Financial Aid for Service’s student loan assistance program became a saving grace for a pastor and her late husband
June 22, 2021
The Rev. Stacy Smith says she has been “surprised by joy” as she looks back at the last five years of her life.
In 2015, her husband, Kevin, was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. As he began chemotherapy, Stacy was working at a faith-based advocacy organization. She was also taking on more student debt, finishing a doctoral degree at Vanderbilt University. Plus, they were doing construction on their home.
“It was a nightmare,” she said.
By 2017, Kevin had to quit working, and Stacy had a full-time job at a health-care system. But she needed an additional part-time job to help pay their bills, which included a $500-per-month payment on her student loans. She’d done some pulpit supply and a three-month stint as an interim pastor, but hadn’t really served a church, including preaching every Sunday, in more than 10 years.
But then she interviewed at Buntyn Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee, a church looking for a part-time pastor. As she began her service there, Stacy found about the student loan assistance programs offered through Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Financial Aid for Service.
Through the loan forgiveness for pastors, she discovered that she could receive up to $15,000 over the span of span of a 4½-year period by serving a PC(USA) congregation or worshiping community of no more than 150 members.
In 2019, doctors confirmed that Kevin’s cancerous tumor had come back and was more aggressive. As he and Stacy flew around the country consulting with renowned cancer centers, expenses were mounting.
And then Stacy received a big surprise.
Financial Aid for Service had changed the rules to help make its loan assistance program even more accessible for pastors serving smaller PC(USA) congregations and worshiping communities. Now people like Stacy, who is serving a 75-member congregation, could receive up to $25,000 in loan assistance over five years.
“They’ve been so fantastic,” she said. “And the only thing they asked of me was to serve a small congregation of Christian believers, who were life-giving to me even as my husband was dying.”
By the fall of 2019, Kevin was still feeling pretty good. But as they were consulting with a palliative care physician, Stacy said she’ll never forget what he said: “Get the popcorn now, because pretty soon you’ll have to come back and watch the movie.”
She and Kevin did some final things together. They saw the sights of Boston, found his late father’s decommissioned aircraft carrier in Philadelphia, went sailing off Martha’s Vineyard, and had the meal of a lifetime in New York City. And then they went down to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia — a place that Kevin, who was a blacksmith, had always loved.
Then in January 2020, on Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday, they held a celebration of his life, because Kevin had wanted to attend his own funeral.
Stacy had never presided at a service of celebration and blessing for a person still alive, but she received help from her PC(USA) colleagues. And the 150 people who attended seemed to enjoy the dinner at a museum on the banks of the Mississippi River — even though it felt a little strange. And then eight weeks later, COVID-19 hit.
So, when Kevin died in May 2020, “everything was sort of settled,” she said, “because of what we’d done in January.”
Now that the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has added the Minister’s Choice option, Stacy said that Buntyn Presbyterian Church will pay less in pension dues while she will receive additional benefits. This includes the ability to apply for additional student debt assistance, this time through the Board of Pensions. If all goes well, she expects to pay off her student loans by 2022.
Calling it a “Holy Spirit thing,” Stacy said serving the Buntyn congregation has been one of the most surprising and positive experiences of her life.
“The PC(USA) had my back as my husband was dying,” she said. “The connectional church was a saving grace for us.”
Paul Seebeck, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Today’s Focus: Financial Aid for Service
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
Gracious and loving God, help us to rally ourselves and others to serve as you served. Amen.