Seminarian Debt: Ethical Challenges

[1] The amount of financial aid that students need and the amount of debt they acquire to earn their college and seminary degrees has dramatically changed in the past decade. In response to an educational debt crisis nationally, there have been major changes to the Federal Loan program. Students legally have access to borrow more, and although leaders can advise students to take only what they need, it is a federal offense to refuse a student aid for which they qualify. Because of other kinds of financial challenges — increased costs of medical insurance and other expenses, unemployment or underemployment, significant cuts in congregational, synodical, and national support — students taking on greater debt has been interpreted as the only way to pay.
Seminarian Debt: Ethical Challenges by Joy McDonald Coltvet

[2] As the economy in general and the church economy more specifically have shifted, seminarian debt across all eight ELCA seminaries has greatly increased. As the church identified this as a major concern, seminaries have begun to take steps to aid seminarians in preventing excess debt and managing wise use of financial aid both during seminary and beyond that in their ministries.

[3] Still, there are important ethical questions that seminary students, seminaries and the larger church continue to ask. Should seminarians take out student loans in order to answer a call to church leadership? What are the factors that increase that debt to an unmanageable level? Whose responsibility is either wisely accrued or excessive debt?

Debt as Investment
[4] In general, educational debt is still seen as a good investment. However, debt is legally the responsibility of the student. Thus, financial advisors generally recommend that a student’s total educational debt (college and graduate) not exceed the total of a student’s first-year’s salary. Based on this figure (around $30,000), ELCA candidacy committees and financial counselors advise students to seriously consider their financial options and limited call possibilities if their educational debt exceeds that figure prior to seminary.

[5] On the other hand, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, in August 2010, the “average annual tuition (plus expenses) at a private nonprofit four-year college is about $35,000.”1 That means that a student can accrue significant debt, to a level that could prevent a student’s ability to respond to a call to ministry, in a very short timeframe.

[6] A pastor who wished to remain anonymous said, “I wish that I would have had better advice at [my Lutheran university] so that I wouldn’t have taken out the maximum loan amount every year. Then, it felt like play money. Now, it’s a crushing burden.” For this pastor, student loans were easy to get but are not easy to pay off.

[7] What resources do ELCA-affiliated colleges and universities, particularly in financial aid offices, bring to this conversation in order to prevent excessive student debt and equip all the baptized, including those who may later seek to become rostered leaders, to go forward into healthy financial lives?

Debt Reveals Systemic Brokenness
[8]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.

[9] 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 level 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.

[10] As Mark Olsen, pastor of Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, Haymarket, Virginia, writes, “We can discuss and debate whether seminarians should take on debt, how much, should the church pay more to reduce it over time, should congregations help pay their pastors’ loans, etc. But all of that discussion pertains to the seminarians of privilege who get to go to college, and get to qualify for loans, and doesn’t even consider the host of gifted adults/young adults who are not privileged and who can’t even get that far in the system to be able to take loans as seminarians.”

[11] “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.'”2

[12] 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 systemically been prevented from gaining wealth, financial security, and the kinds of early educational resources that white students receive.

[13] This is a particularly challenging question for a church that would articulate the expectation that all the baptized might be called by God to serve as pastors, regardless of race and class, yet has data confirming that students of color have exponentially higher debt than white students. A dominating myth of scarcity — that there is not enough for all of us — keeps both church and culture in this pattern, a pattern that rewards some and actively disempowers others.

[14] In addition, life changes and unexpected crises through the seminary journey — such as health issues, family changes, or issues related to uprooting several times throughout seminary — also add to student debt. Seminary tuition is not the key factor in excessive debt; it is unforeseen cost-of-living expenses related to graduate education.

[15] Yet, we believe in God the Creator who creates all from nothing, Christ who multiplies loaves and fish, and the Holy Spirit who falls on both those who meet all our criteria and those who dramatically challenge it. These empower a church-body which has plenty of storied resources to bring to these challenging ethical questions and to reduce debt of emerging church leaders.

We Are Each Other’s Keepers
[16] There are a variety of ways that the ELCA in its many expressions is working to address practical concerns and more overarching ethical questions around seminary graduate debt.

[17] Thomas Henderson, Philanthropic Advisor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, notes,

The wider church has always accepted the responsibility for funding the theological education of a person answering a call to public ministry. In the not-so-distant past, seminaries had no tuition costs and little to no living expenses for students. I don’t have romantic notions that we will return to the days of seminaries being completely funded by the wider church system. But, I do have significant hope that if this story is told, generous congregations and individuals will provide direct support to the seminaries and/or the students themselves. There are some students who have received significant support from these resources and are ready to answer a call to public ministry with no indebtedness.

[18] In realization that the formation of church leaders is a shared endeavor, the ELCA created the Fund for Leaders in Mission with the goal of raising money to fund seminary education in a variety of ways. Seminaries are re-visioning scholarship programs. Some synods and congregations offer student loan debt payments as part of their compensation packages for new pastors.3

[19] The ELCA Stewards of Abundance scholarships are another example of a shared endeavor to offset the expense of seminary formation. The ELCA gives grants that participating ELCA seminaries must match. This is a strategic, experimental scholarship program designated for students in their middle and senior years, when there are fewer existing scholarships in place. These scholarships are specifically designated for ELCA M.Div. students preparing for ordained ministry who are in danger of “crossing the line” into excessive debt. Instead, grant recipients are supplied not only with funds but with financial counseling and advice on ways to fundraise from additional sources.4

[20] These students are also matched with stewardship partners, in order to give access to needed skills for managing one’s own financial life and skillfully leading others. Seminaries participating in this program offer workshops and opportunities for one-on-one financial counseling, not only for the recipients of the Stewards of Abundance scholarships but for students in all degree programs.

[21] At the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, the Hope Scholarship is a new fund-raising effort particularly aimed at addressing the higher percentage of debt that students of color carry. It is intended to fund not only tuition but also modest living expenses, thus making seminary studies possible without or with only minimal student loan debt.

[22] ELCA seminaries are increasingly working to tell the story of how deeply the gifts of congregations and individuals are needed.

[23] Additionally, Rev. Chick Lane, Director of the Center for Stewardship Leaders at Luther Seminary, writes about the need to talk about money even when we’re not asking for it. He writes: “(E)ven in a culture that places a thick shroud of secrecy around money; the church just might be a place where people could talk with one another about how faith and finances are intersecting in their lives. It wouldn’t be so much that there was an expert in the conversations… [just those] who are on the same journey, and just might be able to shed some light on each other’s paths.”5

[24] In addition, seminaries are deeply considering more overarching questions around the length, delivery and content of seminary programs to make them more affordable and sustainable for the good of students and the whole church.

[25] Dorothy Dominiak is the Director of Financial Aid and Admissions at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. She has worked with students and financial aid since 1995 and she attests, “It really can pay off for students if they take charge of their financial life in the beginning — doing fundraising, talking to their church and synod, asking for donations and financial support to fund their studies instead of incurring huge debt. With greater awareness and diligent work on all of our parts, there are many ways to address this.”6


1. “The Average Cost of A U.S. College Education,” U.S. New and World Report, August 24, 2010. Accessed April 15, 2012,

2. Mark Olsen, email to author, April 12, 2012.

3. See Richard Foss: Tending to the Financial Strain of Ministry,

4. Jonathan Strandjord, interview with author, April 17, 2012.

5. Chick Lane, “Money In the Church,” Concord: Money and Ministry, Vol. 41:6, April 22, 2012, 6.

6. Dorothy Dominiak, interview with author, April 12, 2012.

Joy McDonald Coltvet

Joy McDonald Coltvet is an ELCA pastor and has served in congregational, campus ministry and seminary settings. She lives in St. Paul, MN.