.” Journal of Lutheran Ethics. (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 5/1/2012). https://www.elca.org/JLE/Articles/149. Accessed 12/15/2019.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] “Let’s Talk About Debt.” (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Research and Evaluation, 3/25/2015). http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Stewards_of_Abundance_Lets_Talk_About_Debt.pdf. Accessed 12/15/2019.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Aristotle, Robert C. Bartlett, and Susan Collins. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. (Chicago London: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

[31] Ibid, 23.

[32] Ibid, 1-14, 229-230.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Vision and Expectations. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Vision_and_Expectations_for_Ordained_Ministers.pdf. 1990. Accessed 12/16/2019, 2. Emphasis mine.  Though the document was available in 2019, it is no longer available on the ELCA website. If you would like a copy, you can contact the ELCA Archives, https://www.elca.org/archives.

[35] Aristotle. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Translated and introduced by Robert C. Bartlett, and Susan Collins. (Chicago London: University of Chicago Press, 2011). 34ff.

[36] See Vision and Expectations. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1990, 11-2. Also, I realize that this does not overtly say “indebtedness,” but these were the grounds under which I was brought before the bishop.

[37] Ibid, 12. Italics original to document.

[38] Aristotle, 85.

[39] Martha C. Nussbaum. The Therapy of Desire. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 54-6. See also Aristotle, Robert C. Bartlett, and Susan Collins. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. (Chicago London: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 4-5, 223-235.

[40] See Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics.  I. 8. 16. H. Rackham, trans.  (London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1934).

“For many noble actions require instruments for their performance, in the shape of friends or wealth or political power; . . . As we said therefore, happiness does seem to require the addition of external prosperity, and this is why some people identify it with good fortune.”

[41] The current edition of Definitions and Guidelines says the following about debt is: “7. Fiscal responsibilities:13 The following fiscal misconduct is considered conduct incompatible with the character of the ministerial office: a. Indifference to or avoidance of legitimate and neglected personal debts; b. Embezzlement of money or improper appropriation of the property of others; c. Using the ministerial office improperly for personal benefit or financial gain; d. Soliciting members or others to directly or indirectly acquire gifts, bequests, or similar benefits for personal gain” http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Definitions_and_Guidelines_for_Discipline_2021.pdf.

[42] Joy McDonald Coltvet. “Seminarian Debt: Ethical Challenges.” Journal of Lutheran Ethics. (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 5/1/2012). https://www.elca.org/JLE/Articles/149. Accessed 12/15/2019.

[43] See Mark 1:6-7.

[44] Martin Luther. “Lectures on Galatians 3:5— “Thus Abraham Believed God” in Luther’s Spirituality. Philip D.W. Krey and Peter D.S. Krey, ed. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2007).170.

[45] Information about loan forbearance can be found here: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/repay-loans/deferment-forbearance

[46] Psalm 24:3-6.

[47] See Martin Luther. “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation.” 1520.

[48] Joy McDonald Coltvet. “Seminarian Debt: Ethical Challenges.” Journal of Lutheran Ethics. (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 5/1/2012). https://www.elca.org/JLE/Articles/149. Accessed 12/15/2019. Current link: Current link: https://learn.elca.org/jle/seminarian-debt-ethical-challenges/.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Vision and Expectations. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1990, 17.

[51] There are certainly instances where the church looks inward to do its work, usually found in resolution documents, etc., but what I am calling for is a document that is almost a covenant between two entities.

[52] Robert. C. Tucker. The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed. (New York: WW Norton & Company, 1978, 1972), 204.

[53] Luke 15:11-32 is the entire story, but this focuses on verses 12-14.

[54] Howard Thurman. Jesus and the Disinherited. (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1979), 92-3.

[55] Michael Lipka. “The Most and Least Racially Diverse U.S. Religious Groups.” Pew Research Center. (2015). https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/27/the-most-and-least-racially-diverse-u-s-religious-groups/. Accessed 12/15/2019.

[56] Tom Beaudoin and Katherine Turpin. “White Practical Theology.” Opening the Field of Practical Theology: An Introduction. Kathleen A. Cahalan and Gordon S. Mikoski, ed. (New York: Bowman & Littlefield, 2014), 254-61.

[57] Ibid, 255.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid, 255-6.

[60] Ibid, 257.

[61] Ibid, 257-8

[62] Ibid, 258-9.

[63] Ibid, 259.

[64] See footnote 7 and corresponding text above.

[65] Tom Beaudoin and Katherine Turpin. “White Practical Theology.” Opening the Field of Practical Theology: An Introduction. Kathleen A. Cahalan and Gordon S. Mikoski, ed. (New York: Bowman & Littlefield, 2014), 261-3.

[66] Joy McDonald Coltvet. “Seminarian Debt: Ethical Challenges.” Journal of Lutheran Ethics. (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 5/1/2012). https://www.elca.org/JLE/Articles/149. Accessed 12/15/2019.

[67] Carolyn Ellis, Tony E. Adams & Arthur P. Bochner. “Autoethnography: An Overview.” Forum: Qualitative Social Research (Sozialforschung). Vol. 12, No.1, Art. 10 (2011), 7.

[68] Ibid, 1.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid.


[73] Ibid, 2.

[74] Ibid.

[75] Ibid.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Ibid.

[78] Ibid, 7.

[79] Ibid.

[80] James H. Cone. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011).

[81] Ibid, 34-5, 48

[82] Ibid, 30-64

[83] Ibid, 30ff

[84] Ibid, 39

[85] Ibid, 40

[86] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976).

[87] Ibid, 1.

[88] Carolyn Ellis, Tony E. Adams & Arthur P. Bochner. “Autoethnography: An Overview.” Forum: Qualitative Social Research (Sozialforschung). Vol. 12, No.1, Art. 10 (2011), 11.

[89] Ibid.

[90] Ibid.

[91] Ibid.

[92] Ibid.

[93] Ibid.

[94] Ibid.

[95] Richard R. Osmer. Practical Theology: An Introduction. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans Co., 2008), 166.

[96] Gordon S. Mikoski. “Osmer’s Practical Theology.” Princeton, NJ: Princeton Theological Seminary, 11/5/2019. Lecture. We talked during this class about how Revised Correlational Method does not suit (neo)orthodox theological enterprise, because it gives equal weight to social sciences, instead of privileging revelation above all.

[97] Immanuel Kant. Practical Philosophy. Mary J. Gregor, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[98]https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+13%3A12&version=NRSV. Footnote a.

[99] Corinthians 13:12 paraphrased.

[100] Stephen B. Bevans. Models of Contextual Theology. 2nd ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 3.

[101] John McClure. Otherwise Preaching: A Postmodern Ethic for Homiletics. (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2001).

[102] Pete Ward. Introducing Practical Theology. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017).

[103] Ibid, 116.

[104] James H. Cone. Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian. (Marynoll: Orbis Books, 2018), 178-179 (kindle location). (Chapter 1ff)

[105] Ibid, loc. 370.

[106] Name redacted for purposes of privacy.

[107] Ibid.

[108] Nitro. “Student Loan Debt: A Current Picture of Student Borrowing and Repayment in the United States.” 2019. Accessed 6/25/2019. Web. https://www.nitrocollege.com/research/average-student-loan-debt

[109] Coltvet, Joy McDonald. “Seminarian Debt: Ethical Challenges.” Journal of Lutheran Ethics. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. April 12, 2012. Accessed 6/25/2019. Web. Current link: https://learn.elca.org/jle/seminarian-debt-ethical-challenges/.

[110] I’m not saying that this was right—in fact, it was a dangerous misstep for the institution to have not processed my background check before I began working!

Kevin Vandiver

Kevin Vandiver is an ordained minister in the ELCA and a PhD candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary.