Theological Education: A Dangerous Journey

Pilgrims ProgressOne of my favorite books of all time is Dangerous Journey: The Story of Pilgrim’s Progress. The narrative is abridged straight from the words of John Bunyan, but what immediately captures your imagination are the beautiful illustrations by Alan Parry.

The story is Bunyan’s allegory of the Christian journey, told as an adventure including the many challenges represented by dungeons, dark forests, black rivers and intense hardship.

Today there are great financial obstacles on path to following God’s calling into occupational ministry. On this blog I address one of the biggest obstacles – pursing a theological education. Last year I wrote a breakdown of routes to pay for your theological education beside debt, but here I’d like to articulate a few of the financial barriers – the allegorical giants, dragons, and lions – someone going into occupational ministry faces.

1. Rising Education costs

For over 30 years, the cost of all higher education has outpaced inflation. This is a huge wave, and Seminaries have been swept up in its wake. This rising tide requires focused attention to avoid being drowned. You simply cannot ignore the financial aspect of pursing a graduate degree and just assume it will all work out – it requires a plan.

2. Popular teaching on Higher Education

Throughout popular culture, there has been a long term bias toward encouraging young people to pursue higher education. These people were probably well-intentioned, and often quote stats like this, but this is really post WW2 logic. Back then, you could get the appropriate degree and work as a cog in a factory for your entire career. It really was a solid plan. This type of teaching often sounds something like this:

  1. All Education debt is “Good Debt”
  2. Always invest in yourself
  3. Education is always good

I’ve talked here several times before about how highly I value a theological education – I want and need my pastor to have one. But the end doesn’t universally justify the means, and popular culture has more or less ignored the ‘how’ and just pushed young people to ‘get an education’.

3. Spiritual Misinterpretation

I linked to a really good article last month where the author said some people have “’spiritualized’ educational debt, believing that if one followed God’s call to ministry, God would take care of the finances.” This “God will provide” narrative is taken from some amazing biblical stories (like Abraham and Isaac) where God did miraculously show up and provide. If God has specifically told you he will provide, please don’t let me stand in your way. But if you believe God has told you this and you’re using debt to pay for it, I am going to push back based on the large amount of scriptures on the dangers of debt.

Don’t call being naïve a ‘step of faith’.

4. Changing Job Market

For around a 100 years in America, we’ve had a cultural that encouraged a form of ‘cultural Christianity’ where a local community attended a house of worship and financially supported local institution. Prior to this we had a ‘traveling preacher’ model, and you can trace occupational ministry back throughout history to the Levites around 1500 BC.

That is all to say that there isn’t any guarantee of what occupational ministry looks like over the next 40 years. Traditional church attendance is declining – probably in part because there isn’t a cultural pressure to attend or be a member of a faith community.

Those pursing a theological education also graduate into a career that often pays lower salaries than other careers requiring advanced degrees. This probability of lower lifetime incomes needs to considered when thinking through how much debt is acceptable to take on while pursing that education. Regardless of your and my opinion, we all agree that there is some level of debt that is ‘too much’.

Occupational ministry is also very ‘hands on’, meaning that there is a high probability that you will need to move geographically throughout your career as you take and leave various jobs. This is a challenge – a lion on the path if you will.

Finally in this category, you will need to navigate changing denominational structures over the next few decades. The ‘cultural Christianity’ we referenced earlier provided a huge financial platform for those going into occupational ministry. These denominational structures are eroding.

5. Debt is the Path of Least Resistance

Debt is certainly the easiest way to go to college right now. You simply sign your name and you’re financially able to attend classes immediately without any financial obligations until you graduate.  Water flows down hill, and because the barriers are so low this has become an industry with $50 Billion in profits.

Dave Ramsey has used the word “wander” to describe going into debt and getting out. As in, “You cannot wander out of debt”. Because its so easy, you can wander into debt if you don’t have a plan.

CONCLUSION

This has been a bit of downer. It wasn’t meant to be. The point wasn’t to address the morality of any of these things (they simply are), nor to address any solutions. Just to take what is scary in the dark and shine a light on it.

In the pictorial illustration I included above, the protagonist Christian, weary from his journey is looking for a place to stay for the night. In Bunyan’s words:

But as he drew nearer, he could hear in the darkness the roaring of lions. The only way forward was along a narrow passage, which was about a furlong from the porter’s lodge. This, he knew, was the place from which Mistrust and Timorous had fled. And Christian was never so near to running back after them.

But the porter at the lodge, whose name was Watchful, perceiving now that Christian made a halt, cried out:

Is your strength so small? Fear not the lions. They are on long chains. If you  keep strictly to the beam of light, in the centre of the path, they cannot reach you.

So Christian moved on. He took good heed to the directions of the porter. At the same time, he trembled for fear of the lions, for now they were on either side of him, straining at their chains.

And how they roared, and snapped at him! And how they tried to catch him by the foot! But Christian soldiered on boldly. And in another minute he was through and had reached the gate unharmed.

My hope here was to illuminate the lions, to be your Watchful, and to reduce fear showing that the path becomes more clear. This isn’t meant to be discouraging. In fact, I think it’s the making of great drama and a wonderful story. There is hope! You can do this.

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