Interview: David Hyams

david_hyams.jpgI had a chance to interview David Hyams, a Denver Seminary graduate and current practicing attorney. You’re really going to enjoy his wisdom – especially his personal story of navigating student loan debt.

David, you have a unique background – you are a practicing attorney but you also attended and graduated from Denver Seminary. Why did you pursue those seemingly very different directions?

The short answer is, because I was trying to follow God’s call on my life. What this looked like in reality, of course, was a serpentine path to law shrouded by fog, marked by stints of clarity. My undergrad degree is in Sport Medicine, which was never a good fit, but when I chose that major as a freshman, like most 18-year-olds, I didn’t know myself and certainly was not considering career options in terms of God’s calling on my life. Toward the end of college, I fell in love with Jesus and apologetics, which led to seminary. While at D. Sem., I learned my giftings trended more academic, so I pursued the M.A. in Philosophy of Religion. Upon finishing that degree, despite numerous red flags cautioning me otherwise, I was convinced a Ph.D. in Philosophy was what God had for me. Toward that end, I picked up another M.A. in Philosophy from Georgia State University. Eventually, in a most unfamiliar and uncomfortable act of humility, I surrendered to what the Lord had for my career instead of imposing on Him what I thought “made sense.” That led to law school, which wound up being a perfect complement for my background and giftings. In fact, I’ve met quite a few seminarians over the years who’ve entertained the prospect of attending law school, and lawyers who’ve wanted to go to seminary. Few have had the privilege of doing both. Thus, becoming an attorney was not the product of a planned career path, but was the result of my (highly imperfect) attempts to daily follow the Lord’s whispers.

 

You and I have talked briefly about your personal interaction with student loans. I know you have really sacrificed to pay those down – what has your journey looked like?

I’m not proud of my journey. Had I to do it over again, it would look very different. Nonetheless, if through my weaknesses and the ensuing suffering Christ’s power may rest upon me and others may be comforted (see 2 Cor. 12:9; 1:3-4), I gladly share it.

Thankfully, my personal interaction with student loans stemmed solely from my law degree. My parents paid for the B.S. We paid for seminary through a combination of work (my wife and I both worked, though she was the primary breadwinner), scholarships, and church contributions. The second M.A. was paid for through work (again, my wife mainly supported us, though I worked as well), and grants from the university.

By the time I started law school, however, we were burned out on school and were ready to cast off the shackles of financial restraint we had worn for the years of student life and start living like “grown ups.” Thus, despite having very good jobs for the duration of law school, instead of using our income to actually pay for tuition, we financed the entire degree with student loans. (For brevity’s sake, I’ll skip over the multitude of other financially-ruinous decisions we made over the next several years and focus on the loans.) I thus graduated from law school in 2008 with approximately $125,000 in student loan debt.

Aside from the sloth, prideful sense of entitlement, and utter foolishness that informed the decision to borrow all that money, I never once stopped and put pen to paper to determine the answers to such basic questions as:

How much money am I going to have to make each month in order to pay these loans back in x years?

If I don’t pay at least $x per month, what is the interest going to do to the principal?

What sort of jobs am I either going to need to apply for or walk away from because of my obligation to service this debt, and how does that align with God’s call on my life?

What sort of opportunities am I not going to be able to pursue because of the commitment I’m making to my lender?

Instead, in repeated acts of cowardice, I stuck my head in the sand and, semester after semester, took on more and more debt. Of course, I never abandoned my faith along the way, so, on those rare occasions when I’d actually entertain post-law school financial realities in a general sense, I would sanctify my naivety with such theological quips as, “I don’t know how, but God will provide.” (All the while ignoring that God was actually providing the entire time, I was just choosing to squander his provisions.)

After narrowly avoiding personal bankruptcy following law school, we went through a major life overhaul and (finally) started living on a budget. After eight years of attacking debt, belt-tightening, and the selling of two houses in 2016, we are, praise be to God, debt-free. The student loans had ballooned to ~$165,000, for I had put them in deferment and had entered into a federal “repayment program” while I repaid other debts. And while we’re now starting over in some ways, we’re finally complying with the Lord’s command in Romans 13:8 to owe no one anything except love. It feels amazing.

 

Financially, what word of advice would you give to someone just entering into seminary?

Generally speaking, you need to understand that, while the degree you’re about to earn is extremely valuable and worthwhile from a kingdom perspective, the world does not place the same value on it. And, by and large, the world’s value metrics determine the amount of money you will earn upon exiting seminary, regardless of your place of employment. And while it may feel a little “dirty” to the seminarian who is dutifully following the call of God on his or her life, they need to get comfortable talking about money and the financial realities that come with it. The last thing you want to do is in one breath say, “God, I will go anywhere and do anything you call me to do,” and in the next breath say, “so long as it pays at least $x per month because I’ve got to pay these student loans back!” At its most basic level, taking on student loans is taking on the yoke of another master, and the Lord has warned us about the feasibility of serving two masters (Lk. 16:13)—especially when that other master is Caesar himself (i.e., the federal government)). Moreover, many (most?) of the life crises of the people you’ll be ministering to involve finances in some capacity.

Moreover, you have no idea what will happen in life. Yes, God will provide for your needs. And yes, He owns the cattle on a thousand hills. But this world we live in is fallen and suffering and persecution is a part of the path of righteousness. Why purposefully compound that by fiscal irresponsibility?

Accordingly, I’d advise the seminarian to avoid student loans at all costs. If need be, take your time getting through seminary. (For most of you, being older and wiser upon exiting seminary will only help your future ministry.) Get creative by working multiple jobs (even jobs that might be “beneath” you), take night or weekend classes, check your textbooks out from libraries, live on a budget, beg, pinch, scrape, whatever, just stay indebted only to the Lord.

 

 You have a unique background in Bankruptcy law. I believe one of the biggest issues with large amounts of student loans is that personally you can’t bankrupt out of them. That makes it almost impossible to escape them should you become overly indebted or should life change radically. Obviously bankruptcy has been abused by some people over the years, but can you help us understand why it’s important to our economic process and what risks someone takes by taking on non-bankrupt-able debt?

In its simplest form, bankruptcy is about the unmerited forgiveness of voluntarily-incurred debt. As people of the gospel, we should be able to appreciate this, especially given bankruptcy’s biblical roots in the year of jubilee (see Lev. 25). By allowing a debtor—whether an individual or a company—to make a “fresh start,” risk-taking activity is encouraged. Starting a business, pursuing an idea, investing in something you believe in—all of these are risks. If failure would result in a lifetime of inescapable debt, fewer people and companies would be willing to take risks. Thus, fewer jobs, inventions, and fulfilled dreams, i.e., less human flourishing. Bankruptcy allows the risk-taker to minimize her risks by providing a means to discharge or reorganize her debts in the event of financial calamity. Likewise, creditors are encouraged to invest in the risk-takers, for their rights are protected under the Bankruptcy Code as well. Of course, certain types of debts are offered very little protection, but most creditors will work the prospect of bankruptcy into their pricing and they understand the risk of participating in the market.

By taking on debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, such as student loans, the debtor is taking on the risk that, despite Jesus’ promise that we will face trouble in this world, “everything is going to work out.”  Unlike other debts where the debtor and creditor share the risk and therefore want to see the debtor succeed, student loan creditors bear virtually no risk by extending the loans to the particular student. The student bears all the risk, the debt is completely unsecured, i.e., the debt does not attach to any collateral that can be liquidated to satisfy the debt, and it will follow the student all the way to the grave.

 

What have you learned from your unique background working with religious institutions about how occupational ministry and finances collide?

There are of course numerous and beautiful exceptions I’ve seen, but here are a few trends I’ve noticed.

Often, ministry leaders are incredibly gifted at relationships, but they do not have a very keen business sense.  This can have the effect of a poorly run organization that is out of tune with realities its donor base grapples with on a daily basis, even if the leader has good intentions and the doctrinal statement is sound. Of course, there are problems that come with unreflectingly adopting “secular” business principles, but at a minimum, a basic understanding of budgeting, business, and economics (and law) would help ministry leaders.

By embracing a negative mindset toward finances, pastors contribute to the sacred/secular divide, and stymie their flocks’ ability to think Christianly regarding money and work.

Many younger evangelicals who do not feel called into pastoral ministry come to the conclusion that in order to faithfully serve God, they must start or work for a non-profit, because, in their mind, they cannot work for a for-profit company because “profit equals greed,” which is, of course, a sin. But profit and greed are distinct concepts that are not necessarily correlated. This mindset has deprived us of thoughtful Christians in the marketplace and given us too many non-profits, which has had the concomitant results of draining kingdom resources and increasing ministry redundancy. (Not to mention the sympathies toward Marxism this general disdain toward capitalism has engendered—an economic philosophy whose utter failure to actually work in reality has only been surpassed by the torrents of blood that have flowed everywhere it’s been implemented.)

Many believe that by getting too far into the details of finances, they aren’t trusting God or would be idolizing money. A quick survey of Proverbs should put that fear to rest. (See, e.g., Prov. 27:23.)

There is also the risk of the pendulum swinging the other direction toward the “health and wealth” prosperity gospel, which also prevents thoughtful, biblical engagement with finances.

Jesus rightfully warned of the dangers of money. But by failing to help move their flocks beyond “money is bad” (except when the offering plate comes around), the church is left ill-equipped to expose the idols of the age and model a biblical counterexample.

Thank you for your wisdom, vulnerability, and leadership in this area. We are deeply grateful.

 

If you’d like to learn more about David in is own words you can visit a longer bio here: www.sdglawllc.com and if your organization has any legal needs feel free to reach out to him here or 703-771-4671.

 

Conversation with Josh Collier

josh-cI got to know Josh last year when we were stuck at the Pittsburgh airport together. He was kind enough to buy me lunch and I can confirm he pays with cash! He is a graduate of Denver Seminary currently working with Dave Ramsey’s organization teaching financial principles. He is uniquely understanding to the real life financial stress of being a graduate student.

 What years were you at Denver Seminary, what was your focus, and what are you doing now?

My family and I were at Denver Seminary beginning in August of 2007 and graduated in May of 2012. Yes, we were able to cram a two-year degree into five years. As any economist can tell you- this was a booming time in our national economy 🙂 A little backstory, my wife (Christina) and I started with one child and, before moving off-campus in 2013 for a job back in the South, when I graduated we had four children under the age of six. So we went through seminary at a slower pace – at the speed of cash.

I initially was accepted into the counseling program, but at the last minute, I changed to a MA in Leadership and studied leadership with a self-designed emphasis on community development.

Now, I am part of a team of stewardship/church advisors at Ramsey Solutions or better known as Dave Ramsey’s office in Brentwood, TN. Together we serve pastors, church leaders, community developers, and seminarians as they are building and/or remodeling their financial discipleship ministries in their churches/communities.

Draw a connection between personal finances and your ministry training. Why are you doing what you do now?

Personal finances played a large part in “How?” we went through seminary. We went through seminary as we could afford (at the speed of cash) and did not take out any student loans, or any loans for that matter pre/post seminary for living expenses before, during or after seminary… nor did we have to take out any loans for relocation expenses post seminary. Which meant I took classes part-time (a lot of night classes) and worked full-time down in Colorado Springs. We lived on campus in Littleton so that we could literally have a built-in community for my family through our seminary years. During my seminary years I truly embraced a concept that Dr. Larry Lindquist noted at my new student orientation, “Learn from, embrace and take note of the time and experiences spent outside of the class and library as much as the time inside the class and library.” In other words, pay attention and be aware of the experiences and interactions that God orchestrates during your seminary years both inside and outside the structured learning environment.

A big part of “Why?” I am doing what I am doing now is because of our experience of going through seminary debt free without loans and how God surprised and transformed my family and I with His lavish provision which came in many forms- literal hard work, redemptive financial gifts from churches back home, anonymous envelopes of cash on our doorstep, care packages from friends and families, support from our neighbors and peers on and off campus, and lavish support from ministries in the Denver metro area (e.g. Manna ministries, bread drop and food closet at Denver Seminary, odd jobs for my mentors, and support/encouragement from Colorado Community Church, etc.). Through this transformational process known as the “seminary years” we were able to graduate seminary debt free and go when God said, “Go” via a job opening at Ramsey Solutions.

Now at Ramsey Solutions, I have the opportunity and privilege to minster and walk with men and women who are leaders in their community and looking for ways to equip families, marrieds and singles who are struggling or in need of a tune up financially. It still surprises me each day how finances are many times a gateway to how someone is really doing. Billy Graham was spot on when he said, “Give me five minutes with a person’s checkbook (or online bank account these days), and I will tell you where their heart is.”

In your personal story, what did you have to do to graduate without a big debt burden?

Decide that going into debt and taking out loans was not an option from the beginning. Again, it is important to note that my personal story turned into a family and community story. When my family and I graduated from seminary it was a team success. Yes, I had to do literally whatever it took to graduate debt free, which many times required me working and traveling a whopping 70-80+ hours for a five-year period… but God was so lavish in His provision of not only work but wages, health, a steady stream of prayers and encouragement from friends and families across the country.

What do you think are the biggest FINANCIAL challenges facing future ministers?

Pride, pride and… pride. Be open and ask for help. We all need help, so put your pride aside, humble yourself and let others know how they can help you- the sooner the better. The world does not need perfect leaders, but humble leaders who can ask, be filled and receive help from God and through His means. My mentor Pastor Brad Strait said it best, when personally I hit a VERY low point midway through seminary, “Joshua, allow others to minister to you. One day, I know this may not be encouraging right now…,” he laughed and continued, “… you will be on the other side of the equation and serving others. So do not forget the struggles, thoughts and challenges you are experiencing right now and use them to better serve others.”

If you could give one piece of advice to a student just starting seminary now, what would that be?

“Slow down and go outside.”  A smile comes to my face as I reflect on my seminary years and the wisdom that was poured into me from one man in particular- the late Dr. Vernon Grounds. I can think of at least three different encounters in the Denver Seminary library in which he would stop by my desk and say, “Son, what’s the rush? Go outside… its beautiful out there. Don’t spend all your time cramped up in this library!”

Or said another way, don’t believe the myth that the pace of the seminary years will slow down once you graduate. I would argue that the pace only increases after you leave, and you need to be intentional NOW about building in times “outside” with friends, families and enemies for that matter… before, during and after your seminary years.

 How is it even possible to go to graduate school without going into debt?

First of all, going to graduate school is a want not a need and is a choice. I literally made a deal with God before going to seminary. I told him, “God, if this is your idea, you are going to have to provide and show me how to make this work financially each semester.” Remember, with God all things are possible, and  this may require one to rethink his or her current way of going through seminary and to evaluate their previous, present and future standard of living. We made a ton of small changes and pivots to live more intentionally and frugally. For example, prior to attending seminary and as a family of three, my wife, daughter and I lived in a 240 sq. ft. apartment. We also worked two jobs and saved up an entire full year before moving out West to begin seminary. Once in school, we took full advantage of bread drops for seminarians, became a one car family, very very rarely ate out, had family style meals with neighbors, refrained from getting a TV and our entertainment was enjoying the great outdoors. Chances are, if your story is like ours it will also require more than just the work of one’s two hands and will involve a community of support, gifts, pep talks from mentors, days of repentance and journaling, telling others “Sorry, I was wrong!”, forgiveness, letters of encouragement and prayers to get you through as well.

Remember, I wish someone would have told us this: It costs money to move to that new job after you graduate. So start saving for moving expenses if your next job requires you to move across the country.

 What word of advice do you have for someone that isn’t good at budgets? How do I start doing a regular budget?

Join the club! Like the Apostle Paul, when it comes to doing a budget, “I am the chief of sinners!” Kind of joking, kind of not, but seriously- it takes practice. My wife Christina and I, when we were first married took 3 months to just get started doing a budget (this is what happens when your marriage consists of two oldest children who are recovering perfectionists). We attended financial seminars, read budgeting books, used online forms and sought out advice from those that we wanted to mimic financially as we grew up together; however, it was not until we went through a Financial Peace University class (that was hosted by our Senior Pastor at our home church in South Carolina) that we actually did and lived on a budget on a consistent regular monthly basis. Are we perfect now, “No!” Some months we do not start until the month is almost halfway over, but we now build grace into our budgeting lives, remind ourselves to push pause, start where you are and face the reality of where you are in the month and what remains.

Make doing a budget simple. I have heard it said that budgeting is like a marathon. As a runner, this is ridiculous –  a marathon only lasts 26.2 miles and is one day. Budgeting is more like an Ultra Race that lasts your entire life! All kidding aside, find a basic budgeting spreadsheet or plan that works for you and your family and KEEP IT SIMPLE.  With time you can add more depth, but first you will need to pace yourself for the many miles of budgeting yet to go. If you really want to make a budget stick and see lasting results, ask for help from a budgeting coach. This needs to be someone who has a track record of helping others, the heart of a teacher AND can help keep you accountable, no matter how much you whine or try to make up an air tight, theological excuse of, “Why?” your situation is different especially as a seminary student (pointing a finger at myself here). As Dave Ramsey is fond of saying about a young, novice baker who is frustrated that his vanilla cake keeps turning out chocolate, “If you are not happy with the results you are getting, change the recipe.”

You can touch base with Josh at joshuathecollier@gmail.com. If your church would like to host a Financial Peace University class, he would also be a good contact for you. Thanks for reading! Sorry for any abuses of the king’s English – this is a transcript of a recorded conversation.

CEO or Physician?

stethoscopeI’m working on a long article. Here is a short excerpt. What do you think is the best metaphor for a local pastor?

There are a couple of occupational metaphors for someone going into a full time ministry career. The rise of the mega church over the past 25 years has led some to equate the lead parson as the “CEO” of the local house of worship. One potential problem of this metaphor is the primary ‘work’ of a faith leader doesn’t have anything to do with that of a CEO. Eugene Peterson says “The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. The vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans.”   A better metaphor might be faith leader as Physician of the Soul. The origin of that saying goes back hundreds of years, probably predating a famous sermon by George Whitefield in the mid 1700s. The phrase is taken from Jesus famous retort to those questioning the company with which he chose to keep “Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do.”

The primary work of a faith leader is to tend to the spiritual health of those in their care. For that reason I really like the analogy of faith leader as a physician of the soul. My proposal is this: The way the medical profession educates physicians is a good example for how we should be educating occupational ministers.

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.

Lessons from Medical Residency

stethoscopeI attended a Residency Summit last week and left with some great ideas, an appreciation of public transportation, and a Cubs victory in a play-in game.

One of the highlights of the conference was hearing from Dr. Greg Ozark. Dr. Ozark has led medical residents for 15 years at Loyola Medical Center and he came to share lessons from the medical world that we could apply to our Theological Residencies, and specifically to our Ministry Residency Program.

Perhaps the most valuable observation I gathered was this. A medical doctor will go through 4 years of undergrad, then 4 years of medical school. The first two years of medical school are spent in intensive book learning building their medical knowledge.

After two years of intensive study we have, in Dr. Ozark’s words, “a highly qualified paper weight”. Thus begins the final two years of med school – medical knowledge combined with clinicals. Clinical skills – actually working with patients – are radically different from just having the head knowledge of how to practice medicine. Clinical work is defined as pertaining to a clinic or to the bedside; pertaining to or founded on actual observation and treatment of patients, as distinguished from theoretical or experimental” (emphasis mine). Clinical work can’t be tested with a written test, instead Dr. Ozark outlined their intensive process of peer evaluation of 6 core competencies measured with 1-5 grade milestones.

One of the major motivations behind the Ministry Residency Program here at Denver Seminary was an understanding that “Theological Education” needed to be combined with actual hands on “Ministry” work. Just like a med student needs a comprehensive baseline of knowledge, you need a solid theological foundation to practice occupation ministry. But a theological education by itself is insufficient to do ministry. You have to get into the field and begin to ‘get your hands dirty’.
We have a hope that your ministry ‘clinicals’ are the actual practicing of ministry with careful observation and feedback from qualified mentors.

Increasing the Value of Seminary

brooks-circularIn a wonderful opinion piece in the New York Times this week, David Brooks writes on the roots, present deficiencies, and future of universities.

Specifically he notes that universities are not just job training. Mark Cuban made this same point (on which I wrote about here) – an education that is strictly a return-on-investment job training program isn’t as important/valuable as universities are charging for.  It is ultimately incomplete training.

Seminaries and those in theological education would do well to think through Brooks four points. For hundreds of years, educational institutions had a monopoly – they were the gate keepers of information. That no longer exists. But studying theology and preparing those going into occupational ministry shouldn’t be just dispensing of information. Brooks tasks through the lens of Seminary:

  1. Reveal moral options
  2. Foster transcendent experiences
  3. Reveal callings and teach a love of learning
  4. Practical application of theological/philosophical ideas

About a decade ago Denver Seminary began requiring students go through Training & Mentoring – realizing that knowledge apart from character development was useless at best and harmful at worst. Wisdom has been defined as “Knowledge rightly applied”.

When done right, your seminary experience should reflect this. Moving into the future, seminaries would be wise to shift more and more emphasis toward the ‘rightly applied’ side of that equation. As Brooks points out, this spiritual work is work that can’t be devalued, exported, or done online – “we do it through small groups and relationships and in social contexts.”

ARTICLE: Why College Isn’t Worth The Money

forbesForbes had an interesting article this weekend:

http://www.forbes.com/sites/caseybond/2015/09/04/why-college-isnt-worth-the-money/

Change is painful. For our parent’s generation, a college education was a path to a career.  That isn’t a given anymore. In fact, if all you want is an interesting, high paying career with excellent job security, I would strongly recommend:

Welding, HVAC Tech, ElectricianPlumberDental Hygienist, etc.

Many skilled trades can have salaries above 70k, and if you start your own company (as many of my friends have), you can easily clear $100,000 a year. All without going to college for a traditional liberal arts degree. The economics are simple – these trades remain in strong demand and there aren’t enough skilled workers to fill them.

But as was pointed out earlier, not all educational decisions should be made based on a straight return on investment. In fact, if the educational system moves this direction our society will miss out.

It may be helpful to frame the pursuit of a Theological Education in these terms. The value of a theological education is critical – I want and need my personal spiritual leaders to be properly trained. But if you’re pursing a Seminary degree ONLY for the future employment opportunities it will offer, this deserves critical thought. The larger social landscape (church attendance,  tax law, freedom of religion, etc.) will determine the number of clergy employment opportunities and there is a strong possibility that this could limit the economic value of your seminary degree.

It doesn’t mean there will be less ministry opportunities – in fact probably just the opposite. That’s why I believe so strongly in the value of a theological education. But the economics of the social landscape may cause future ministers to pursue bi-vocational or other alternative funding models to traditional pastoral ministry jobs.

As our title article articulated, for a full generation student loans were an easy sell because a liberal arts education was worth $1 million more than a high school diploma. But as the math of that equation starts to erode, it makes sense to be very diligent about limiting the debt burden of pursing higher education. This is one reason I strongly recommend pursing your theological seminary education with as little debt as possible.

 

BiVO Articles

dweck_mindsetLast week I attended a conference on bi-vocational ministry held here at Denver Seminary. It was a great education on income options as well as thought provoking information on the future of occupational ministry jobs.

I also just read this article from the Atlantic. It discusses the realities of dwindling church attendance leading to fewer occupational ministry positions and the possibilities of a bi-vocational future.

It also includes this quote:

…Barringer loves his part-time job at the Methodist church, and he’s thankful that his nonprofit job allows him to minister to the homeless, even if he’s given up on the idea of paying back his six-figure debt.

“Though I will likely not be able to pay off my loans, I am blessed that I found another job that connects so well with my work at the church and my passions, so I didn’t have to take up work in an entirely different field,” he says.

A couple quick personal thoughts:

  1. There are a number of false narratives – cultural, institutional, and personal. “You don’t have a ‘good’ job, so you can’t….”, “There are fewer of these jobs, so you won’t be able to….”, “I don’t have the job I want, so I won’t be able to….”
  2. Nobody should ever graduate from anything with ‘six-figure debt’. Not even doctors.
  3. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has written a wonderful book on the idea of a Fixed vs. Growth Mindset. I always bristle when I hear people connect negative pasts/presents (“I didn’t/I can’t”) with negative futures (“I won’t”). This assumes a Fixed Mindset in which our “character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way”.

We are not fixed beings. It’s ok to work in a different field for a time. It’s ok to work bi-vocationally in two unrelated fields. It’s ok to use a Seminary degree for non-paying ministry work. It’s ok to learn another trade. It’s ok to work 70 hours a week for a season to pay off debt. It’s ok to move to a different city/state/country where your degree and skills are more valued. It’s ok if God opens doors we didn’t see coming. It’s ok to live very frugally for a season. It’s ok to be in ministry and financially stable. It’s ok to work outside your passion. It’s ok to work sacrificially just to meet the needs of your family. It’s ok to change.