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‘It’s like they wanted to throw money at people’

Pastor able to pay off student debt while serving a smaller PC(USA) congregation

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. John Russell Stanger called the debt relief program administered by Financial Aid for Service “liberating.” (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. John Russell Stanger doesn’t like talking about money, or his student loan debt.

“It’s so uncomfortable,” he said. “But we’ve got to do it, so that others know help is available for people like me who want to serve smaller congregations.”

By the time Stanger graduated from Austin Theological Presbyterian Seminary — his undergraduate degree is from Schreiner University in Kerrville, Texas — he had $42,000 in student loan debt.

He was 24 years old. Stanger had a 10-year plan to pay it off, but by 2016, after a year of Young Adult Volunteer service and three years of living and working in New York City, he was sensing God’s call to serve as pastor at United Presbyterian Church in Lebanon, Kentucky.  But he wasn’t sure he could make it work financially, because at half-time he wouldn’t make enough to pay on his student loans debt — and would have to take on more interest.

Then one of the elders at United reached out to the national office at the Presbyterian Center to talk about any grants they might have for small churches, which is when Stanger found out about the student loan assistance programs offered through Financial Aid for Service.

Through Presbyterian Mission Agency’s loan forgiveness for pastors he found out that pastors  serving PC(USA) congregations or worshiping communities with no more than 150 members can receive up to $25,000 of loan assistance over the span of five years.

The Rev. John Russell Stanger is now a family therapist. (Contributed photo)

“It was so great,” Stanger said, “to have $5,000 a year that went directly to pay off the principal on my loans, made it possible to serve where I was being called.  Without this program, I wouldn’t have been able to.”

Stanger, who is now a family therapist — in 2019 he received his Master of Arts in Marriage & Family Therapy from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary — received $15,000 in loan assistance over the three years he was at United. That, along with the COVID-19 CARES Act, which pauses student loan payments and reduces interest to 0% through the end of the year, motivated him to pay off the rest of his loans in full.

“It’s a real gift, and liberating,” he said. “It’s such a privilege to have them paid off.”

Stanger knows he couldn’t have done it without the help he received from Mel Tubb, associate for Financial Aid for Service. Tubb bent over backwards, he said, to get people like him to apply.  And having worked in the nonprofit world in New York, he was amazed at how easy it was to apply for assistance.

“Sometimes there so many pages to fill out that it’s more work than it’s worth,” he said.  “But theirs is so simple. It was one page — like they wanted to throw money at people.”

Stanger knows how afraid people are to talk about their loans. Sometimes, he said, it’s because they’re afraid they’ll be judged. But based on how he was treated by Tubb and Financial Aid for Service Coordinator Laura Bryan, he wants as many people as possible to know about the PC(USA)’s student loan assistance programs.

“They were so enthusiastic — when talking about the application they said, ‘It’s not charity, we’re serving our churches’ — that it felt like a paradigm shift,” he said. “The national church is helping people to serve smaller congregations while making it less stressful and more enjoyable.”

To find out more about Student Loan Assistance programs available through Financial Aid for Service, click here.


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