Helping Theology Students Become Financially Savvy

Nobody goes into ministry for the money. Most students choose to pursue a seminary education out of a sense of calling.  But when theology school students graduate with heavy debt loads, that can weigh heavily on their ministries.

According to a 2014 study by the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary, more than a quarter of students graduating in 2011 with a Master of Divinity degree had more than $40,000 in debt. Some 5 percent were more than $80,000 in the red.

At Perkins, the Financial Literacy Program aims to ease that burden.

“Our goal is to help our students at Perkins to become financially savvy, and to make it fun and informative,” said Jean Nixon, Financial Literacy Coordinator.

The program is funded through a $250,000 grant as part of Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment Inc.’s Theological School Initiative to Address Economic Issues Facing Future Ministers. Perkins was one of 67 theological schools across the U.S. and Canada to receive grant funding.

Burdensome Debt

After graduation, debt becomes more than a source of worry and a financial strain.  Many seminary grads are forced to moonlight, or even to choose another job instead of ministry, to pay the bills.  Personal financial pressures may severely limit the ability of seminary graduates to accept calls to Christian ministry and undermine their effectiveness.

“Even though Perkins does a good job of giving financial aid to most students, it’s still very expensive to attend graduate school,” Nixon said. “And most students are going into jobs that might pay little or that will only be part-time, which makes it really hard to pay off that debt.”

Perkins’ Financial Literacy program aims to better prepare students, primarily through a series of monthly educational gatherings. Each event features financial experts and other speakers, a free lunch and opportunities for individual counseling for those students who desire it.

The program kicked off in the fall semester, starting in September with a session on student debt titled “The Elephant in the Room.”  The October program, “Lipstick on the Pig,” focused on budgeting, and the November program, “Feed My Sheep,” offered a Q&A with Perkins alumni.

In December, some 50 attendees came to the Literacy Program’s session on celebrating the holidays on a budget, with a chef demonstration on frugal cooking, tips for finding gifts at the Dollar Store and ideas for low-cost DIY gift wrapping.

“The whole idea was that you can still have a great holiday without breaking the bank,” Nixon said.

Pres Ida del Rosario Pimentel, an M.A.M. student in Pastoral Care at Perkins, attended all the sessions this fall and expressed gratitude for the program.

“To continue to meet the call of serving people, we need to take care of ourselves,” she said. “Just as God provided Sabbath, I think of financial literacy as self-care.”

Pimentel added that she has shared some of the information she’s learned with church workers in the Philippines.

“My calling is working with clergy, deaconesses and church workers, equipping them and providing tools for their ministry,” she said. “Most of the church workers who leave the ministry do so because of finances.”

Changing the Culture

A key aspect of the program is educating students on how to choose loans wisely and to limit the amount borrowed where possible. The program also aims to combat a common perception that equates loans with “free money.”

“We’re trying to change the financial culture of seminary students based on the fact that it’s not the highest paid profession,” said Nixon.

Gatherings in 2019 will focus on good financial habits and taxes for clergy persons.  Special one-on-one counseling will be offered in the spring to assist senior students in managing student loans after graduation.

Nixon’s office also publishes a Financial Literacy News newsletter for Perkins and posts weekly Bible quotes relating to wise financial management on screens in the hallways of Perkins campus buildings. Plans are underway to create a web page connected directly to Perkins’ financial aid page.

Pimentel sums up what she’s learned so far: “Live simply, find ways to reduce debt, and if you have to take out a loan, shop around for the best option of repayment. It’s not shameful to be in debt and most of all, there are programs such as the Perkins Financial Literacy as resources.”