The rising costs of entering the ministry

Illustration of a graduation cap shaped like an anvil

New ministers enter the job market with more educational debt than ever before. Unitarian Universalist leaders are looking at ways to adapt.

Image: © Alex Nabaum/theispot

© Alex Nabaum/the ispot


The Rev. Susan Gabrielson was overjoyed when the Sanford, Maine, Unitar­ian Universalist Church called her to be its full-time minister in 2003. A single mother of two, Gabrielson had just graduated from Andover Newton Theological School and was excited to start her career as a minister.

Then, in 2012, the 90-member church had to cut Gabrielson’s hours—first to three-quarters time and then to half-time. She decided to stick with her congregation through the change. But juggling two demanding half-time jobs, alongside parenting, took its toll. Then there was her $100,000 in student loans from college and seminary—a hard debt to service for anyone, much less a part-time minister.

Eventually, Gabrielson had to make a tough choice. Last spring, she walked away from ministry and now teaches English at a Quaker school in Costa Rica.

“I loved it—every part of the actual job and what we do,” Gabrielson said of parish ministry. “But in terms of the future, it just doesn’t make sense. At least the way things are now.”

Gabrielson’s story is part of much bigger trends rippling through Unitarian Universalism. Across the country, the costs of entering the ordained ministry are skyrocketing even as church membership stagnates, straining congregational budgets. In the face of those economic challenges, UU leaders are taking a hard look at the future of ordained ministry. Proposals range from expanding lay ministry to promoting financial literacy within congregations to thinking beyond the traditional congregation altogether. But serious questions remain about how the Unitarian Universalist Association will continue to sustain diverse, well-prepared clergy.

The combination of rising costs and stagnant or shrinking budgets has hit smaller UU congregations especially hard, according to the Rev. Richard Nugent, church staff finances director at the UUA.

Annual tuition and fees for a master of divinity degree in the United States have gone up 250 percent in the past twenty years.

“We’ve got the ministers that are coming out of school with debt, generally working for smaller congregations that can’t afford to pay as much,” Nugent told UU World. “How does that person then also have the hope of buying a home, and then other expenses that they’re juggling? That applies to other staff, as well.”

Younger adults are shouldering student debt that was unheard of in previous generations. American households held $1.26 trillion in student debt in the second quarter of 2016, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York—more than any other category of debt besides housing. College graduates had an average student debt of $28,950 in 2014 [PDF], not including for-profit colleges, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.

Seminary debt is rising, too, as annual tuition and fees for a master of divinity degree in the United States have gone up 250 percent in the past twenty years at divinity schools and seminaries accredited by the Association of Theological Schools, according to the association.

This year, the UUA’s Office of Ministries and Faith Development has given $220,000 in grants to help 86 ministers struggling with seminary debt, according to data provided by the UUA. That may seem like a lot of money, but it’s just 5.7 percent of the combined $3,886,946 those ministers owe for seminary—a figure that doesn’t include undergraduate debt.

The costs of pursuing ministry don’t stop at seminary, either. Unitarian Universalist ministers are ordained by their congregations, but they’re credentialed (“fellowshipped”) by the UUA—a lengthy process that involves years of full-time training.

Along with a master of divinity (MDiv) or an equivalent graduate degree, ministers must complete an expensive psychological assessment and a unit of hospital-based pastoral training, though the UUA does make some scholarship funds available.

Then there’s the required “ministerial internship,” usually in a UU congregation. Of the twenty-three internships listed on the UUA’s internship website for 2016–2017, just seven pay a living wage for their location, according to an analysis by UU World. The average salary for the seventeen full-time positions is $1,600 per month; only five offer health or dental insurance.

The current model of seminary training and ministerial credentialing has fallen out of pace with the realities of what many people want from religious leaders and what future ministers can afford, according to the Rev. Don Southworth, executive director of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association.

“The idea you’re going to spend three or four years of your life getting a master of divinity degree, that you’re going to do an internship basically for free, that you may uproot your family to be able to move somewhere—that’s a model based on another time and place,” Southworth said.

Some seminaries are starting to address these problems. Meadville Lombard Theological School, the UU seminary in Chicago that trained 28 percent of all applicants for UU ministerial fellowship in the past decade, has rebuilt its MDiv as a low-residency program. Students travel to Chicago for week-long intensives three times a year and complete internships part-time in their own communities. The other UU seminary, Starr King School for the Ministry, which trained 16 percent of recent fellowship applicants, also offers a low-residency MDiv program.

Many people imagine that seminarians are mostly young people who are covered by their families’ insurance or have outside financial support. But that doesn’t match the reality of who’s entering ministry today, according to Kellie Kelly, who chairs UU Class Conversations, a group that works to make Unitarian Universalism more welcoming to people of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Kelly is in her fourth year as an MDiv student at Meadville Lombard. The 45-year-old single mother grew up Catholic in northwest Chicago, where her mom waited tables to support her and her sister.

“I grew up hoping that I could work outside of a restaurant,” Kelly said, “but that wasn’t what I saw around me.” She describes the moment when she realized that she could become a minister as something of a revelation.

Meadville Lombard financial aid and an extended, part-time pastoral training program have helped Kelly afford her training, she said. It’s been a struggle, though, and she worries about the barriers that high student debt and low-paying or unpaid internships will throw up for other people.

‘Our religious association has tried to do things differently,” Kelly said. “However, there’s a really big gap between where America is and where I think most Unitarian Universalists would like us to be.”

That gap has grown dramatically over the past three decades. The costs of housingchild carehealth care, and other fixed expenses continue to rise even as wages stagnate. Now congregations are feeling that pressure, with their health insurance costs alone rising 10 to 15 percent each year, according to Nugent.

Unitarian Universalist congregations haven’t experienced the kind of rapid decline in membership that has hit other mainline Protestant denominations, according to a UUA report issued last October. But adult membership has leveled off, and new members tend to be younger and less wealthy than the members they’re replacing. That’s driving revenues down. As a result, more congregations are cutting back on staff. In larger churches, that means cuts to administrative staff, musicians, religious educators, or associate ministers. In smaller, especially rural, congregations, it could mean the minister becomes half- or quarter-time.

Bi-vocational ministry can mean more flexibility and creativity, but it can also mean years of full-time training for a part-time job.

Experts agree that part-time or “bi-vocational” ministry, where clergy split their time between different congregations or even different careers, will grow in the years ahead—an arrangement that is common in some other faith traditions, according to Southworth.

“There’s going to be more bi-vocational ministries in the future, which means that people who are doing some of this entrepreneurial work and community ministries, it may not be their sole source of income,” Southworth said.

In June 2015, the UUA held a summit in Saint Louis that brought together fifty denominational leaders, ministers, seminary presidents, church administrators, religious educators, and church musicians to brainstorm solutions to these challenges. A follow-up meeting this summer in Boston focused on two initiatives, according to the Rev. Sarah Lammert, the UUA’s director of ministries and faith development: expanding lay ministry and creating a financial literacy curriculum for congregations. (Read detailed summaries of the two Summits on the Economic Sustainability of Ministries.)

Several regional groups and congregations already offer certification programs for lay ministers. The UUA is working to put them in dialogue about best practices. Lammert hopes that these groups might recognize each other’s credentials, making them more portable. The 2015 UUA report envisions these certified lay leaders potentially serving as part-time ministers at small congregations, among other possible roles.

The second proposal would be a lifelong financial literacy curriculum similar in approach to Our Whole Lives, the popular sexuality curriculum used in many UU and United Church of Christ congregations. While it would discuss congregational stewardship, Lammert said, its focus would be on helping UUs understand and relate to money in a healthy way that affirms their values.

“It’s such a big, hairy, adaptive problem,” said Lammert. “We’re not going to be able to take on everything, so we just decided to go with where the energy was and do some concrete things.”

Separately, UUA President Peter Morales has been talking with an interfaith group of liberal religious leaders about similar issues their denominations all face. They’ve enlisted the help of Harvard Divinity School students Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile. The pair authored a 2014 report, How We Gather [PDF], which documents how many millennials are finding community and meaning outside of traditional religion. Their report looked at service movements, meditation groups, and even gyms as new alternatives to churches and synagogues. Morales and his colleagues want to know whether that perspective can offer a way forward for more traditional religious organizations.

The question remains whether any of these proposals can address the hard economic realities. Bi-vocational ministry can mean more flexibility and creativity, for example, but it can also mean years of full-time training for a part-time job. Lay ministry could lower barriers to leadership, but it could also create more competition for a shrinking number of ministry positions, or risk creating strata of clergy—and pay—based on credentials. And it’s unclear how any of the alternative communities Thurston and ter Kuile explore could support a full-time spiritual professional with years of training and thousands of dollars of debt.

“I want to make a difference in the world,” Kelly said. “I think all people deserve fulfilling work—work that makes their hearts sing. The idea that I would have worked this hard to find a way through seminary and then not be able to pay the bills with my ministry work is upsetting to me.”

More than two-thirds of the students applying for candidate status with the UUA over the past decade have been students of just five seminaries or divinity schools, but UU students have applied from 54 other schools as well. (Data: UUA Ministries and Faith Development, compiled by Joshua Eaton)

Seminary Candidates % of Candidates
Meadville Lombard 174 28%
Starr King 99 16%
Andover Newton 72 12%
Harvard Divinity 49 8%
Union Theological 29 5%
Iliff 21 3%
United (Twin Cities) 21 3%
Wesley 15 2%
Candler 13 2%
Other (8 candidates or fewer) 129 21%
Total (at 59 schools) 622  
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