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Help for cash-strapped seminary students is on the way

Ambitious ELCA funding plan will remove tuition burden.

Like other Christian denominations, Protestant as well as Roman Catholic, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has been concerned during the past decade about the decline in the number of candidates for ministry enrolling at its seminaries.
The nation’s lar-gest Lutheran de-nomination is at-tempting to reverse that trend by tackling what its leaders think is one of the principal causes — the growing expense of a seminary education and the resulting debt burden graduates carry into their first call.
The 1997 Church-wide Assembly of the ELCA approved creation of “Fund for Leaders in Mission,” designed to provide full-tuition scholarships for candidates interested in attending a seminary and launching a career in the ministry.
Since the first scholarships were awarded in 2000, a total of 135 students, across the ELCA’s eight theological seminaries, have received them at a cost of $1.7 million.
The Fund has raised over $23 million in gifts and commitments, with $10.4 million of that amount in cash that is deposited in an endowment. It is the interest from the endowment that provides money for the scholarships. The remainder of the $23 million is in the form of pledges and deferred giving, such as allocations in wills.
The amount of money in the endowment received a $1-million boost this summer in the form of a matching donation from the Thrivent Financial for Lutherans Foundation. In 2003 Thrivent challenged the ELCA to raise $2 million for the scholarship endowment, promising to match it with an additional $1 million. The synod actually raised $3 million during the two-year period.
The amount of money raised and the number of scholarships given so far, while impressive, are just a start toward the goal set by synod leaders. Long-range, they want to build an endowment of $200 million, which, along with other resources, would cover the full cost of tuition for every ELCA seminary student who is committed to a career in ministry. In the more immediate future, the goal is to increase the balance in the endowment fund to $25 million by 2010.
“The church needs a greater number of candidates but also ones with different gifts, so we have the right people for the right places,” said Cynthia Hal-verson, director of the Fund for Leadership in Mission. She cited the need for seminary-trained leaders in such areas as rural ministry, inner-city ministry, youth and family ministry, and administrative and staff positions in large congregations.
“We need numbers but we also need those numbers to be the kind of people who are going to be able to serve this church in a variety of congregational settings,” she declared.
A variety of statistics show the scope of the problem confronting the ELCA as it seeks to increase the ranks of its trained clergy.
A recent Washington Post article on clergy shortages reported that the number of pastors in active ministry in the ELCA fell from 13,841 in 1990 to about 11,100 in 2005.
Enrollment in master of divinity (MDiv) programs at ELCA seminaries fell from over 1400 in 1994 to about 1200 at the turn of the century. There has been a slight upswing in the last several years.
Back in the 1950s, parent synods paid all tuition costs for seminary students. Since then, the amount charged to students has risen steadily and now amounts to $9,200 per year. When costs for housing, food, transportation, books and supplies, and medical needs are included, the total bill for one year at an ELCA seminary now averages $24,000.
At Luther Seminary in St. Paul, the largest of the ELCA seminaries, the average combined undergraduate and seminary debt for the 60-65% of last year’s graduates who left the seminary owing money was $39,000.
This sort of debt burden discourages many young college graduates from following their sense of call and attending a seminary. But it’s even more complicated than that. With nearly half those entering the seminary now in their mid-30s, many new pastors graduate with family responsibilities on top of school debts and find it impossible to consider a call in a small or financially struggling congregation.
In 2004, 22% of the ELCA’s 10,804 congregations were not served by a called pastor. That was up from 10% of 11,120 parishes in 1988.
Cynthia Halverson said that half the congregations with pastoral vacancies were experiencing a normal turn-over — which means they were in a call process and would likely have the position filled in 12 months to two years. However, the rest — mostly small congregations — faced a longer-term wait to find a new pastor, she said.
As the ELCA seeks to expand the ranks of qualified pastors by providing scholarship assistance at its seminaries, it employs two methods for selecting recipients of the aid, Halverson said.
* In distributing money from the endowment of the Fund for Leaders in Mission, synod officials work in partnership with seminaries, relying on them to nominate candidates based on their promise for leadership in ministry in the church and on financial need.
* A number of local synods work with the national office in raising money for the endowment, and in these cases money is sent back to the synods, which then make the decisions on distributing it.
Since the first scholarships were awarded in 2000, Luther Seminary students have received 27 of them. Three of those recipients have graduated.
One of the graduates, the Rev. Paul Koch, is beginning his second year as pastor of a three-point parish in Wannaska, Minnesota, just south of Roseau in the far northwestern part of the state.
A graduate of Valparaiso University, Koch, now 28, spent a year working for Lutheran Volunteer Corps in Minneapolis before entering the seminary in 2000. While he would have attended the seminary without the three years of scholarship aid, he said, the assistance was helpful in two ways.
It meant he didn’t have to work at so many jobs while he was on campus and could focus on his studies. And, because of the scholarships, he has gone into the ministry with “significantly less” debt than many of his classmates.
Another recipient, Rebec-ca Wold, graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College and then spent five years living and working at the L’Arche facility for people with developmental disabilities in Seattle. She’s now in her intern year at the seminary, serving at Sierra Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sierra Vista, Arizona, just north of the Mexican border.
“There’s no way I could have paid for [my seminary education] out of my own pocket,” she said. “It saved getting a lot of loans.”
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Editor’s note: Other Lu-theran denominations also provide financial assistance to their seminary students. Each program is unique in its form and impact.