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.

Loan Forgiveness and PSLF

Tnythis article surfaced in The New York Times a couple weeks ago:

They Thought They Qualified for Student Loan Forgiveness. Years Later, the Government Changes Its Mind.

I’ve written several times including this long post in September of 2015 that I thought the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program was risky and I did not think it was wise to plan on the PSLF program to be your primary loan repayment strategy.

The risk that the government could change the rules at any time was one of the original reasons I wrote that I didn’t like the program. That is exactly what happened to the subjects of that NY Times article and we’ll see how the pending litigation plays out.

There are other alternatives. If you’d like some help working through those then hit me up.

Payment Calculator Link

payment-calcThe two most common financial questions students have are “How much will my income be once I graduate?” AND “What will the payments be on my student loans?“.

We’ve looked at different income questions before (here, here, here, here), and we’ve looked at some of the payment questions (like is Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) a good option?), but as a regular reminder you can go to this link and run your future payments for yourself:

STUDENT LOAN PAYMENT CALCULATOR

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.

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.

Changing Cultures

American Fish65 years ago, in post World War II America, there were major social and economic power structures that provided an easy path into occupational ministry. The vast majority of citizens attended a faith based service at a church founded by a national denomination. If you felt called into occupational ministry, you could pick one of those national denominations and follow a clearly defined path to ordination. After ordination, you could rely on that denomination calling you into an entry job and a clearly defined occupational path.

This was extraordinarily effectively. It’s hard to over emphasize the influence of “Methodism” to all aspects of American culture. American’s LOVE the concept of applying a ‘method’ to everything from making Ford Model A’s to making the next generation of pastors.

There was an obvious backlash to this version of cultural Christianity. That led to the Jesus Movement of the 70s which directly led into Calvary Chapels and Vineyards. I had a church planter from the 70s tell me that all you had to do was plant a ‘cool’ church and they would fill right up. I believe these churches really connected culturally with the counter culture movement of the late 60’s and 70’s. Instead of a priest or pastor in robes with a pipe organ, you had pastors in jeans and rock and roll worship.

That movement is (or has) waned. We are in the middle of another major religious cultural shift. Into what I don’t know, but you can’t just plant a ‘cool’ church and you haven’t been able to for a decade or two. (For what it’s worth, I think we’re moving back toward a version of “liturgy” and the grounding nature of old church traditions. I think the unmoored feeling of modern culture is driving us back toward practicing faith in a manner our forefathers did. For example, we are seeing a rise in young Episcopal’s and evangelical Catholics.)

The point of this is that there were two major cultural trends that have lost some footing:

  • If you go to college, you’ll have a job for the rest of your life. This idea goes back to the 1950s and factory mentality. A college degree isn’t a guaranteed job. A job isn’t a guaranteed career. And a career isn’t a guaranteed pension in retirement.
  • There will be a clearly defined occupational ministry career path. Either from your denomination, or local congregation, or society.

I don’t think this is a reason to panic. In fact, I’m excited. I think this is a wildly transformational time in our culture and power structures (religious and otherwise). I strongly believe in the value of a solid Theological Education, and I don’t think a changing society or job market undervalue that at all.

But the reason I write this blog is that the changing times require greater FINANCIAL prudence in navigating the path to occupational ministry. You cannot follow the path of our parents and grandparents. I believe it is also very difficult to go into ministry following the cultural norm of the day – accumulating large amounts of student loan debt.

Instead, to Graduate Free we are going to have to take the path less traveled. The path of minimalist living, working our way through school, fundraising, Ministry Residency’s, and being shrewd shoppers.

I am here to walk with you. It is a journey worth making, and you can do it!

Why are we here?

ball-and-chainWith a new year upon us, it might be a good idea to go back to our roots and remember why I started GraduateFree.com and took on this passion project.

If you feel God’s call on your life to go into occupational ministry, you are probably feeling overwhelmed by the financial obstacles including:

  • Rising Higher Education Costs
  • Changing job markets
  • Spiritualization of poor financial choices
  • The ease of debt
  • Higher overall living expenses
  • Layers of Risk

This blog is here to help you see and identify the dangers along the path. But in addition to bringing light to those areas, we want to provide a path toward a better future. That includes not only sharing wisdom on how to navigate the pitfalls, but providing real life solutions. Those solutions might be:

Budgeting

Fundraising

Going BiVO

Part Time Job

Cheaper Housing

Ministry Residency Program

Take Out $5,000 Less

The goal of seminary is for you to be equipped to GO DO. My deepest desire is for you to financially Graduate Free, so that you can fully available for ministry.

We won’t do it for you, but hopefully we can equip you for this journey. I would love to hear from you. Feel free to reach out to me at dan.macleay@denverseminary.edu

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.