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.”
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The other day I got an email from a friend on how he was getting frustrated and tired of reading books and hearing lectures on Eurocentric theology and church history. He wanted to have some color injected into his Bible college and seminary education.
It’s a story I’m all too familiar with. By the end of seminary, most people are screaming at the top of their lungs, “Let me out!” But they press on anyway because they know they have a calling and they know this is the path God has them on in order to equip them. This is even more true for those students who are of non-white ethnicity. The seminary is a far cry from their home culture and the things taught there are taught from a predominantly white historical and theological perspective. Consequently, you can feel like you are being brainwashed or indoctrinated into whiteness or at the very least just made to feel like an oddball or invisible because your experience is different from a lot of the other students. I’ve been there. And I would have lost my mind if it weren’t for these principles working themselves out in my life intentionally or unintentionally.
1. Remember why you are there
You are there because you are called. You are here because you want to soak up the knowledge to make you effective in ministry. You are there to connect with like-minded folk who may one day partner with you in ministry. Do not let the overwhelming whiteness take you off course. Learn. Soak it in. Grow.
2. Make two sets of notes
There are two sets of notes to take. Notes for the paper you will write and notes for yourself (Shout out to MK Asante). Some things will be helpful for your academic career but other things will help as you take your seminary training back home.
3. Find the alternative books
When I first started attending Fuller Theological Seminary I had the privilege of working in the library. As I put the books back on the shelves I learned about James Cone, Gustavo Gutierrez and so many others. I began reading those books even before I started classes because they spoke from a perspective I understood and was familiar with. Just the exposure alone helped me to tackle some of the lack of diversity I was experiencing.
4. Find like-minded students
There is always, at least, a handful of students of color on any campus. If you can’t find students of color then there are many white students who understand where you are coming from. Reach out and connect. It may be the best thing you have ever done.
5. Find like-minded professors
In an attempt to make their faculties more diverse, most seminaries and Christian universities have hired at least two or three non-white professors who teach from a different perspective. Go and take their classes if you have the opportunity. If you can’t take their classes then find some way to connect with them. They understand your experience and are rooting for your success. Personally, I found Dr. Ralph Watkins and Dr. Jehu Hanciles. Just their teaching and course content helped me to not lose my mind!
6. Ask thought-provoking questions
Don’t just sit in class like a lump on a log. Ask questions—thought-provoking questions. Not solely to cause trouble. Ask questions from your unique ethnic and socio-economic perspective. It will not only bless you but also those in class around you who may be going into these contexts or just those who need to have their world expanded
7. Keep a vital and dynamic relationship with God
Last but not least, keep your eyes on Jesus. Don’t stop praying. Don’t stop reading your Bible. Remember this isn’t about ethnicity. This is about God’s calling on your life.
What about you do you have any other tips to include? What was your experience in seminary like? How did you keep from losing your mind?
The school year is about to go into full swing, which means that many are back to studying and showing themselves approved in the academic sense. Among that group are thousands of first-time and returning seminarians, people from a variety of backgrounds who aren’t just bound to be pastors, fill pulpits, and preach. But all of this is unbeknownst because most people have only known seminaries and theology schools to be the training ground for the future pastors and spiritual leaders of America. Today we will tackle some of the misconceptions that follow the seminarian. This list is by no means exhaustive but it will help shed some light on the fact that seminarians are not just holier than thou students. So without further ado, here are seven things that seminarians aren’t.
Maybe there are a few saints roaming the halls of your local seminary—doubtful considering the criteria for sainthood–but for the most part seminaries are full of everyday people who struggle with sin and salvation–especially when they are sitting in a class called “Sin and Salvation.” Their prayers don’t get to God any faster. They don’t walk around quoting the Bible—well not all of them and sometimes it’s necessary to quote and memorize scripture if you are about to walk into the Old or New Testament exam. They may not always be compelled to acts of charity and service—because the reality is their schedules might not permit for it. They are not always nice…Long story short, if there was a process for canonization available during a seminarian’s time in school, not many would make it. Blame it on the seminary or the seminarian, either way, saints are few and far between.
It is not uncommon for someone to step into seminary and step out of the prayer closet, this happens for a variety of reasons not limited to the fact that seminarian schedules are hectic. Between coursework, internships/residency, work, family, and life, prayer can become the last thing on anyone’s mind. I say this from firsthand experience, as someone who came to seminary as a fervent and frequent pray-er, and left as a periodic pray-er because my schedule and the rigor of my courses made prayer difficult–and lest I be remiss what I learned brought my previous understanding of the spiritual of discipline into question. To this latter point, the other thing about prayer in seminary is the practice is sometimes challenged by what is learned in class. How does one pray when they think about predestination, triple pre-destination, providence, reign of God, and all of those other big theological concepts? Why pray if everything was preordained at the beginning of creation? Does prayer change God or does it change us? Prayer can be complicated in seminary both theoretically and practically speaking.
Pastors in Training
It used to be that people came to seminary because they were called to pastor a church or go into another ministerial capacity but now only 4 in 10 MDiv—Master of Divinity—students plan to go into pastoral ministry full-time. More are considering a bi-vocational path and many more aren’t considering ministry, in the traditional sense, at all. Hundreds of thousands of people go to seminary as part of vocational discernment and then discover that they want to be professors, lawyers, marriage and family therapist and counselors, non-profit leaders, hospital or corporate business chaplains, and more. Or they just want to learn and go back to whatever it was they were doing before they took the seminary detour. And lest I be remiss, because I’ve spent some time around such people, some may want to reconsider who they heard calling them to pastoral ministry. Not all seminarians should be pastors and not all seminarians want to be pastors.
Saved…or even Christian
During my time in seminary I discovered that “saved” was not a term many people liked. This went for both students and faculty. The term reminded people of some factions of conservative Christianity whose primary goal is to save people and condemn the rest to hell. “Saved” language seemed exclusive and didn’t allow for a more open understanding of what life in the faith is. My Systematic Theology professor helped open some of us up to a different understanding of the term encouraging us to reflect on being “saved from something and saved for something.” But semantics aside, a popular misconception is that everyone who goes to seminary is “saved” in the same sense. Not to say that people don’t share a common salvific experience but they don’t use the same language—and sometimes not the same narrative of “coming to Christ”—to speak of the experience. It doesn’t make them any less “saved” as it may be popular known and constructed in Christian circles, there is just a difference in how people articulate their understanding of salvation personally and communally. Furthermore, not all seminarians are Christians. In a survey done by the Association of Theological Schools of 7,075 students across 174 schools, 0.5% were Buddhist, 0.2% were Muslim, 0.8% were Muslim and 4.5% were other. These may be small percentages but they still represent the fact that theology schools across the country are not just full of Christians but people from other traditions as well.
All White Men
According to the same survey referenced above, seminaries aren’t full of white men. In fact, African Americans are the second largest enrolled group representing 16.9% of enrolled persons in MDiv programs with Asian students right behind them at 10.2%. The existence and thriving of historically black theological institutes such as the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta and Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio also attests to the racial diversity present in theological institutions. In terms of gender diversity, women account for 34.7% of MDiv students, and, as we have bore witness to, they are also part of the burgeoning population of women preachers, spiritual leaders and leaders in the workforce in general.
Sane, Naïve, Sure, Ready…:
I posed the question of what seminarians aren’t to my fellow seminarians past and present and the responses were many and varied. Among those responses were one-word answers such as “Sane. Naïve. Sure. Ready.” There is a measure of truth to all of these. Practically speaking, the sanity level of some people is questioned when they leave a secure career, significant others, or a hometown to pursue a theological education that will, at one point or another, drain them of everything. Yet very few seminarians are naïve about the space they have walked into, recognizing that it is going to require much of them—and possibly “steal their Jesus” as the urban legends in seminary goes. Surety and readiness are also part of the seminarian’s struggle because answering a “call” to go to seminary doesn’t mean that the called individual is sure or ready for any particular role in ministry or elsewhere. But, that is the beauty of the seminary space, that individuals who answer and engage themselves in the work of theological education are also in a space to continue to discern their call and find surety and readiness.
One respondent to my question pointed out that seminarians aren’t just seminarians. Of this she said, “…because many of our fellow students were scientists, authors, talent agents, and business professionals, in addition to being parents, grandparents, children, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews.” Among some of my classmates were doctors still on call, pilots, business owners, and writers just to name a few. This was in addition to the pastors and preachers who were serving congregations and traveling out of state to preach every Sunday only to get back home late Sunday night and tackle hundreds of pages of reading and dozens of pages of writing. And, lest I be remiss, there are the seminarians who are also parents—single, married, committed partnership, or other—whose other major task, aside from being a student, is raising a child or family and attending to their needs almost as much as they must attend to the seminary work.
In conclusion, while there are many things seminarians, or better put after this article, “people who attend seminary” aren’t, the argument can also be made that they are all of these things. And yet we know that they are more than can be lumped into these seven categories. They are saints and sinners, prayer warriors and prayer cowards, pastors in training and people still discerning, mostly white men and a rainbow of cultures, insane, sane, unsure, sure, ready, unprepared, etc. The moral of the story is that people who choose to go to seminary can’t be lumped into simple categories, aren’t easily defined, and do live lives similar to most everyday people. They are people who choose to make a theological institution their home for one or more years, and may use that education as a launching pad for their life in ministry or a point of departure for other endeavors, but that decision doesn’t make them unlike anyone else outside of a seminary context. Long story short—too late—people who go to seminary aren’t any one thing you think they are.