The Atlantic ran a disturbing article on the state of middle class clergy carrying a seminary degree: high debt, low wages, vanishing churches, and part-time pastor positions. The piece profiles Justin Barringer, a recent seminary grad who like many before him graduated the call to pastoral ministry. His story is not unlike thousands of other ministers:
Justin Barringer would seem to have the perfect résumé. He’s a seminary grad, an author and book editor, and a former missionary to China and Greece. But despite applying to nearly a hundred jobs over the course of two years, Barringer, who lives in Lexington, Kentucky, could not secure a full-time, salaried church position.
So he splits his time among three jobs, working as a freelance editor, an employee at a nonprofit for the homeless, and a part-time assistant pastor at a United Methodist Church. “I am not mad at the church,” Barringer says. “However, I wish someone had advised me against taking on so much debt in order to be trained for ministry.”
Here is the reality: high debt and scarcity of full-time paying pastor positions.
The traditional mainline church track for full-time pastors followed like this: 4-years of college, 3-years of graduate seminary education, and ordination. This process launched a generation of pastors into their ministry in the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s. The traditional 90-credit seminary degree, the master of divinity, became the mark of an intellectual, professional, and full-time pastor. Churches had the people and money to support such a model. The pastor typical could raise a family and even buy a house (if one was not provided).
Now, because of cost of graduate education, seminary graduates are saddled with debt. In the $40,000 to $60,000 range (on top of college debt). The pace of the rise of the cost of education has exceeded the rate of inflation: to the tune of 500% since 1985. Usually, when a professional incurs such a debt, their boss gives them a raise because of their higher degree. Not the case with pastors. Many pastors have the same credit hours as school administrators, but paid much less.
With this current reality of shrinking churches, downsized church budgets, less full-time pastor positions, and need for a generation of clergy to lead churches into a new culture, a shorter more focused seminary degree is needed. An online distance modified 45-credit degree could shake up this bleak future for pastors and churches. Here’s what the 45-credit seminary degree could look like: