Written by Tim Kershner
Pronouncement says seminarian debt poses 'theological crisis'
Delegates to General Synod 24 called on the denomination's nearly 6,000 congregations to take greater responsibility for the education and preparation of future ordained leaders.
In a unanimous vote, delegates adopted a pronouncement addressing the crisis of mounting debt among its seminary students.
Possible actions include increasing the funds available for financial assistance and requiring financial planning as a condition of enrollment.
"The educational debt faced by many seminary graduates represents not only individual hardship but theological crisis," the document says.
In addition to highlighting the needs of current students, the pronouncement calls for a feasibility study to determine the possibility of establishing an endowment to address the problem into the future. The goal is for each seminarian to graduate from seminary debt-free.
Exploring the possibility of raising additional scholarship funds comes during a time when there is much discussion about the financial health of the denomination.
On the first day of General Synod, the Rev. John H. Thomas, general minister and president, called for the UCC to increase its total annual giving from $850 million to $1 billion by 2007 in order to strengthen the overall health of the church.
Proponents for a seminarian scholarship fund advocated for the creation of a $60-million fund devoted to tuition support. The Rev. Jean Alexander, Maine Conference Minister, said the issue affects every aspect of the church. "Every setting has a responsibility to deal with this problem," she said.
According to the Rev. Steve Johnson, the UCC's minister for higher and theological education, many seminarians receive some scholarship assistance from their churches, conferences and other sources, but today's average seminarian graduates with about $33,000 in debt. The total debt for all current UCC seminarians is estimated to be at least $3 million.
While supporting the spirit of the resolution, several delegates expressed concern for a provision that reserves tuition support for students who are "in care" of a local Association and those attending approved seminaries.
Jerry Lawritson of San Diego, Calif., noted that many accredited seminaries are opposed to some tenets of UCC theology. He also asked whether tuition support would be retroactive if a student is taken into the care of his or her Association during his or her seminary education.
Some proposed removing a provision requiring that a student reimburse funds if she or he does not enter the ministry, but the motion failed. The Rev. John Gage, a pastor of United Church on the Green in New Haven, Conn., noted that many seminary graduates—especially people of color; openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender persons; and older women—often wait longer than other groups to receive their first call in ministry.
The changing face of the typical seminarian is also a factor in rising debt levels. Students are increasingly entering divinity schools later in life, bringing with them a multitude of household financial responsibilities, including housing and car payments, child care expenses, and other costs.
"We need to understand that the prospect of great debt is a hindrance from entering seminary," Alexander noted, suggesting a potential loss of talented individuals at all levels of the church.
Tim Kershner, a General Synod press room volunteer, is director of public relations for Alvernia College in Reading, Pa.