Wednesday, November 25, 2009

THe problem with debt reduction

Actually, I'm all for helping working ministers reduce the monumental debt of their educational expenses. However, this approach has several significant down sides.

1. First of all it is excessively hard on the people who discover in their seminary career, or who are told by the RSCC or MFC that they just don't meet the grade or who don't, for whatever reason get a job, to have amassed huge debt. It encourages...perhaps even requires...people to persevere who are not good candidates or who really don' t like the work. And I sometimes catch undercurrents of the possibility that seminaries and credentialing bodies feel inhibited from helping boarderline candidates out of the ministry track because they are aware of the financial burden they have taken on.

2. Secondly, it is excessively discouraging to prudent people who really look at the bottom line when they are considering ministry as a career. The Ministerial Bottom Line is already more than a little intimidating in our denomination; adding Seminary debt to that bottom line is a real financial deal-breaker. And while we might want to respond that ministry has to be a heart-felt and strong call, devoid of details like financial reality, do we really want our ministry to be completely made up of persons who are either independently wealthy, supported by a spouse, or are inclined to throw caution to the wind when it comes to financial matters? We don't.

3. Thirdly, debt reduction reduces the incentive for students to work during their formation years. I learned more about being a minister from managing a dorm during my seminary years than I did from my internship (at which I learned a lot...a bow to my internship supervisor, Randy Becker.) There is nothing like being the only occupant of the room where the buck stops to require learning! I learned a great deal from field work, especially at the First Parish of Belmont, MA (another bow, to them and to Marjory Montgomery, then their minister). I could do all of this in part because I was free of family obligations, but I was also encouraged by a Methodist seminary to do them, and I got credit for them. There were fewer course requirements for the MFC in those days. No one would have dreamed of asking how many districts the UUA had at an MFC interview. Believe it or not, there were no study groups for the MFC bound. We had to understand congregational polity and UU history in general, not in specifics.

The overall social issue of student debt is massive in our nation and it is no small part of our national ills. Massive Young Adult Debt reduces choices, creativity, and social responsibility. Massive New Minister Debt does the same thing. We need a better way.


revmama said...

This such a great conversation. Thank you. As a somewhat related tangent, I have also wondered about ministers who stay in UU ministry not because of continued passion and call, but rather for financial security or fear of re-entering the work force. In this way, our work is probably not different than any other profession.

Joy said...

Yet another wonderful blog on the need for change. Now we have to figure out how.

Loose Chicken said...

Thanks for this. I am reminded of a book I read regarding the Episcopal Church. They don't have the same problem on the incoming side for they vet their candidates BEFORE they amass debt.

But the concern was that significant numbers of experienced clergy were leaving parish work long before retirement. Thus the investment in seminary, internships, et al by both the clergy AND the denomination were going to waste.

This can be ignored as long as there are enough supply on the incoming side (ie new seminarians) But if that supply slows down either from high costs of seminary or low pay in churches we will be faced with a crisis.

(or perhaps we already are)