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A Theology of Student Debt

Last week, the credit report company Experian released some staggering new numbers on the student debt problem. Forty million consumers now have a student loan, and the balance of student loan debt nationwide nearly doubled from 2008 to 2014. The average debt amount per borrower sits around $29,000.

One of the great costs of high student loan debt is the depression of an individual’s entrepreneurial behavior. Every few hundred dollars that gets poured into paying down loans is less money that can be invested in a new idea. Even modest money-making—including self-determining ideas like a powerwashing business, an Etsy shop, or a DJ gig—requires capital expenditures of tools, advertising, and website hosting.

But an entrepreneur isn’t just a business owner. An entrepreneur, in Old French, meant simply, “one who undertakes or manages.” Starting a business is entrepreneurial, but so is getting married, volunteering with a charity, or learning to play the piano. Entrepreneurship isn’t synonymous with money-making as much as it is energy and initiative.

By this standard, few vocations are more entrepreneurial than pastoral ministry. Ministry is a God-ordained calling to invest oneself fully in the work of God and His people. Pastors who plant churches, take up the mantle of global missions, or run a biblical counseling ministry roll up their sleeves in ways that can be extraordinarily time-consuming, heart-rending, and energy-draining. Faithfulness in fulfilling the call is of more importance to the pastor than his desire to gain money from his efforts. The fruit from his ministry may never been seen until Heaven.

Sadly, the student loan crisis has hit the pastoral vocations hard. Many students exiting theological training in the nation’s seminaries are loaded with debt. In 2011, over one-third of graduates receiving their master of divinity degree from the nation’s seminaries had student loan debt over $30,000. About 20 percent had over $50,000! In some professions, these would not be extravagant amounts to borrow. But pastors do not usually earn hefty salaries. Many pastors start out as church staff, youth pastors, or associate pastors, who do not earn the higher wages that full-time senior pastors do (anywhere from $60-80,000 per year, it seems).

[pq]Our earthly educational choices can impact our ability to do work of eternal significance.[/pq]

As a consequence of high debt amounts, many who formerly had ministerial ambitions are forced to leave the ministry simply because they cannot afford to work in it, or they become discouraged from ministry as a career. Said one respondent to an Auburn Seminary survey, “I still carry anger…concerning my seminary debt. It has affected my call, my outlook, and my willingness to recommend seminary to many who have the potential.” In the words of an article in Christianity Today, many seminarians who leave the ministry because of debt are literally “too poor to take a vow of poverty.”

There are many reasons why pastors have so much debt. Sometimes students who enter seminary lack financial support from their church. Low-interest loans might be hard to come by. And sometimes, a biblical warning about debt (Proverbs 22:7: “The borrower is slave to the lender”) is drowned out by an  individual’s untested conviction about what God is calling him to do.

In response, seminaries need to offer cheaper, online education for their students. Congregations must partner with seminaries to develop a tight sending relationship in which the student can get higher levels of financial support from the congregation and the school. The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) are two institutions doing an exceptional job of minimizing student debt. At RTS, less than 1 percent of graduates in the last 5 years have more than $40,000 in debt.

The fact that student debt has limited seminarians’ capacity for ministry is saddening. But the warnings about educational debt constraining Kingdom work are not unique to the person in the pulpit on Sunday. They are appropriate for Christians of all levels of spiritual maturity and calling. There is Christian freedom about how we borrow and use money, but the Christian’s decision to borrow for school may have eternal consequences. The indebted graduate of any profession may have less ability to use his time and resources for God. Here are just a few real-life examples:

  • You would like to take a short-term missions trip, but debt repayment means you can’t save up for it.
  • You would like to support a missionary, but can’t contribute the extra $100 per month because of debt.
  • You feel called to seminary or the mission field, but realize that you’re too expensive for a church to support because of debt.
  • You’re qualified to lead a small group, but can’t spare your Tuesday night because you need to work more to pay off your debt.
  • You’re about to get married, and your fiancé’s desire is to stay home with children soon. But you’ve got so much debt, there’s no choice but for her to keep working.

The good news is that believers don’t find their salvation in their bank account or what we do with our money. Our salvation is found in what Jesus has done for us. God redeems even the dumbest financial decisions. But our earthly educational choices can impact our ability to do work of eternal significance.

Consider making sacrifices during your educational years like going to a cheaper school, forgoing graduate school, living at home to save money, and working more to pay tuition upfront, rather than borrowing. Making those kinds of choices are a declaration that Jesus is of greater value than an expensive degree. We must remember that our hope is in our Shepherd, not our sheepskin.