Author’s Note: The title is meant as a humorous play on the LCMS which is predominantly white. Please do not read anymore into it.
A little over a month ago a friend that I went to seminary with mentioned to me that some of the current students at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis were considering bringing up the issue of student debt to the faculty. This was previously done by a few students while I was attending seminary and on my vicarage (internship). These students went before the faculty and presented to them on this issue, but for the most part to no avail. It’s a bit disheartening (and even heart wrenching) to hear of students still having these same issues and wanting to do what has been done before, but knowing that it probably won’t do much. Worse, I begin to wonder how expensive seminary must now be. While I was there (from June 2005 to May 2009) it was roughly $27,000 a year for tuition, room, and board. I cringe at the thought of what it must currently be. I know from personal experience that coming up with thousands of dollars every year can be quite stressful, if not unbearable (1). By the grace of God I was heavily supported by my home congregation and district, but nonetheless there was always a short fall because it was so expensive. Walking over to financial aid to take out another student loan is not a fun walk and realizing that tuition will only continue to rise is not comforting to think of during one’s first year. The expense of seminary education is oppressive, I don’t know how to put it any other way. What makes this issue even worse is the fact that the number of financially viable congregations that can actually support a full-time pastor are coming to be less and less (2). So students go to seminary, acquire a huge amount of debt , and then are sent to work in a field that no longer has the stability it had 30 years ago. Better yet, we stifle the students’ ability and freedom to serve in different places because they bear financial burdens that limit where they can go. It’s an odd place that we find ourselves in. Yet it continues on. Right before I entered seminary in 2005 I had more than a few pastors mention to me how shocked they were to find out how expensive tuition was. They couldn’t believe it, to them it was clear: debt was unavoidable and that was wrong. And yet it just keeps getting more expensive and more students feel compelled to go before the faculty to speak about the issue. And yet nothing appears to change, students continue to fall into more and more debt, and yet throughout this cry for help both seminaries built new facilities on their campuses. I think the key to understanding our situation lies in that last fact.
Institutions, whether a seminary, or a college, or a church body have the ability to take on a life of their own. Our seminaries are no exception. The institution has taken on a life in which the seminary’s livelihood and survival is more important than that of its students and future pastors livelihoods and survival. The institution has taken on an ideal, an ideal that has more value placed on it than other human beings. The willingness to consistently take federal student loan funds proves this very point. A system that is unsustainable is sustained in part by funds that according to the Scriptures are unethical and unbefitting to the people of God. In the midst of all of the debates about the future of the education of clergy in our synod some often cite the idea of our LCMS fathers that, “If we lose the seminaries, we lose the synod.” But this thinking is incredibly flawed. First, it undermines the Holy Spirit. Second, it undermines the catholicity of the church and assumes that the current way of educating pastors is the only way to educate pastors. Third, it’s dehumanizing because it puts institutional preservation over and against human needs. I believe the last point is the fundamental issue that no one ever touches on in this debate. At play is a system that enslaves people to lenders so that it may continue on “as is” whilst our culture grows increasingly anti-Christian. Remember that those whom Jesus consistently bumps heads with are the Pharisees and the scribes – representatives of the Temple establishment in Jerusalem. When Jesus heals the leper, the woman with the bleeding problem, and many others he becomes a marked man because he bypassed the purity system of the religious establishment. He bypasses their way of doing things that brought them wealth, stability, and comfort. But still it goes deeper: these people whom Jesus healed were unclean and continued to remain so because the purity system was socially and economically oppressive. How could a leper who has been banished from his town find the funds to become clean? How could the woman with the bleeding problem find the funds to be made clean when all her money was wasted on doctors? Their uncleanliness was related to their social and economic status. This is is exactly why the peasants go after Jesus the way that they do. Finally someone was sticking up for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, those whose humanity had been disregarded. The Temple establishment had taken on a life of its own; an ideal of its own. Something with noble purposes became a source of social and economic oppression. And in order for this system to be retained, Jesus is murdered because he delegitimated it. Now I’m not saying there is a direct parallel, but it’s something that we who profess Jesus Christ as Lord ought to pay attention to just as we ought to pay attention to Nehemiah 5 as well.
What’s unfortunate is the inability, the unwillingness to actually think through the implications of what we are doing to our future pastors and to one another and the Church. But this inability is the result of comfort and idolatry and of the nostalgia and love for the past. But I also think it goes even deeper than that. I think it relates to how we view Jesus. You see if we relate to Jesus, if we perceive Jesus in purely individualistic existentialist terms, then it’s easy for us to shrug our shoulders at injustice because, well, “that’s just life in a fallen world.” It’s easy to look at such a system and think, “well that’s just the way it is.” But we the people of God are called to embody and live out justice and mercy. This is the way of the Cross, the way of the Law and the Prophets. I remember one seminary professor commenting to me that if debt bothers a student so much then they shouldn’t come to seminary. But if a student used that as the basis for not going to seminary then there wouldn’t be too many students and that professor would be out of a job. Isn’t it interesting how our individualistic mindsets tend to backfire on our well being? We don’t realize how our approach to problems can have an indirect negative impact on ourselves. The seminary prof saw the problem as the student’s to bear alone, not realizing that his own well-being is more connected to the problem than he realizes.
The seminaries are but a skeleton, a shell of a system that once was. This system worked when the Synod was prospering, but it no longer is, so where does that leave us? And is anyone aggressively addressing this issue? The LCMS has seen a steady decline in membership since the 1970s and it doesn’t look like that decline is stopping (3). As congregations grow smaller they become more focused on survival rather than giving to missions. If they aren’t able to give to missions and institutions, those missions and institutions will potentially decline more and more because the money that was always there won’t be there (4). The question is: How much longer will we continue to resist this reality? How much longer will we put institutional survival over and against human beings? This way is not god-pleasing and will have serious consequences in the future, even as it is having serious consequences now.
I do not write to denigrate the work of the faculties of both seminaries. I have no doubt that they are good men with good intentions. I’m glad that we have men like Jeff Gibbs and David Schmitt teaching our future pastors. But the four year residential seminary model is not the “be all end all” of forming pastors and right now it’s not sustainable. There’s absolutely no doubt that the education of our clergy needs to be rigorous, but maybe it’s time for us to look beyond the four year residential model. Maybe it’s time for us to go farther back to the models of the early church in which pastors were raised up from among their congregations to shepherd them. We have Concordias and churches all across the country, what if those were used as learning centers for clergy in the area having one or two professors in the given area on site to teach? It seems to me that the SMP program has got this part right.
Nonetheless I write out of a deep concern for those who are currently at seminary or are considering seminary. I know what it is to carry student loans even after receiving a generous amount of financial support. I know the burden and it only appears to be getting worse for those who go to seminary. I serve a congregation that may not be financially viable in a few more months. Taking a smaller salary is not an option because of the student loans that I have, I offered to be a worker priest, but the congregation said “no”. This is the reality of what is happening to many of our congregations throughout Synod. I don’t write out of bitterness, I write out of concern. God has always taken care of my wife and I and he will continue to do so. I’m concerned for the guys right now. It costs close to $35,000 a year to go to seminary and such costs will only continue to rise. Something’s gotta give. When a seminary president says “this is just the way it is” to students concerned with debt, something is wrong. We are called to be the salt and light of the world. How can we be such things if we oppress one another in such ways? We are called to follow Jesus, to walk humbly with our God, to love justice and mercy. Of course we will never be perfect when it comes to these things, but to not even care or shrug it off says so much more than we realize. Our American individualistic middle class sensibilities are going to be the death of us. It’s hard for us to see someone else’s problems as our problems.
Interestingly enough, today I received the September LCMS Reporter in the mail. In this month’s issue was the newsletter for pastoral education. Whenever a synod document comes out with its central focus being pastoral education I usually cringe. From Concordia Seminary magazine to For the Life of the World magazine they’re not good at telling the whole story. It’s always all the glits and glamour, what’s good. And while I understand that, there’s much truth to be revealed in the light. I had a thought while driving home today, “What if every seminarian pictured had a bubble above his head that showed the amount of debt he owed?” That would be eye-opening, indeed. Things would get real serious real soon. Maybe some people would even start overturning tables in the financial aid offices.
I want to end with something that I share often so that you might be able to really understand the enormity of this problem. At the end of the summer of 2008 I went back to seminary with $16,000 to put towards my education that year. $10,000 from my home congregation, $3,000 from my home district and $3,000 from what I had saved on vicarage. I put all of it towards tuition, room and board, health insurance and I still had to take out $3,000 in loans to cover the shortfall. Also, just so everyone is aware, students are not allowed to work more than part time jobs while enrolled at the seminary. I think we can all agree that a part time job is not enough to make $35,000 a year. Keep in mind that there are other expenses such as books, simple living expenses, car expenses, as well as summer tuition costs for those who need to take summer classes (which a good portion of seminarians have to do in order to graduate in four years), etc.
Yes, we have a serious problem here, but why can’t we talk about this openly and honestly? Why is the debt issue seen as something that we just have to deal with rather than an opportunity to make a statement to the world about the way of the Cross? Why do we have two seminaries in a declining church body? Why do we think in incredibly individualistic terms when it comes to issues of finance?