Does God Want Me to Go Into Debt for Seminary?

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The dilemma: I have a calling from God but limited cash.

Do I trust God to provide or take steps to secure my own financing? What if that financing includes debt? Is this part of God’s call – to trust Him to pay off my debt?

Am I to exercise faith that any debt incurred will be handled by the God who called me to serve Him? Or am I supposed to exercise patience and prudence and secure my financing (and the method to pay back any loans) before I venture into the Ministry?

The fields are white for harvest NOW – what do I do?

It is no secret that higher education costs money – a lot of it!  A 2011 Atlantic Monthly article reported that “Of the seminary students who graduated in 2011 with a Master of Divinity degree (the typical degree for a full-time pastor), more than 25 percent accrued more than $40,000 in educational debt, and five percent accumulated more than $80,000 in debt.”  That is a good-sized balance due for a field where the median wage is scarcely over $43,000 annually (according to the US Dept of Labor at the time of the Atlantic Monthly publication).

That paints a bleak picture for the aspiring Minister. Low wages for starting ministers/pastors do not give much confidence that student debt will be paid off anytime soon.

So what does the Seminary student do to combat this? Again, the Atlantic Monthly quotes the interim co-director of the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, Sharon Miller “Many denominations are concerned about the burden of student debt and how that impacts the vocational lives of clergy,” and indicates that some denominations are offering to take on the debt in exchange for future work. She admits, however, that “these efforts are quite limited in scope, as denominations are financially stressed themselves.”

Another common response to Seminary debt is being bi-vocational. This means working two jobs, probably both on a full-time schedule. A young minister/pastor working another job to cover the monthly shortfall will certainly not be able to handle both masters well (see Matthew 6:24); and if there is a spouse in the picture, they would need to work as well just to make ends meet!  This doesn’t sound like part of God’s call, does it?

The adage “where God guides, He provides” has been worn out. The student (or prospective student) hears the frequent references to George Muller, but does that really amount to practical advice or provide wise counsel to the student?

What then? Where is the best counsel found for this dilemma? Should a student go into debt to work for God’s kingdom? Who has the answer?

Scripture provides the best glimpse into the mind of God available to man. A quick review of verses about debt show God’s “opinion” about the subject:

Proverbs 22:7 – the rich rule over the poor and the borrower is slave to the lender.

Luke 14:18 – which of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it?

Romans 13:8 – owe nothing to anyone except to love one another

Stronger verses about borrowing and not being able to repay include:

Psalm 37:21 – the wicked borrows and does not pay back.

Perhaps the best cautions are these:

Ecclesiastes 5:5 – it is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay.

Deuteronomy 28:43-45 (curses on Israel) – He shall lend to you…you shall be the tail (not the head).

James 4:13-14 – you do not know what will happen tomorrow (addressing a business plan)

This decision, as agonizing as it may be in our flesh, defines our view of God. If you believe that God reacts to our actions, then you will struggle to finance your education and hope and pray that He will provide the income necessary to maintain payments on your loans until they are paid off. If you believe God has a plan but leaves certain areas up to us (including financial decisions), you will be in the same situation.

This perspective was played out in Genesis 16 with Abram, Sarai and Hagar. Trying to “help God along with His plan,” Sarai pushed her maidservant on Abram to provide the descendants God had promised. It is not happenstance that this was before God called Abram ‘Abraham’ and Sarai ‘Sarah’ – they were acting completely on their own in the flesh. The results were devastating for all involved. It wasn’t until chapter 17 when God gave Abram the covenant of circumcision and changed his name that He re-affirmed His promise. Isaac followed in chapter 21.

What does this have to do with debt and financing? It demonstrates impatience with God and His call on Abram’s life – and teaches us how to respond to the call on ours.

James 4:15 instructs us to say “if the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” This includes Seminary and ministry. As tired as we may be of hearing about George Muller, his life shows what God will provide when genuine faith is involved. The one who holds to the doctrine of the sovereignty of God will not obtain debt as a means of expedience (and hope/pray that God will pay it off for him!). Prudence recognizes the trap that borrowing really is (slavery) and many rash decisions made in youth are still impacting families later in life.

With available scholarships and some creative financing sources (not loans), a Seminary degree can be obtained without any extra baggage. Prayer, fasting and guidance from the God who called you is the best course of action!

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