Many seminarians who answer the call to serve may feel as if God called collect.
A seminary student's average after- graduation tuition debt is a whopping $33,000. When coupled with the lower salaries extended to most first-year pastors, the situation makes for fewer men and women who are able to consider vocational ministry as a viable career.
Recognizing this financial and theological crisis, the UCC's General Synod 24 in July unanimously adopted a pronouncement to address the financial burden of its future church leaders and called upon all settings of the church to pursue solutions to rid seminarians of educational debt.
First Congregational UCC in Whitman, Mass., didn't need any prodding from General Synod delegates to assume the costs of seminary for one of its own.
Ray Medeiros, a member of the congregation for more than 20 years, will graduate—debt free—from UCC-related Andover Newton Theological School in June 2004 thanks to the generosity and support of the 325-member congregation.
"I'm actually done with classes in December, so I'm beginning to get my profile together for the search process," Medeiros says.
The 46-year-old celebrates the practice of "a congregation raising up a pastor within itself" and wants others to recognize what a blessing it is to be a part of a supportive, nurturing faith community.
Everyone wins when people are encouraged to pursue their talents, Medeiros says, and the ripple effect can be felt in other areas of life.
"My wife and I are in the process of adopting a daughter from China," he says. "We wouldn't have been in a financial position to do that with the burden of seminary debt."
So how did the congregation grow a fund to assume the financial burden of seminary? "A little at a time," answers June Millett, a member of First Congregational who helped in the church's efforts to keep the scholarship fund operating.
"Ray took a few classes at a time," Millett says, so the church was able to replenish funds slowly, primarily with proceeds from an annual salad supper and with individual designated gifts. Unused interest from an endowment fund designated to help individuals—not programs—is also rolled over to the scholarship fund every year.
It wasn't until this fall that Medeiros gave up his factory job and went to school full time. In light of that leap of faith, First Congregational's pastor, the Rev. Gary C. Hauze, suggested that the church also assume Ray's book fees, which the congregation readily agreed to do.
The Pilgrim Association of the UCC's Massachusetts Conference also contributed to Medeiros' seminary fees and paid one-third of the cost of a psychological/career profile, a test required by the Association for all seminarians.
Supporting Medeiros "was a no-brainer for our congregation and for Pilgrim Association," Hauze says. "Ray is a very competent and trustworthy person. He has a genuine call."
Medeiros would like to stay in the general Whitman area, and Hauze wouldn't mind if his current parishioner soon became a nearby colleague. "If there are any area churches currently in the search process, Ray will be preaching at First Congregational the last Sunday in November," says Hauze, inviting all to come and listen.
Millett knows Medeiros' gifts are real. That's why she's happy that her congregation has played a part in developing leadership for the larger UCC. "He's going to make some church a wonderful pastor," she says.
Laurie Bartels, a free-lance writer and a member of First UCC in Lakewood, Ohio, is a frequent contributor to United Church News.
Raising up, paying up
Chicago church supports more than 60 seminarians
Trinity UCC in Chicago, Ill., is helping more than 60 of its members to respond to God's call to vocational ministry, and in so doing, it is living out one of the dreams of its senior pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.
In 1979, Wright requested that the church's board of trustees commit to reimbursing seminarians for tuition expenses, and still today, the church remains committed to that challenge.
This year, Trinity is providing $6,500 per year to each of more than 60 seminary students, in order to make the dream of ministry come true.
"In 2001-2002, over one-half million dollars was contributed to seminary debt by Trinity," says the Rev. Wanda J. Washington, Trinity's director of pastoral services. "We reimburse students for every class, up to $6,500 per calendar year, in which they've earned a B or better," Washington says.
In addition to the grade standard, students must:
Attend an accredited seminary (does not have to be UCC-related),
Be a member of Trinity UCC for more than 2 years,
Be active in church ministry, and
Attend eight out of 10 required sessions called "Ministers In Training" (MIT).
The MIT sessions are conducted by Wright one Saturday per month, ten times per year.
The students meet from 7 to 9 a.m. to discuss their theological training. Washington, a product of the reimbursement program, said that the MIT sessions are an important part of the Trinity UCC program's success.
Students participating in this year's program attend seminary at Harvard Divinity, Union Theological, Eden Theological, Chicago Theological, Garrett Evangelical, McCormick Theological and Pacific School of Religion, among others.
In addition to serving its own, Trinity was honored at General Synod 24 in July by the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries for its significant financial support of national UCC scholarship programs.
Andover Newton Theological School
Newton Centre, Mass.
Bangor Theological Seminary
Chicago Theological Seminary
Eden Theological Seminary
St. Louis, Mo.
Lancaster Theological Seminary
Pacific School of Religion
United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities
New Brighton, Minn.