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Expanding the PC(USA) ministry of educational debt assistance

Financial Aid for Service grows student loan repayment assistance programs, welcomes new staff member

by Emily Enders Odom | Presbyterian News Service

Philomena Ofori-Nipaah, director of Spiritual Care at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C. (Photo provided)

Philomena Ofori-Nipaah, director of Spiritual Care at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C. (Photo provided)

LOUISVILLE – As a new class of PC(USA) seminary students matriculates this fall, many find themselves entering graduate school not only with great anticipation and an unwavering commitment to serve Christ’s church, but also with unprecedented student loan debt.

But they need not worry unduly. In the church, there is good news. And in the church, there is forgiveness—student loan forgiveness.

“Not all of the news about student loans is bad news,” said Laura Bryan, coordinator of the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s (PMA) office of Financial Aid for Service in the Theology, Formation, and Evangelism ministry area. “The good news is that there are more repayment options than ever before, and our office, in order to be responsive both to need as well as to borrowing trends, has been moving in the direction of student loan forgiveness for several years.”

In fact, Bryan said the PMA’s growing portfolio of loan assistance programs was the inspiration behind changing the office’s name in 2012 from Financial Aid for Studies to Financial Aid for Service.

“While we will continue to serve Presbyterian students by awarding them money to go to school,” she said, “our primary goal in meeting the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s missional objectives is to reduce financial barriers to service.”

The office’s flagship program, Transformational Leadership Debt Assistance (TLDA) —formerly known as the Theological Student Loan program—was designed to help reduce educational debt acquired by seminary graduates called to minister to communities without the means to install a full-time pastor. The program was renamed in 2012 when it was expanded to forgive loans to seminary graduates who are serving in temporary and/or part-time pastoral positions in PC(USA) congregations of 150 members or less, or in new, emerging worshiping communities.

As the coordinator for 1001 New Worshiping Communities, Vera White knows that starting a new worshiping community (NWC) involves risk for leaders and their families. “The road to sustainability is often long and rocky,” White said. “What a blessing that NWC leaders can access the resources of TLDA to help with the burden of educational debt.”

The Rev. Philomena Ofori-Nipaah, director of Spiritual Care at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C., received assistance through TLDA earlier this year.

“Serving a congregation in a temporary or part-time position can place a financial strain on clergy who have student loans to repay,” she said. “It is therefore a blessing to be able to receive help through Transformational Leadership Debt Assistance for repaying my student loans. I have benefited from both the financial assistance and the counseling that the Presbyterian Mission Agency provides to seminary graduates in managing and living within a budget. Such education and assistance have helped me to focus on providing the spiritual resources and pastoral care to those I serve. I pray and encourage the Financial Aid office to continue with these programs.”

A second program, Season of Service—which was launched in 2012—offers loan repayment assistance for PC(USA) members engaged as volunteers and temporary or part-time mission work in support of a PC(USA) ministry, related camp or conference center, congregation, or new worshiping community. Participants receive up to $3,000 in quarterly payments upon completion of service at a Season of Service Loan Assistance participating site. Current sites include the Young Adult Volunteer program, Crestfield Camp & Conference CenterMo-RanchHeartland Presbyterian Center, and Ferncliff.

Melonee Tubb, Mission Specialist, Loan Repayment Assistance. (Photo provided)

Melonee Tubb, Mission Specialist, Loan Repayment Assistance. (Photo provided)

“Although the rising cost of education and the increasing indebtedness of recent graduates are clearly beyond the scope of the Presbyterian Mission Agency to address in their entirety, we are nevertheless committing to two concrete missional goals by continuing to grow these student loan debt assistance programs,” Bryan said. “A related goal is to bring a message of hope to all church members burdened with educational debt by developing resources to help borrowers understand how to use the common features of student loans to successfully manage their debt and protect their credit.”

A key contributor to the office’s expanded educational efforts will be Melonee “Mel” Tubb, who recently joined the staff of Financial Aid for Service in the newly-created position of Mission Specialist, Loan Repayment Assistance.

“I believe that the PMA’s loan assistance portfolio—responding to goals that address leadership and church growth—complement the work of Vital Congregations, 1001, Company of New Pastors, Theological Education, and the Young Adult Volunteer program,” said the Rev. Charles B. “Chip” Hardwick, director of Theology, Formation, and Evangelism. “The critical knowledge that Mel brings as a seminary graduate—coupled with her prior service with the Presbyterian Mission Agency in the areas of Financial Aid for Service and Evangelism—makes her an ideal fit for this position.”

Tubb, who received her M.Div. from Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky, in 2011, said she looks forward to helping to “make a difference in the lives of pastors who otherwise would still be struggling under student loan debt.” In her new position, she also sees a great opportunity to help educate people of all ages about student debt.

“I believe that helping people in this way brings life back to the church,” she said.

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