Christian Student Loans

Black seminary graduates, more in debt than others, face money and ministry

WASHINGTON (RNS) — Reverend Melech EM Thomas attended two seminaries and graduated from the second, a historically black theological school, in 2016.

This academic career placed him on the pulpit of an African Methodist Episcopal Church in North Carolina.

But his pursuit of a master’s degree in theology also left him with a debt of around $80,000.

“Tuition was lower, but I still had to live,” he said, describing other seminary costs after he transferred from Princeton Theological Seminary to Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University. . “I’m in seminary full-time. And I have to make sure I pay rent, I eat, all these other expenses.

Thomas traveled to the nation’s capital in early February for a meeting with other graduates, leaders and students of black theological schools to discuss possible solutions to the disproportionately high debt load of black seminarians.

Delores Brisbon, leader of the Gift of Black Theological Education & Black Church Collaborative, said it’s important for leaders to understand the sacrifices made by students pursuing seminary studies in historically black contexts.

“We need to come to grips with this debt issue,” she said as she opened the collaboration’s two-day event, “and figure out what we’re going to do about it.”

According to data from the Association of Theological Schools, debt incurred by black graduates in the 2019-2020 academic year averaged $42,700, compared to $31,200 for white graduates.

Data shows that 30% of black graduates in the 2020-2021 academic year had debt of $40,000 or more, compared to 11% of white graduates.

Thomas, 34, said his debt, needed to graduate and get ordained, led to a church appointment that “pays me enough to pay the rent” but not his other living expenses. Still, Thomas said he knew he was better off than some other historically black seminary graduates.

“I’m grateful,” he said. “But it’s extremely hard.”

The collaboration includes five black theological schools – Hood Theological Seminary, Interdenominational Theological Center, Payne Theological Seminary, Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology and Shaw University Divinity School. Lilly Endowment Inc. awarded three grants between 2014 and 2020 totaling $2.75 million to the In Trust Center for Theological Schools to help facilitate coordination and increase mutual support between schools, including the recent debt meeting student.

The Reverend Jo Ann Deasy, co-author of a 2021 report on the ATS Black Student Debt Project, told the dozens gathered at a Washington hotel that the project came about as researchers uncovered how “the black students were simply burdened with debt more than any other.”

She said ATS seeks to help change perceptions about what the project calls “the financial ecology of black students” as seminarians seek training to become religious leaders, churches hope to hire them, and theological institutions plan to expand financial networks to help them.

“We try to help people move their understanding of finances from a really individual responsibility to a broader systemic understanding of how finances work in our communities and in our churches,” she said. “It’s just part of that shift to understanding that it’s not the fault of the students, but it’s a bigger problem that we need to solve together.”

The report describes “monetary autobiographies” of students who sought financial stability while attending theological schools, whether historically black, white or multiracial.

“They noted the disparities in financial support, particularly from congregations and denominations, between themselves and their white colleagues, a disparity that was often not seen or acknowledged by their peers or the institutions they attended. “, says the report.

The average annual tuition for an M.Div. – before any scholarships were considered – is $13,100 for independent Protestant schools and $12,500 for Protestant schools attached to a college or university. Chris Meinzer, principal and chief operating officer of ATS, said that on average, it takes students about four years to complete an M.Div. diploma.

Seminary graduates who attended the Washington event said they had few scholarship options and had to take out loans to pay expenses, including or beyond tuition.

“It’s the cost of registration and the cost of tuition with your books,” said the Rev. Jamar Boyd II, senior organizational impact manager at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, which supports African-American ministries. Americans. Depending on the class and the number of books required, that could be as much as $600 to $700 per semester, said Boyd, 27, a graduate of Virginia Union University School of Theology.

“If you’re a full-time student taking three or four courses, that’s paycheck,” he said.

Minister Kathlene Judd, theologian-in-residence at an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation in North Carolina, said she ultimately chose debt over the mental stress of work, school and supporting a family. a family at the same time.

She worked in information technology while attending seminary and is pursuing that career by paying off her debts after initially hoping to pay for her seminary without taking out a loan.

“If I’m totally transparent, I had no idea what I was getting into,” said Judd, 38, a 2020 Shaw University Divinity School graduate.

She said it was a “big decision” to borrow money to pursue the education she felt God was calling her to pursue.

“But honestly, it depended on my mental and emotional health,” she said.

Many students and graduates, like Judd, are at least bivocational.

Reverend Lawrence Ganzy Jr. is in his fourth year at Hood Theological Seminary, where he is following a lead that allows him to pastor an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Zion, South Carolina while taking classes on Friday nights and Saturdays. During the week, he is responsible for admissions at Strayer University.

Prior to seminary, his work through the Carolina College Advising Corps, a government program for University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill graduates to advise low-income high school students, helped him afford the start of his theological studies.

“It paid for my first year of seminary,” said Ganzy, 26. “Then when I got to the next year, that money was gone.”

On the opening night of the collaborative meeting, the Rev. Michael Brown, president of Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio, highlighted the part of the Lord’s Prayer that says “forgive us our debts as we forgive those who are indebted to us”. in the Gospel of Matthew.

“Debt keeps us chained to the past and it does not open up possibilities for the future,” he said, “and so the idea of ​​debt cancellation in the Lord’s Prayer is that it frees you to do things for God”.

During the event, graduates spoke about the additional financial challenges they faced, such as debt affecting their credit scores as they tried to buy a car and rising rents, sometimes in neighborhoods. historically black who have been gentrified.

Brisbon pointed out that black theological schools may have small endowments and may not garner support from their alumni, in part because of the often lower salaries received by their graduates.

“Black preachers may love their school as much as anyone else, but they can’t give money they don’t have,” she said.

The ATS report noted that a 2003 Pulpit & Pew study found that, on average, black clergy salaries were about two-thirds of those of white clergy. In a 2019 Christian Century essay, researchers noted that a Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference study found that one-third of black pastors believed they were “fairly and adequately compensated as professionals,” while 67% said they had “particular financial stress”. at this present time.

Reverend Leo Whitaker, executive minister of the Baptist General Convention of Virginia, told Religion News Service that some clergy in the more than 1,000 churches in his black state denomination are often “bivocational if not trivocational” to join the ends meet, especially when located in an area like the Northern Neck of the state rather than the city of Richmond.

Whitaker suggested members of the collaboration look to U.S. government programs that offer debt forgiveness to educators and physicians who serve in needy communities, noting that they should offer the same to seminary graduates. He hopes that members of the collaboration will discuss his idea with seminary and education officials.

“You are serving a stressed community and you yourself are financially stressed without the ability to raise the necessary funds and it is not about where they choose to serve,” he said, noting whom Methodist bishops appoint clergy and Baptists. clergy go where congregations have called them to serve. “In ministry, our location is not always given to us by choice.”

Bishop Teresa Jefferson-Snorton of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, a historic black denomination, said laity and clergy may not be aware of the sacrifices made by seminarians and recent graduates as they pay tuition far higher than what she paid 40 years ago. .

“Most of our highly organized denominations don’t really have a sense of what they’re actually doing or not doing to support theological education,” Jefferson-Snorton added. “Although in many cases we promote it, we encourage it. But we don’t give him resources and I think that needs to be brought to the attention of the church.

RNS receives funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. RNS is solely responsible for this content.