Yesterday I was contacted by an executive presbyter for some statistical information to be used in an upcoming meeting with the small church cluster in that presbytery about the challenges faced by churches of under 100 members as they seek pastoral leadership. He was particularly interested in two issues. One was the fact that so few of our seminary graduates come from churches of this size (see my blog post, “A New Kind of Home in a New Land”). The other was the financial challenge faced by graduates with educational debt when considering what may be part-time or tentmaking calls with these size congregations. On this second point, the timing was providential.
Yesterday was also the day that a press release went out about a new program “designed to forgive loans made to seminary graduates who are serving in part-time or temporary pastoral positions in Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations of 150 members or less.” Administered by the Office of Financial Aid for Studies, the Theological Student Loan program provides for $3,000-$5,000 forgivable loans to be used to pay down educational debt. After 18 months of service in the call, this loan is forgiven. Additionally, these loans may be renewed up to a maximum benefit of $15,000 for those who extend their service in these calls for additional 18-month periods. For more information, click here to read the press release or visit the Financial Aid for Studies website, http://www.pcusa.org/financialaid.
Now, the logic of a loan to pay down a loan may not be immediately obvious, so let’s consider the numbers. Say new seminary grads receive one of these forgivable loans for the maximum amount of $5,000 just as the educational loan goes into repayment. By applying that full amount to pay down their total educational debt, they will potentially realize about $6,900 of savings (in principle and interest). That savings assumes the new grads would have taken 10 years to pay off the $5,000 of debt at a 6.8% rate, and that they remain in the call the 18 months necessary for the pay-down loan to be forgiven.
Certainly the wisest course for inquirers and candidates still in seminary is to do everything possible to reduce their level of educational debt. But for candidates who have graduated and are seeking a call, this assistance could be a significant financial help when considering a call to serve in a part-time or tentmaking position.
Many cultural factors are leading to smaller faith communities and congregations (look for a blog posting here on that topic in May). As this landscape for ministry broadens not only for the PC(USA) but all of American Christianity in the 21st century, both these smaller communities and those called to serve them will have to find different methods to financially support that ministry than were common in the 20th century. This new program won’t resolve the issues, but it is a sign of the church’s commitment to think creatively with congregations and pastors about how we will live together in this new land to which God is leading us.