TOOLS

hand-sawI have a friend who works in the construction trade. He confessed that sometimes he puts off or just forgets to make his truck payment for a month or two. He always catches up and pays it back current, it’s just hard to keep track of all of his bills and pay them on time. Now he was worried his low credit score wouldn’t let him expand or buy a house in the future.

I know this friend is really skilled at his job. I also know he is meticulous about cleaning his tools at the end of the day. Why I asked him? Because, he told me, “If you take care of your tools they will take care of you.”

These are the wise words of a skilled craftsman.

The following word picture occurred to me and we talked through it:

One of the many reasons we all work and is to secure our unknown financial future. Good credit is a symptom of someone that takes care of their personal business. I want you to think of your credit as a tool in the toolbox of your financial future. Take care of this tool with the same diligence you bring to your physical tools.

Sometimes it’s hard for us to think and work outside the area of our expertise. If we’re working long hours, in graduate school writing papers into the night, feeding and changing small children, or feeling the weight of ministry demands it can be difficult to remember the importance of the other ‘tools’ in our life.

Our physical body might be our most important tool. We can’t do anything without it. Let’s take care of that tool. Everyday.

Success in life is impossible without healthy relationships – to God and others. Is there some rust building there?

When Noelle and I were really motivated to get out of debt, we spent a few minutes each day thinking and taking a small action. We understood that meeting this financial goal would be a valuable tool that would enable us to be able to do ministry, provide a stable home for our children, and be generous givers.

Take care of your tools and they will take care of you.

Debt and risk taking – article reflection

AtlanticDoes debt influence risk taking? In this article on Millennial entrepreneurs, that is one of the propositions:

The answer begins with more debt and less risk-taking. The number of student borrowers rose 89 percent between 2004 and 2014, as Lettieri said in his testimony. During that time, the average debt held by student borrowers grew by 77 percent. Even when student debt is bearable, it can still shape a life, nudging young people toward jobs that guarantee a steady salary. Entrepreneurship, however, is a perilous undertaking that doesn’t offer such stability. There is also some evidence that young people’s appetite for risk-taking has declined at the same time that their student debt has grown. More than 40 percent of 25-to-34-year old Americans said a fear of failure kept them from starting a company in 2014; it 2001, just 24 percent said so.

Assuming that hypothesis is true, what risks are required for those going into Occupation Ministry?

Are church planters inherent risk takers? Does a candidate need a willingness to relocate? Do financial constrains restrict a pastors ability to start with a small congregation? Are church staff less likely to stand up to improprieties in leadership if they are financially stressed?

Seminary Debt Findings

Work SignTwo weeks ago, 67 theological schools gathered to share information, research, and findings on student financial well-being. Their shared data covered over 17k students and represented 27 different denominations. Some of the findings were divided into “Oh Dear” moments and “Aha!” moments.

I think these findings are a huge deal. They represent a lot of what we’ve found and discussed on this blog. Here are their findings and some notes I’ve added:

 

The Bad News:

  1. Students can’t following same traditional pathways to occupational ministry

Denominational paths to ministry are changing. We have talked about these changing paths on this blog. In addition, financials have changed causing students to be more likely to need to work or have other financial support.

  1. Debt varies widely based on key risk indicators:
  • Marital status and Dependents
  • Gender
  • Race/ethnicity
  • Age

The financial risks are different for each of these categories of students, but the data is very clear that if a student has one or more of these ‘layers of risk’ they are far more likely to be heavily indebted. More data on that here.

  1. ‘One Size Fits All’ stewardship training doesn’t work.

There has been some research on this before, but my takeaway was students don’t change unless they have a ‘pain point’ which causes them to take action. More on that here:

  1. Students don’t feel impact of debt while they are IN school.

See this graphic:

Capture Student graph

 

Students don’t fully understand their current financial position or future. There is data that seems to indicate these numbers are better than they were 3 years ago, so that trend is encouraging.

  1. “There are significant psychological and cultural barriers that prevent students, seminaries, and congregations from addressing financial issues.”

There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ solution because the problem is so complex and each student brings a very unique combination of financial resources, acumen, and risks.

  1. Very little or no connection between tuition cost and student debt

This doesn’t seem possible (and in fact there is data that shows that as an institution raises tuition student indebtedness goes up faster than tuition inflation) but a tremendous amount of research was done between various theological institutions and there was no connection between lower cost peer institutions and students graduating with less debt. WHY this is true is of some debate.

The Good:

  1. Financial Literacy programs can work if:
    1. Required
    2. One-on-One
    3. Connected to calling (because….)

This basically shows we need to connect students with a better “Why”. Why does it matter if I graduate with less debt? How will my ministry opportunities be different if I graduate with more debt? We need to do a better job connecting debt to ‘vocation and calling’.

  1. Speed Bumps

Educating students on projected (after graduation) payments and giving them a range of incomes can help reduce overall student borrowing.

  1. Student financial health requires Institutional cultural change

Because student debt touches so many area of a Seminary (Admissions, Enrollment, Financial Aid, Advancement, etc.), it is necessary to have everybody ‘pulling the same direction’. A unified vision of graduating financially healthy students is necessary from the President on down.

  1. Financially healthier pastors are better pastors

Post-graduation research is proving what we could have already guessed, “decreasing financial debt and increasing financial literacy for future pastors increases their ability to lead well.”

  1. Partnering together to help graduate financially healthy students is good for everybody.

There are a number of interconnected parties: The student, the church body, the Seminary, and more. This ‘partnering’ can be institutional (church and seminary, or denomination) or personal (spouse, roommates, friends of the student, etc.). When everyone works together toward a common goal, their relationships actually get stronger.

  1. 75% of students borrow less than $40k in seminary education.

While the number and percentages change a little between peer organizations, this seems to be a rough reality across the board. There is quite a bit of research and data showing that we have a bifurcated student body. The majority of students are graduating with relatively healthy quantities of debt, while significant portions are graduating with levels of debt that will significantly affect their quality of life after they graduate.

This complicates potential solutions because all students aren’t facing the same challenges.

CONCLUSION

This information was helpful for me – both in confirming findings as well as helping me shape future ways of communicating to our students. Hopefully you’ve found this information helpful as well. It is the result of a huge amount of money and effort – all with the goal of graduating financially healthy students into occupational ministry.

Thanks to the Lilly Foundation. They are the drivers, both via vision and financial support, of this research and data. The Association of Theological Schools gathered much of the data and presented it.

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.

ARTICLE: Can the Church and the minister afford each other?

Marshall_Molly_ColumnThis is an interesting article that asks a lot more questions then it answers. I particularly noted this quote which articulates my opinion that those going into occupational ministry are particularly vulnerable:

others have “spiritualized” educational debt, believing that if one followed God’s call to ministry, God would take care of the finances. While I appreciate great faith, a level of naiveté shapes some entering congregational leadership, and the economics of ministry are irreducible.

Mark Cuban on Student Loan Reform

Dec 26, 2013; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban reacts to a call during the game against the San Antonio Spurs at the American Airlines Center. The Spurs defeated the Mavericks 116-107. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Mark Cuban (who is an investor in an alternative education model) recently made some remarks on issues he had with Hillary Clinton’s student debt proposal. While he addresses the Clinton plan, there are a couple of points he makes that more directly apply to us that I thought were worth highlighting:

1.)  Not all higher educations should be measured on a straight Return on Investment.

Many careers are really important to our culture, and often those occupations (teachers, clergy, social workers, musicians, etc.) aren’t built on financial models that pay well. Cuban’s point that “not everyone should be a STEM student” is important to educators as well as those interested in going into occupational ministry.

We should have an education model that doesn’t penalize those that want to go into lower paying occupations.

2.)  Easy money is what causes dramatic rises in prices

I saw this first hand working in the mortgage and real estate industry in the mid-2000s. Lowered lending standards (created by large amounts of unused capital) allowed lots of buyers and capital into the market that changed the supply/demand ratio – driving up prices to unsustainable levels.

The key in this type of market (which higher education is currently in) is to use tremendous personal restraint.  You need to know that the government, your financial aid office, or the culture at large (media, friends and family, etc.) won’t give you reliable lending guidelines or limits.

3.)  Keeping administrative costs low is critical to your schools sustainability

As a plug here, I believe Denver Seminary has done a wonderful job at this. The campus is run debt free with a critical eye on cash flow, future financial challenges, and keeping costs low and in control.

I’m glad big thinkers are addressing these issues in the public forum.