Debt and the Seminarian

student-loan-debtEvery spring semester I have the opportunity to speak to our Spiritual Formation students (mostly first-year master’s students) about stewardship. In that discussion, I explain to them that stewardship is about managing resources that belong to someone else. From a spiritual standpoint, God owns everything, and he has entrusted some of those resources—money, time, talents, etc.—to us to use for his Kingdom. Although I attempt to reinforce to my students that stewardship involves much more than money, I spend a significant amount of time talking to them about money and specifically the impact of debt on the ministry. For some of these students, it is the first time they have ever been confronted with how debt could impact their future.

I was reminded of this today as I read a recent article in The Wall Street Journal about student loan debt repayment. Here are some highlights:

  • “Many more students have defaulted on or failed to pay back their college loans than the U.S. government previously believed.”
  • “The new analysis shows that at more than 1,000 colleges and trade schools, or about a quarter of the total, at least half the students had defaulted or failed to pay down at least $1 on their debt within seven years.”
  • “No college saw its repayment rate improve under the revision, and some schools saw their seven-year repayment rates fall by as much as 29 percentage points.”[1]

In my experience teaching stewardship and working in financial aid in the seminary setting, student loan debt is one of the most crushing debts that seminarians face. While my seminary does not participate in any federal loan programs, many students still enter seminary carrying debt from their undergraduate programs. A recent study reported that 68% of graduates from public and nonprofit colleges in 2015 had student loan debt. The average amount of debt per borrower was over $30,000.[2]

If a seminary student enters with this level of debt, he is most likely to defer that loan until he completes 3-4 years of seminary. Over that time, that loan will have accrued interest, and it is possible that he may have even taken on further debt in the form of credit cards, vehicle loans, or medical expenses. Once he graduates from seminary, he may be in debt well over $40,000.

Now let’s couple that debt with a relatively low wage for pastors when compared to careers with similar education levels. According to LifeWay, the average full-time senior pastor of a Southern Baptist church with 75-99 in attendance is $46,981 per year.[3] For the typical seminary student, a salary over $40,000 may sound fantastic. But we have to remember that ordained ministers are considered self-employed by the IRS, so nearly 15% of that salary will be allocated for self-employment taxes (approximately $7,000). Then, the typical seminary student living on campus does not pay market rates for housing, so his overall housing expense goes up. Compound that with other expenses of moving and setting up a home, and the typical seminarian may find it difficult to make payments on his student loans. Then he will become one of the statistics mentioned in the WSJ article.

Helping students avoid the traps of bad debt is one of the goals in my Family and Church Financial Stewardship class at Southwestern Seminary. I don’t want students to question whether or not they can “afford” to accept a call to a church. I want them to be free to go where God calls them because they have been wise stewards of God’s money that he has entrusted to them.

In Proverbs 22:7 we read, “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower becomes the lender’s slave.” I want my students avoid the slavery of debt and to serve God without the albatross of debt hanging around their necks.

If you’re a student at SWBTS, it’s not too late to sign up. The class meets on Mondays at noon, and I’d love to see you there.

[1] Andrea Fuller, “Student Debt Payback Far Worse Than Believed,” The Wall Street Journal, 18 January 2017.

[2]Project on Student Debt,” The Institute for College Access & Success, 2016.

[3]Compensation by Average Attendance of Church: Senior Pastor Full-Time,” LifeWay, 2016.

It’s Been a Long Time: Reflections on Ten Years at SWBTS

320px-bh_carroll_memorial_building_rotunda_28southwestern_baptist_theological_seminary2c_fort_worth2c_tx29This week I will attend my twenty-first convocation at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX. January 1 marked my tenth anniversary at SWBTS. Over the last couple of months my wife and I have reflected on the last ten years in Texas and one point that keeps coming back up is the fact that we are still in our first post-seminary ministry. Compared to many of our seminary classmates, this is unusual.

A couple of years ago, Lifeway conducted a survey on pastoral tenure. It found that the average tenure of a pastor at a church is 3.6 years.[1] I’m not sure of the average length of time a professor stays at a seminary, but I have seen enough come and go through the years to know that transition happens on a fairly regular basis.

When I arrived at SWBTS in January 2007, I was a young 28-year-old fresh off comprehensive exams from my PhD coursework. I had a little teaching experience and a little bit more administrative experience. I jumped into the administrative side of things from day one and started teaching that fall. I’ve worn more hats at SWBTS than I can remember. I’ve had to request new business cards more often than most people. And I can rarely get through my current list of titles (of which my business card has four and one is now wrong), much less the ones I no longer hold.

How is this different than many of my seminary classmates? Some of them are easily at their third or fourth ministry assignment in the last ten years. A few may have even passed five or six. This is not to say that something is wrong with them. In many cases, God has led them to new ministry assignments for specific purposes. In some cases, the current ministry was too burdensome and a new opportunity was in order. In a handful of cases, the lure of a larger ministry with more influence has pulled them away from an otherwise effective ministry.

In my case, I have been able to work along steadily in the same place for a decade. I’ve had opportunities to perform different roles at the same institution, so that probably makes my ministry a little different than many pastors. However, I still feel that there has been great benefit in staying as long as I have. Here are just a few:

  1. Stability for my family. When we first arrived in Fort Worth, we knew just a couple of people. We set out to make new friends as our own family continued to grow. I’ll never forget one couple at our church who were hesitant to get too close because they feared that we would move on in a couple of years just like the other seminary families they had known. They were pleasantly surprised to hear that we had not come to SWBTS for school but to serve. We’re still friends today. The result of this longevity has been that my family has been able to plant roots that continue to grow deeper. Three of our four children are native-born Texans. They have enjoyed friendships with other children from their earliest memories just as I did. This is important for us as a family.
  2. Long-term investment. A few semesters ago I was teaching a night class when an older gentlemen in the class shared a memory from years earlier. He told me that he had been in my very first seminary class approximately eight years earlier. I cringed a little. I shared with him that I hoped this class was better than that one. He laughed and said that he didn’t remember much about the class except that we spent a lot of time working through Scripture (I was so relieved to hear that!). Through the years I have seen many students come and go, but I especially enjoy the opportunity to have some of them more than once in class. There are a few students with whom I remain in contact after their graduation. No matter where they go, they know where to find me. Investing in others over the long term is what my boyhood pastor encouraged me to do just months before he died.
  3. Personal growth. I am not the same person I was ten years ago. Staying at the same ministry has forced me to grow. I can’t impress people at SWBTS with my skill set because they’ve seen it for years. As a result, I have been forced to grow as a professor, mentor, administrator, and colleague. This takes time and more effort than most of us would care to admit.
  4. Constant learning. Related to personal growth is the fact that staying in one place for a long time requires constant learning. Just the other day, my wife and I were talking with another couple about how much I read and study. I told them that I read more today than I did during PhD coursework. This is required to stay abreast of the changes in my discipline. Unfortunately, I don’t read as much as I should. There is always more to learn. Had I moved on to another ministry every few years, I might have been able to get by with less, but now I have to strive for more.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the last ten years at SWBTS and look forward to this eleventh year with great anticipation. If I were to retire at 73, I could spend 45 years at one place. Who knows if that will happen, but I appreciate the opportunity SWBTS has given me to plant some roots here for the last ten years.

[1] Thom S. Rainer, “8 Traits of Effective Church Leaders,” (20 August 2014). Available at http://www.lifeway.com/pastors/2014/08/20/8-traits-of-effective-church-leaders/.

Politics and Ministry

240px-2016_presidential_election_ballotOver the past several weeks, I have been asked more about politics than I can ever remember. The situation with the current presidential election has created as much discussion as the Bush-Gore fiasco of 2000. At Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, we have sought to be a voice of reason during the contentious election cycle. As part of that reasonable voice, I have participated in two discussions over the last week about politics and its implications for ministry.

Today I spent about half an hour discussing politics and ministry on Facebook Live as part of Southwestern’s “Ask the Expert” series. Despite the obvious failings of this “expert,” it was a fun experience with some good questions. You can find the video below.

Last Thursday I was part of a panel discussion with Dr. Paige Patterson, president of SWBTS, and Rep. Matt Krause, Texas State Representative from District 93. We had a wide ranging discussion about law, politics, church, and religious liberty. The video from that discussion will be available on the Seminary’s YouTube channel in the coming days.

 

Radio Interview about First Freedom

knowingthetruth-kevinbolingToday I had the privilege to join Kevin Boling on his radio program “Knowing the Truth” out of the Greenville, SC area. I have known Kevin for several years now and have been honored to join him on his show a few times.

In this interview, we discussed the new edition of First Freedom: The Beginning and End of Religious Liberty. I contributed a chapter to that volume entitled, “Religious Liberty and the Gospel.”

Over the course of our discussion we covered some of the biblical context for religious liberty, the connection between America and the ancient Roman Empire, and implications of religious liberty for all religions.

You can listen to the interview here. You can purchase a copy of the book on Amazon or other book retailers (as of Oct 17, the first print run of the book sold out, but the publisher assures us that more copies will be available sooner than Amazon currently reports).

Religious Liberty and the Gospel

91cer-paj4lReligious liberty has become a major topic of discussion in this current political cycle. There are worries about presidential candidates or potential Supreme Court justices who may scale back the freedoms that have been enjoyed by Americans for more than two centuries. However, not everyone understands the full extent to which religious liberty should be applied.

Many people consider religious liberty to mean the freedom to worship at whichever house of worship you choose. However, the free exercise of religion extends to all aspects of life, especially the right to share your beliefs with others. In the second edition of First Freedom (which becomes available on Oct 15), I write:

With the First Amendment’s promise that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” adherents to all faiths were guaranteed the right to the free exercise of religion. As a result, religious groups were free to take to the highways and byways to proclaim what they believed. The right to religious liberty ensured that Christians and others would have the freedom to gather for worship, change their religious beliefs, and proselytize. However, such freedom is a delicate balance. No one religious tradition can be privileged over another. The predominant religion of one generation may be the minority in the next.

The religious liberty we enjoy today is much like the unique features of the Roman Empire that aided the spread of the gospel in the first century. The network of roads between major commercial cities, the common Greek language spoken throughout the empire, and the relative peace brought by Roman military dominance assisted the early believers in taking the message of Christ throughout the empire.

Today’s political landscape is vastly different from first century Rome, but the religious nature of society is similar. We live in a syncretistic culture where people pick and choose what they want to believe. While this may seem like a detriment to the overall religious health of our American culture, it can also serve as an aid in sharing the gospel. Christianity should not be privileged in an environment of religious liberty, but I believe it can win the day in the marketplace of ideas when we take the opportunity to proclaim its truth.

In the closing paragraphs of my chapter in First Freedom, I note:

Religious liberty does not give Christianity a privileged position in the culture. In theory this freedom puts all religions (or even the lack of religion) on equal footing. Consider this for a moment. The next time Mormon missionaries knock on your door and try to convince you that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is the restoration of the true church and that you need to be baptized in their church in order to enjoy the benefits of salvation, remember that they are exercising religious liberty. The next time that the Muslim community decides to build a mosque in your neighborhood (or even next door to your church), remember they are exercising religious liberty. Since religious liberty guarantees us the right to exercise our faith freely, the government cannot coerce what we believe to be false religions to give up their beliefs or plans for worship. Thus, religious liberty ought to motivate us to share the gospel. In a country where religious liberty is currently protected, we should take advantage of this freedom and reason with others, persuading them to hear and receive the gospel.

This is the unique connection between religious liberty and the gospel. May we not take for granted our liberty and fail to share the truth with a lost and dying world.

If you want to read more about religious liberty, let me encourage you to pick up a copy of First Freedom: The Beginning and End of Religious Liberty from Amazon or any other book retailer starting October 15. To see more about the book and contributors, visit the page of one of the editors, Jason G. Duesing.