Educated White People Problems

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?


(1) – pg. 70.  You’ll see that it is $615 per credit hour.  That means that the average 3 credit class costs $1,845.  Most seminarians take between 12 to 15 credit hours a quarter which means that each quarter costs between $7,380 and $9,225.  Therefore average yearly tuition costs fall between $22,140 and $27,675.  Not factored into these numbers are room and board expenses as well summer class expenses.  Please see page 72 for room and board expenses.
(2) Reverend Paul Sauer speaks about these issues in his recent article entitled “Confessional Compromises or Catholic Creativity” in Lutheran Forum Summer 2012.
(4) Please see the May 2011 Lutheran Witness
Please also check out:  please see pages 4-7
“Binding the Strong Man” by Ched Meyers.

19 thoughts on “Educated White People Problems

  1. Scott
    been there done that.
    I feel your pain. I did it with a wife and two kids.
    It is easy to comment.
    So What is the solution?
    I am up for changes.
    For some reason I have been nominated to the Board of Regents for the upcoming election in 2013.
    I would love the chance to help make a change.
    I feel the synod seminary system must change or it will die
    After personally feeding the single guys every time the cafe was shut down you know my passion for the student body.
    BUT where we might differ is I believe the seminarys are ABSOLUTELY necessary for the development of pastors.
    But as it exists
    it will be difficult to continue in the current environment.
    What could – what should be changed?

    1. I did, read what I wrote. First and foremost we need to be willing to talk about the closure of one of the seminaries. If we can’t do that then I’m not so sure what will work. We have to stop assuming this is the only way to form pastors. This way is embedded in our LCMS psyches. I thought you were nominated because you sought it out, I remember receiving an email from you asking me to nominate you.

  2. Very well written. Many changes need to be made in the Missouri Synod. This seems like a great way to start, both financially and in the way seminary education is conducted.

  3. I agree. And that’s why I won’t attend. Instead I am attending a small accredited Reformed seminary part-time while working, it is much more affordable to pay as I go.

    This works both ways, though. Proverbs 22:7 tells us that the borrower is slave to the lender. God wants us to lend to others. Obviously, this is difficult if you don’t have anything to lend (Deuteronomy 15:6; 28:12; Matthew 5:42). We are required to pay back what we borrowed. It is easy to take this lightly, but if we borrowed it, we should pay it back (Psalm 37:21; Ecclesiastes 5:4). Some students are banking on federal programs that will allow them to escape from their debt because they work for a non-profit, but this really just transfers these costs to others. They do not truly disappear.

    It is indeed wrong to oppress students like this. But it is also wrong to become in debt that much for an education. The students are being poor stewards by agreeing to taking on the debt. The students really don’t have a leg to stand on if they pay for it anyways. The seminaries won’t wake up until enrollment no longer meets expenses. So the problem works both ways. There are other seminaries and other denominations who are much more faithful in this regard – including Lutheran ones.

    It reminds me of the wife being abused by her husband complaining about it but refusing to press charges or leave him if he doesn’t change. It’s insanity. It’s a codependent system.

  4. What is the real driving cause for the high cost of seminary? How much does national accreditation (which permits Federal Student Loans) actually cost? Even if we keep “residential” students, do we need a “residential” faculty? Could we not ask congregations to give up their PHd or STM pastor for 3 months so he could teach at the seminary and do away with the expense of a permanent “professorship”?

    I think I’d be in favor of abandoning a permanent/tenured “residential faculty” before I would abandon a four year residential student body. After all, in the “early days” Walther was a parish pastor AND president of the seminary AND a professor. If we weren’t forced to meet certain requirements in order to accept federal aid, could we develop a system that would allow for sustainability? Just a thought…

    1. Rev. Dent,

      I think you make some excellent points and excellent suggestions. We often look to the world for acceptance and legitimization. What an opportunity we have to rethink the way we do things! I appreciate your thoughts so very much. Thank you for adding to the conversation.

  5. One of the really awful things right now is that a lot of pastors, through no fault of their own. Mainly because the congregations or missions can no longer pay their pastor a liveable wage. Most pastors are finding that they have to go worker priest in order to support their family. But if they are forced into foreclosure and bankruptcy — then they are no longer eligible for a call. So, they are caught in a no win situation.

  6. Well written. Our seminaries are more and more ceasing to concern themselves with training parish pastors and are becoming simply holding grounds for academics, many of whom can’t function in the parish. Note the library expansion in Fort Wayne that is estimated to cost over $10 million. It won’t matter how nice it is if no one can afford to attend school there.

  7. Scott, this is spot-on. I think pastoral education is absolutely critical to our life as a faithful denomination, but there are lots of options that don’t require a four-year residential program. The current road is unsustainable.

  8. Why is it that the answer is always to close a seminary or two? Student indebtedness is not just the two seminaries’ fault. It is the fault of the LC-MS for not adequately funding the seminaries. It is the responsibility of the whole synod as church to fund pastoral education – not the seminaries and not the pastors who are being educated. This is a failure of the Purple Palace and the Districts.

    We do not need shortcuts to make pastors, ie SMP. We need to reform what we have. Eliminate the vicarage program for starters. Hypothetically, between the two seminaries you have 150 vicars per year, average cost for vicar salary, benefits, housing, and moving expenses to and from seminary – $50,000. Do the math. That is $7.5 million dollars. In its place, meaningful residential field education for the duration of the three years spent in seminary.

    We should also have stricter admissions policy. No one over the age of 40 admitted to seminary. That allows for a man to serve a minimum of 25 years in the parish or other ministry. Training men any older would be waste of resources. We should not allow recent converts to attend seminary until they have been Lutheran for at least 5 or 10 years. We shouldn’t admit those who are divorced (except for those who remarried their wife.) Those are just examples.

    We need to close some of our colleges and sell the property. Bronxville, Portland, Seward, Saint Paul, and Ann Arbor – possibly even River Forest – they could all be sold off. We have far too many schools competing for fewer and fewer LCMS young people, plus most of these institutions are serving themselves and a secular agenda. That would leave Mequon, Irvine, Austin, Selma, and River Forest. The proceeds could be used to shore up the remaining institutions as well as the seminaries.

    We need to force our DPs back into the parish, cut the bureaucracies that are the true problem. Smaller districts with no office buildings, just a church office and an extra secretary. The savings in unnecessary salaries and revenue from real estate sale of District offices would go a long way to fund the seminaries and the remaining colleges and universities.

    The truth is we need pastors – real pastors – not warm bodies shaped by their own congregations. We need young pastors formed to be servants of Christ by our two magnificent seminaries who form them by Word and Sacrament. They are the best in the world at what they do and need our support. We need men who are more than adequately trained to be the theologians in their parish. Men who are trained to fix the mess left by the previous generation. The shortage of pastors is coming, the recent economic downturn has only delayed the inevitable.

  9. William,

    The money isn’t there. The idea that the problem lies with our bureaucracies is false. Anyone who works with the districts, goes to them for resources and help knows that they are needed. I don’t think we realize how lost we’d be without the help of districts. Sure we could probably cut more corners but the districts are necessary. I agree that we should look into selling our colleges but the reality is that most of those are currently doing just fine on their own. Although, I’m not sure why we saved Ann Arbor. But your last point falls into direct conflict with the formation of pastors in the early church. The idea that one can sense an internal call and thereby go to seminary is rather individualistic. There are guys who go to sem whom a parish would never consider raising up to be their pastor yet because they go to sem they’re considered to be okay for the parish. Then they go out and do considerable damage, that’s what my predecessor did here. Interestingly enough, he’s no longer in the ministry. Lastly, the idea of a looming pastoral shortage has been something that the Synod has been propagating since the 1970s. We have yet to see this come to fruition and with many parishes becoming less financially viable it may never happen.

  10. If I remember a debate a good number of years ago regarding selling property specifically related to Ann Arbor, there was talk of a clause in the deed/bequeath that the property must be continued to be used for a specific purpose or it would revert back to the heirs of the owners. This was well over a decade ago when they were selling off “Prof Hill” and I don’t know all the details, but that may be one of the issues related to selling college property – it may not be “ours” to sell.

    1. Rev. Dent is correct and the same holds true for CTSFW’s land if I remember correctly. Closing either of the seminaries won’t happen any time soon. I’m almost confident it won’t be in my lifetime. That is unless the LCMS no longer exists.

  11. I stumbled upon your blog and was moved by your thoughts. They were well written and stimulating. Let me respond as briefly as I can to such provocative thoughts.

    First, the problem is real. I carried debt out of the sem in 1988. I have two sons desiring to be pastors. The idea of $50,000 of debt and being paid $35,000 is horrifying.

    Second, the whole problem does not lie completely at the steps of the seminary. The profs and administration do what they can to keep the cost down. The pay scale is not great for them either. Many of them could be making more at other institutions which may even have given them time to research and write for the Church. There are historical situations that brought us to this point. While once almost the entire cost was covered by the Synod, less than 2% (the last figure I saw, so it could have changed) of a seminary budget was supplied. That has occured in the last 40-50 years. As a result, endowments and other money sources that many secular institutions have are nonexistent or very small.

    Third, the SMP program does have certain strengths. However, it also has certain weaknesses. One weakness is little pastoral formation takes place. Yes, tasks are learned, but the collegiality of a larger pastorate – of which in the LCMS exist – is not learned. Bonds that can often help heal the rifts that exist in the LCMS can be helped by those relationships. A strength of the “traditional” route is that ability to think theologically is taught. While many can forget to be “practical” in their theology, I have found the opposite problem to be more prevelant.

    Fourth, many, many people are aware of situation. There are movements within some districts to help new pastors handle their debt. My congregation has a fund to help our teachers and pastors handle education debt. We are currently working toward ways to help fund the seminarians and teacher ed students of our congregation. (We have 4 young men training for the pastorate and one young man as a teacher.) Additionally, we support the schools in our region, as well as the seminaries, with a portion of our mission money. While we may be more aware of the situation, we are not the only ones who are expressing concern and working toward a solution.

    Thank you for raising an important issue and offering some insightful comments. I pray that this will spur our church on to greater prayer, discussion, and action.

    1. Bradley,

      Thanks so much for your comments, greatly appreciated. A couple of thoughts. I don’t deny that the faculties have good intentions, but where we are at right now as a Synod the current system is not sustainable. I don’t think they understand that or at least grasp the enormity of that reality. The reality is that we are steadily declining and with less people that means less money which is why funding for the sems has dried up from Synod. There appears to be this underlying belief that there’s tons of money out there in the congregations but that doesn’t really line up with what’s going on. I’m from the Atlantic District and I witnessed a few congregations close in my lifetime. I also witnessed my home congregation (which was incredibly strong when I was baptized) decline to the point in which they are now living off the inheritance they received from a woman who passed away. They once had millions, they once had Ozzie Hoffman and Dr. James Brauer as members, but those days are long gone. Again, it’s just not sustainable, we can cite the LCMS fathers all we want and lament how it wasn’t supposed to be this way according to them. Right now we have two seminaries, one of which struggles to place candidates because of its reputation which is deserved in many respects. But I believe that this idea of money being out there is just an illusion that keeps us from looking at the realities before us.

      My district provides debt assistance but it doesn’t amount to much, it’s around one monthly loan payment. The congregation that I serve can’t even afford to give to district because of its financial state. I also am not convinced of the legitimacy of residential education, there isn’t a strong catholic precedent for it which is why the Reformers left it open-ended in the BOC. I do believe we need to be rigorous in the education of our pastors but why do we need accreditation? Why do we need to have an M.Div? Why can’t we sell the St. Louis property (Which is worth millions)?

      In many regards, thinking theologically in our Synod boils down to indoctrination without critical thinking skills at play. I recently received a response from a seminarian in regards to his disagreement with what I wrote. Before I got it I told my wife what I thought he was going to write and I was dead on. That’s because I’m a product of the system too. I’ve heard the same things before because I learned from the same men in the same environment. We are incredibly insular. As a result we fail to see issues in their theological enormity, as they really are which is why we are where we are. It goes all the way up to President Harrison who is great at legitimating this current system.

      Again, awareness is great, but money is what is needed and I’m not so sure it’s there. I’d love to be proven wrong in the years to come but right now I’m not so convinced. Right now, this is my reality and one that I’m not so sure the faculty members at CSL or CTSFW really understand. At the end of the day the issue is incredibly theological, are we willing to forego all for Christ and his mission? Or are we willing to keep stumbling along with what we’ve got because we are convinced it’s the only way?

  12. I would also state that the way that we are funding missions these days makes it really difficult for a missionary to actually have time to do the mission and ministry. They are too busy doing fundraising to keep the mission going.

      1. My husband is one of those missionaries. He has been working to bring Jesus to one of the most underserved people groups — the deaf. He has been doing this his entire career. And, in my not-so-humble opinion, he is really good at it.

        But, now we have come to the point where we are tired, weary, and worn out because of the constant need to do fundraising in order for him to have a salary. I left my job in order to help him out with the fundraising. He has asked that his name be put on for a call to a hearing ministry.

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