Why You Shouldn’t Go Into Debt to Pay For Seminary

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Yesterday, I posted a few pros and cons about going to seminary. On of the cons was a fairly obvious one to anyone who has attended seminary or just looked into it: seminary is expensive. Very expensive. The average three-year M.Div. degree now costs about $40,000 (source: Association of Theological Schools 2011-2012 Annual Data Table). Add to that books and living expenses, and the total price increases very quickly.

Going into seminary, I was blessed to have zero student loan debt from my undergraduate degree. I had a small amount of credit card debt after college, but was able to be debt-free before going to seminary by working for a year. However, I did not have any savings to pay for seminary. While I did receive a partial scholarship to attend Denver Seminary, it did not come close to covering the cost of tuition or living expenses. However, while during a workshop on how to pay for seminary (at Denver Seminary), I learned how to apply for student loans. In fact, I remember very well what the workshop leader said: “Where God guides, he provides.” The message was clear: one way God would provide would be through student loans.

Before I go on, I want to make something very clear: I’m grateful for the education I received at Denver Seminary, and I feel like I was very well prepared to be a pastor upon graduation. I don’t fault Denver Seminary for the choices my wife and I made (she attended Denver Seminary as well). They were our financial choices, and they are choices we own. The workshop I attended, however, reveals a very broken mindset we have, not just as Americans, but as Christians: if you don’t have a pile of cash available to you to pay for school, you should borrow money to go to school.

If I could go back and make different choices, I would. Thankfully, God has provided for our family, and despite our choices, we have been able to be a one-income family while withstanding bumps in the road, including a major (and expensive) medical event. While I can’t go back and make different choices, I can share about my family’s experiences and encourage others not to go into debt to pursue a seminary education. Here are some reasons why:

Debt is a bad thing. I believe the wisest course of action is to avoid debt, ESPECIALLY unsecured debt, like student loans. As an American, it took me a long time to get this. Avoid debt. Find another way.

Seminary is not necessary to be a pastor. There, I said it. As much as I loved seminary, it’s not necessary to attend seminary become a pastor. Now, this isn’t an excuse to not learn how to “rightly handle the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). If you can’t afford seminary, find other ways to be trained as a pastor. Seminary is a wonderful way to gain a theological education, but if you only have two options: attend seminary and incur debt, or don’t attend seminary at all, choose the latter.

If you take more than three years to get through seminary, it still counts. Most seminaries have degree tracks that let you take fewer classes at a time (and take longer to obtain a degree) so that you can maintain a full-time job. Of course, there’s still a cost involved, but looking back, I realize that had I taken advantage of the 7-year program Denver Seminary offered, I probably (with some sacrifice) could have paid cash for my education.

Hard work is a good resource. When I was in seminary, I thought I worked hard. I had two part-time jobs and took a full slate of classes. Then I met my friend Eric. Eric had a wife and three kids, went to school full time, and worked two jobs–one at a church and one at Starbucks so that his family could have benefits. Eric valued his family so much that he would get extra time with them by regularly scheduling one or two nights a week when he would forgo sleep and study through the night. Obviously, not everyone can pull that off, but Eric showed that it’s possible to work hard AND take care of your family while going to school full-time.

What do you think? Do you think student loan debt is a legitimate way to get a seminary education?

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