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Minister Survey reveals the lingering effects of educational debt

Some respondents report student loan payments equal to a mortgage payment

by Jashalund Royston and Dr. Susan Barnett, Research Services | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Photo by MD Durant via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Educational debt is a growing concern for many individuals and families, including Presbyterian ministers.

In response to a survey conducted by Research Services of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 48% of ministers report some level of concern regarding educational debt. The report, available in English, Spanish, and Korean, reveals that concern for educational debt does not drastically vary by type of service. Minsters working secular jobs report the most concern for debt, while retired ministers are least concerned. In most age groups, more than half of the respondents are concerned about their educational debt. Among those 65 and over, the number drops to 39%.

Ministers were asked about acquired educational debt and current debt status. Of the ministers who responded, 28% secured loans for their seminary education with 29% of those individuals still owing on their loans for seminary. In addition, 7% retain debt from their undergraduate and other graduate education. More than half of the ministers did not secure any loans for their undergraduate or non-seminary graduate education.

More bi-vocational ministers (49%) carry outstanding student loan balances for seminary education than do other ministers. While 62% of pastors report having paid off their loans for seminary, 32% of pastors still have debt for their seminary education. They are not alone as 27% of specialized ministers and 25% of ministers working secular jobs still have debt related to their seminary education.

The cost of attending seminary includes, but is not limited to, tuition, books, room, board, and health insurance. Loans may not cover all seminary expenses. Sixty-six percent of respondents indicate that they worked to earn the additional money that they needed. Assistance with expenses came in other forms as well, such as aid from the seminary (62%), their personal savings (45%) and their spouse or partner’s earnings (36%).

Concern about educational debt extends to the cost of educating children. Except for retired ministers, over half of all responding ministers express concern about the cost of educating their children. Indeed, 18% of responding ministers report having outstanding educational loan balances for children they support. Sixty percent of respondents report not taking out loans for their children’s education. It is not known whether this is because they could not afford to assume more debt, because they are able to pay out of pocket, or because children are assuming their own debt.

A surprising load of debt

The amount of educational debt currently held by ministers in age groups is surprising. Among the respondents who said that they have outstanding student loans, nearly 30% of all ministers, regardless of age or position, owe $50,000 or more for their own educational debt. This includes 27% of retired ministers with outstanding student loans who report owing $50,000 or more in educational debt. Ten percent of all ministers between the ages 30-49, who have outstanding student loans, owe more than $100,000 in educational debt. This percentage increases to 16% in those ages 50 and older.

With such debt, some ministers who are repaying student loans report monthly payments that are equivalent to a home mortgage. Twenty percent of retired ministers report monthly payments of $501 or more toward their own educational debt. The same is true for 18% of pastors, 13% of bi-vocational ministers, and 21% of specialized ministers.

With such large payments, it could be expected that debt will affect other aspects of life. Forty-three percent of ministers report that their student loan debt prevents them from replacing things like a vehicle or major appliances. Significant debt impacts the lives of ministers in other ways: 26% report that their student loan repayment prevents them from considering calls they might otherwise consider. Twenty-two percent report that student loan repayment prevents them from retiring and 3% report it prevents them from engaging in any kind of ministry. Some ministers report making monthly payments of over $1,000 toward educational debt — not including other debt — with an income of less than $25,000. These ministers face significant financial stress.

Other differences exist related to gender and race.

More males (43%) received support from a spouse or partner to cover their seminary expenses as compared to 27% of their female counterparts. Thirty-six percent of females report having outstanding educational loan balances for their seminary education as compared to 23% of males.

When looking at differences by race, 52% of Black ministers report using student loans to help cover the cost of seminary with 62% still having a balance on their loans. Both these numbers are higher than those of any other race or ethnic group.

At one time, most seminary students were in their 20s or early 30s. Today the ages of seminary students span decades. Younger students remain, but for many individuals ministry is a second career that required returning to school as older students. However, regardless of their age, many students secure loans for seminary.

Here are some questions the survey did not ask. Did the minister assume their child’s educational debt to ease the child’s debt load? What was the original amount ministers borrowed for their own seminary education? Nor did the survey ask if the educational debt had been refinanced with a bank or placed on a credit card. Bankruptcy cannot be declared against educational debt that is financed through a bank or federal designee; therefore, it is likely that some will die with educational debt.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has programs to help ministers manage educational debt through the Presbyterian Mission Agency Educational Loan Forgiveness for Pastors program and the Board of Pensions Minister Educational Debt Assistance program. In addition, there is a modest financial aid program for students preparing for careers in the church. Increasing awareness of these programs is one step the church could take to support ministers. Conversations on all levels about ways to reduce the educational costs of preparing for ministry also seem in order.

Want to learn more? The findings in this article come from the Educational Debt Report, available in English, Spanish, and Korean. This report is based on data from the PC(USA) Minister Survey, a massive 110-question survey which fielded from September to November of 2019. Invitations were sent by postcard to all ministers for whom the Office of the General Assembly had an address. The survey was also one of the Board of Pensions’ Call to Health challenges. This partnership contributed to nearly half of all responses. Twenty-three percent of the denomination’s 19,243 ministers (n=4,495) responded to the survey.

The survey was completed prior the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not related to a consultant’s visioning process report released Sept. 16 on recommended changes to the Presbyterian Mission Agency. The challenges and stresses of the pandemic impacted all of life — ministers and ministries included — and may have resulted in different responses in some instances had the survey occurred during the pandemic. The results, nonetheless, provide insights into the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of PC(USA) ministers.

This is the fourth in a series of eight articles on the survey results. Those articles, being published every Monday, are:

Join “Coffee with Research Services” from 4-4:30 p.m. Eastern Time each Thursday from Sept. 23 to Nov. 11 for a conversation about the survey and reports. Use this link to register for any or all of the sessions of Coffee with Research Services.

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

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