Black seminary grads, with debt higher than others, cope with money and ministry

Black seminary grads, with debt higher than others, cope with money and ministry

WASHINGTON (RNS) — The Rev. Melech E.M. Thomas attended two seminaries and graduated from the second, a historically Black theological school, in 2016.

That academic journey has put him in the pulpit of an African Methodist Episcopal Church in North Carolina.

But his pursuit of a Master of Divinity degree also left him about $80,000 in debt.

“The tuition was less, but I still had to live,” he said, describing other seminary-related costs after his transfer from Princeton Theological Seminary to the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University. “I’m in seminary full time. And I got to make sure I’m paying rent, that I’m eating, all those 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 for the disproportionately high debt 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 being made by students who pursue seminary degrees in historically Black settings.

“We need to address this issue of debt,” she said, opening the collaborative’s two-day event, “and determine 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 with $31,200 for white grads.

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

Thomas, 34, said his debt, necessary to achieve his degree and gain ordination, has led to a church appointment that “pays me enough to pay rent,” but not his other living expenses. Yet, Thomas said he knows he’s in a better situation than some other graduates of historically Black seminaries.

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

The collaborative 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. has given three grants between 2014 and 2020 totaling $2.75 million to the In Trust Center for Theological Schools to help facilitate coordination and increased mutual support between the schools, including the recent meeting about student debt.

The Rev. 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 discovered how “Black students were just burdened by debt more than any others.”

She said ATS is seeking 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 consider expanding financial networks to aid them.

“We’re trying to help people shift their understanding of finances from really individual responsibility to a broader systemic understanding of how finances operate in our communities and in our churches,” she said. “This is just a part of that shift toward understanding that it’s not the students’ fault but that this is a bigger issue that we need to address together.”

The report described “money autobiographies” of students who sought financially stable circumstances as they attended 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,” the report states.

The average annual tuition for an M.Div. — before any scholarships are considered — is $13,100 for free-standing Protestant schools and $12,500 for Protestant schools related to a college or university. Chris Meinzer, senior director and COO of ATS, said that, on average, it takes students about four years to complete an M.Div. degree.

Seminary graduates who attended the Washington event spoke of having few scholarship options and having to take out loans to pay for expenses including or beyond tuition.

“It’s the cost of being enrolled and the cost of student fees along with your books,” said the Rev. Jamar Boyd II, senior manager of organizational impact at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, which supports African American ministries. Depending on the class and the number of books required, it could amount to as much as $600 to $700 in a semester, said Boyd, 27, a graduate of Virginia Union University’s theological school.

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

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

She worked in information technology as she went through seminary and continues that career as she pays off her debts after originally hoping to pay for seminary without taking out loans.

“If I’m being fully transparent, I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” said Judd, 38, who graduated from Shaw University Divinity School in 2020.

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

“But honestly, it came down to my mental and emotional health,” she said.

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

The Rev. Lawrence Ganzy Jr. is in his fourth year at Hood Theological Seminary, where he attends a track that allows him to pastor an African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in South Carolina while taking classes on Friday nights and Saturdays. During the week, he’s an admissions officer for 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 counsel low-income high school students, helped him afford the start of his theological studies.

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

Keynoting the opening night of the collaborative meeting, the Rev. Michael Brown, president of Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio, pointed to the portion 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 doesn’t open up possibilities for the future,” he said, “and so the idea of the forgiveness of debt in the Lord’s Prayer is that it releases you to do things for God.”

During the event, graduates spoke of the additional financial struggles they faced, such as debt affecting their credit scores as they try to purchase a car and escalating rent, sometimes in historically Black neighborhoods that have been gentrified.

Brisbon pointed out that Black theological schools may have small endowments and may not get 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 somebody else but they can’t give money that 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 those of white clergy. In a 2019 Christian Century essay, scholars noted that a study by the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference found that one-third of Black pastors believed they were “fairly and adequately compensated as a professional” while 67% said that they had “particular financial stress” at that current time.

The Rev. 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 make ends meet, especially when they are located in a region like the state’s Northern Neck rather than the city of Richmond.

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

“You’re serving a stressed community and you’re financially stressed yourself without the ability to make the necessary funds and it’s not about them having a choice of where they choose to serve,” he said, noting that Methodist bishops appoint clergy and Baptist clergy go where congregations have called them to serve. “In ministry our location is not always assigned to us by choice.”

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

“Most of our highly organized denominations don’t really have a grasp on what they are 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 resource it 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.

Warnock, pastor and politician, has role models who did both

Warnock, pastor and politician, has role models who did both

Video Courtesy of The Hill


The Rev. Raphael Warnock has won one of Georgia’s two runoff elections for U.S. Senate: Will he be both a pastor and a politician?

Yes, says Michael Brewer, a spokesman for the minister’s campaign, “if elected he will remain senior pastor.”

Marla Frederick, professor of religion and culture at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, told Religion News Service that an active pastor would not be unknown in the political life on Capitol Hill. “There are models for doing both/and,” she said.

“The pastorate is one of these careers, these callings, if you will, where you have to stay in such close contact with everyday people and their concerns,” said Frederick. “To the extent that the Senate (is) supposed to represent the concerns of people, it seems to me that someone who’s been a pastor has the capacity to be much more in tune with the kinds of struggles that people are dealing with in their everyday lives.”

Warnock, who has led Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church since 2005, had something similar to say in a statement to RNS in November.

“It’s unusual for a pastor to get involved in something as messy as politics, but I see this as a continuation of a life of service: first as an agitator, then an advocate, and hopefully next as a legislator,” Warnock said as he was closing in on the top spot of a wide-open primary. “I say I’m stepping up to my next calling to serve, not stepping down from the pulpit.”

He told CNN on Wednesday that he thinks grassroots people can help him be effective as a pastor and a senator.

“I intend to return to the pulpit and preach on Sunday mornings and to talk to the people,” Warnock said. “The last thing I want to do is become disconnected from the community and just spend all of my time talking to the politicians. I might accidentally become one and I have no intentions of becoming a politician. I intend to be a public servant.”

With Warnock’s election to the Senate, he can reflect on these other African American ministers who kept up a busy church life while serving in Congress:

Richard Harvey Cain, 1873-75, 1877-79

Prior to being elected a Republican congressman from South Carolina, Cain sought out another form of public service: a volunteer in the Union army. He was rejected, as were many free Blacks at the time, but later he became pastor of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston (where, a century and a half later, the notorious Bible study massacre took place).

“In the House, Cain supported civil rights for freed slaves,” according to Charles M. Christian in “ Black Saga: The African American Experience: A Chronology.” “Cain’s seat was eliminated in 1874, but he remained active in the Republican Party, and was reelected to Congress in 1876.”

In remarks to Congress urging passage of a civil rights bill, Cain spoke of why equal rights for Blacks were justified.

“I ask you to grant us this measure because it is right,” he said in a speech that received loud applause, according to “ Preaching with Sacred Fire: An Anthology of African American Sermons, 1750 to the Present.” “I appeal to you in the name of God and humanity to give us our rights, for we ask nothing more.”

After his tenure in Congress, Cain was elected a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Adam Clayton Powell Jr., 1945-1971

Before, during and after his long service as a Democratic U.S. representative, Powell was pastor of the prominent Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York, where Warnock would serve as a youth pastor decades later.

The authoritative history of the church notes that when Powell arrived in Washington in 1945, one of his first acts as a congressman was an act of civil disobedience. “(H)e immediately availed himself of the use of the Congressional dining room, which was segregated,” reads the 2014 history “ Witness: Two Hundred Years of African-American Faith and Practice at the Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem, New York.” “Powell staged his own successful sit-in.”

The Democrat served as chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, worked on the passage of minimum wage legislation and helped pass laws that prohibited the use of federal funds in the construction of segregated schools.

“As a member of Congress, I have done nothing more than any other member and, by the grace of God, I intend to do not one bit less,” he said about his time in the role.

Floyd Flake, 1987-1997

The senior pastor of the Greater Allen AME Cathedral of New York, Flake served 11 years concurrently as a member of Congress and the leader of his megachurch.

Considered the “ de facto dean of faith-based economic empowerment,” Flake and his wife, the Rev. Elaine M. Flake, have developed commercial and social projects in Jamaica, New York, such as a corporation focused on preserving affordable housing, a senior citizens center and an emergency shelter for women who are victims of domestic violence.

As a member of Congress, he chaired the Subcommittee on General Oversight of the House Banking Committee. He also helped gain federal funds for projects in his district, including an expansion of John F. Kennedy International Airport.

As successful as Flake was, he may have some lessons for anyone trying to fill both a pulpit and a seat in Congress: He resigned his congressional role, saying his priority was his church — where he remains in his leadership role.

“My calling in life is as a minister,” Flake told journalists, “so I had to come to a real reconciliation … and it is impossible to continue the sojourn where I am traveling back and forth to DC.”

John Lewis, 1987-2020

Lewis, an ordained Baptist minister and civil rights activist, began preaching as a teenager and viewed his work for social justice as connected to his faith.

He was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, addressing the crowd minutes before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, and served as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Lewis’ work for voting rights led to his being beaten by police as he crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Late in his life, he worked with religious group s to address what he considered the “gutting” of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court in 2013.

In 2016, Lewis told RNS he did not regret moving away from traditional ministry.

“I think my pulpit today is a much larger pulpit,” he said. “If I had stayed in a traditional church, I would have been limited to four walls and probably in some place in Alabama or in Nashville, Tennessee. I preach every day. Every day, I’m preaching a sermon, telling people to get off their butts and do something.”

Emanuel Cleaver II, 2005 to present

Cleaver was senior pastor of St. James United Methodist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, before turning the pulpit over to his son in 2009.

The chair of the House Subcommittee on National Security, International Development and Monetary Policy, he has co-authored a reform bill on housing programs. He also was instrumental in the creation of a Green Impact Zone in which federal funds created jobs and energy efficient projects in a 150-block area of Kansas City known for crime and unemployment.

As the 117th session of Congress opened this week, Cleaver drew attention and ire for ending his invocation in the name of “God known by many names by many different faiths — amen and a-woman.”

He told a local TV station that the prayer was a nod to the diverse Congress where more women are serving than ever before.

“After I prayed, Republicans and Democrats alike were coming up to me saying ‘thank you for the prayer. We needed it. We need somebody to talk to God about helping us to get together,’” he told KCTV. “It was a prayer of unity.”

President Obama designates historic civil rights sites including black churches

President Obama designates historic civil rights sites including black churches

(RNS) In one of his last official acts, President Obama has designated Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and other civil rights landmarks in Birmingham, Ala., as the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.

The designation protects the historic A.G. Gaston Motel in that city, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders had their 1963 campaign headquarters, as well as Kelly Ingram Park, where police turned hoses and dogs on civil rights protesters.

And it includes the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four girls died in 1963 after Ku Klux Klan members detonated more than a dozen sticks of dynamite outside the church basement.

“This national monument will fortify Birmingham’s place in American history and will speak volumes to the place of African-Americans in history,” said the Rev. Arthur Price Jr., pastor of the church, in a statement.

Obama’s proclamation also cites the role of Bethel Baptist Church, headquarters of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, and St. Paul United Methodist Church, from which protesters marched before being stopped by police dogs.

In his proclamation Thursday (Jan. 12), Obama said the various sites “all stand as a testament to the heroism of those who worked so hard to advance the cause of freedom.”

In other acts, all timed to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which will be observed on Monday, the president designated the Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston, Ala., and the Reconstruction Era National Monument in coastal South Carolina.

He cited the role of congregations in all three areas — from sheltering civil rights activists at Bethel Baptist Church to hosting mass meetings at First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., to providing a school for former slaves at the Brick Baptist Church in St. Helena Island, S.C.

The designations instruct the National Park Service to manage the sites and consider them for visitor services and historic preservation.

“African-American history is American history and these monuments are testament to the people and places on the front-lines of our entire nation’s march toward a more perfect union,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.