Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Cost of Ministerial Formation

There is growing concern in our denomination about the cost of ministerial formation these days, which is up vastly from 30 years ago. (I ended my seminary career $300 in debt, having worked my way through as a dorm manager. This was unusually low even then, but today, it is not unusual for new ministers to have $50,000 debt. This is causing all kinds of obvious and subtle consequences and so...folks are talking. Here's my part of one such conversation.

Here is one thought I have about reducing the cost of ministerial education.

Make it possible for most candidates to complete their preparation for this career in three years, inclusive of CPE, internship, reading list, MFC interview, and job hunting process. That's the way it used to be. Most candidates are taking four, five, or more years these days. Even if they are only paying three years of tuition, they are taking several more to complete their requirements...a lot more time than it used to be, because the requirements have gone up and the anxiety and timing detail of RSCC and MFC interviews has skyrocketed. I have not noticed a corresponding increase in the quality of our ministry in the past generation. I am sure all the new requirements and processes were good ideas, but the total preparation required has gotten out of hand. You can be a physician in the time it takes to be a minister.

I grieve for the many people of modest means who will not be able to afford to prepare for our ministry, and I grieve for what we are missing from them. I also worry that our current situation fills our ministry with people who are so sure of their call from the very beginning, or so heedless of the financial risks that they are taking that they will do this...leading to a ministry devoid of the more humble, frugal, and cautious persons who would also serve us well.


Robin Edgar said...

"This is causing all kinds of obvious and subtle consequences and so... folks are talking."

It seems to me that one of the possible subtle consequences of such a high debt load, if not a glaringly obvious one. . . is that U*U seminarians and rookie ministers may be afraid to speak out against internal U*U injustices and abuses for fear of losing their existing or prospective jobs in retaliation for any whistle-blowing they might do. It seems to me that the greater the debt load a minister carries the less likely they are to dare to rock the proverbial boat. Does anyone care to talk about that potential consequence of a high debt load? Are U*U seminarians and rookie ministers *beholden* to the UUA and the U*U congregations who might hire them as ministers?

It's bad enougb that there is a Code of Silence forbidding U*U ministers to publicly criticize their colleagues written into the UUMA Guidelines, to say nothing of an even worse unwritten Code of Silence that too many U*U ministers hold to, but this apparent modern variation on "debt peonage" whereby U*U ministers must spend a decade or more repaying the debt they accumulated earning the M.Divs or PhDs is just a tad troubling. . .

Does Reverend Doctor = Reverend Debtor?

Apparently so. . .

Cynthia L. Landrum said...

You can be a physician in the time it takes to be a minister.

...which wouldn't be ab problem if ministers were paid like physicians! :) But yes, we can therefore acquire the same kinds of student loan debts as physicians, without the means to pay them off.

Your three-year suggestion is a good one. One year less of debt would be a good start. 25-33% less debt would be a help (33% because right now most students probably don't have much debt from internship year.)

It's going to take more than that, however. I think it take us having more responsibility as an association to our UU seminaries and to our seminarians.

My $0.02.

Robin Edgar said...

Thanks for posting my "difficult" comment Rev. Robinson.

I was wondering which side of caution you would err on today. ;-)

I am quite gratified that you decided to err on my side of caution this time around. :-)

I have posted a somewhat expanded version of my comment on The Emerson Avenger blog that I believe is well worth reading too. Here is a very frugal free sample of *some* of what I said in it -

I have to admit that I have not met very many humble, frugal, and cautious Unitarian*Universalist ministers.

Au contraire. . .

Yes there are a few exceptions who are indeed quite humble and cautious, and even frugal but God knows that there are a few too many U*U ministers who display far more hubris than humbleness and are anything but cautious in the harmful and damaging things that they say and/or do. No, I dare say that it is not only financial risks that these prideful and arrogant U*U ministers are heedless of, although these non-financial risks that they so heedlessly and indeed so foolishly take ultimately cost the UUA and individual U*U congegations plenty of money, if only in the form of the loss of the pledges and donations of actual or prospective church members. Could it be that the apparent lack of humble, frugal, and cautious Unitarian*Universalist ministers is one of the reasons that Unitarian*Universalism is "a tiny, declining, fringe religion" according to UUA President Peter Morales?

Mossyrock said...

May we remain cognizant of additional costs the additional of ministerial formation beyond tuition, books, housing, and such. Let us not forget costs for UUMA local and national meetings, GA, district meetings, conferences, workshops, and professional association dues and the like so one can be a viable candidate for the form of ministry chosen. An M.Div and passing the MFC are only the beginning.

The lack of financial support means an older body of clergy, ones who are more likely to have the means to self-finance. In the three years I've been in seminary, I've seen only a small handful of seminarians, say 10%, that are under 40. What do we gain and loose from having older ministers in our movement?

The increased cost and lack of financial support for ministerial formation means a longer time for many folks to finish seminary and go through the fellowship process. Part-time seminary or low residency formats bring with them benefits and liabilities. What are they?

A couple of months ago, as part of a rite welcoming me as a student minister, the minister at my praxis congregation summarized the steps involved in seeking fellowship. Several members of the congregation indicated they were had no idea of how much work is involved in becoming a minister in our movement. They were quite surprised. Although I don't expect laity to be well versed in matters related to formation, I can't help but wonder if this is a contributing factor in reduced support for theological education. In my twenty-some years of being UU, I don't recall a minister mentioning anything related to ministerial formation from the pulpit. Are we doing ourselves in by keeping quiet about the details of formation?

Thanks for keeping these issues out there.

Unknown said...

I am a 36 year old woman in NYS. I have been considering the ministry for a number of years. However, due to the cost, I have yet to apply to a seminary. I also am concerned about job prospects given the state of the economy. Thank you for your blog, I found it helpful.

-Brenda Owens

amylynn1022 said...

Yes, yes and yes. I would call on the MFC or an outside body to do a calculation of the full cost of becoming a minister, including the cost of the various interviews, psychological tests (which could definitely be done much cheaper), books (from the reading list, beyond seminary textbooks), unpaid CPEs, underpaid internships, delays in getting a job after graduation due to the poor timing of MFC interviews and the cost of committee-imposed delays and additional requirements. I think that if the average congregant knew about all these surcharges there'd be an uprising.