Costs of Becoming a Minister - Part One

A number of UU bloggers have been taking on the issue of the cost of becoming a UU minister. To see some of that discussion, check out PolityWonk, Elizabeth's Little Blog, iMinister, the Interdependent Web, Planting God Communities, Rev. Scott Wells... iMinister, in particular, has been doing a number of blog posts looking at every angle.

In a previous post I outlined the process for becoming a UU minister. The issue is that this standard process is too expensive, given the wages that many UU ministers will make, particularly in smaller churches, which we have a lot of in the UUA. (For full-time ministers, which right there is an assumption, the range starts at 37,600.)

The cost of seminary is around $15,000 per year for tuition alone, and then books and whatnot, until you're looking at a cost of around $35,000 for the year. Remember that four main choices for seminary for UUs are Andover Newton, Harvard, Meadville Lombard, and Starr King. They are in the Boston area, Boston area, Chicago, and Berekely -- not low cost-of-living areas where rent is cheap. Part-time jobs can whittle away at that, but not substantially. As I detailed in my post about the ministerial formation process, there's precious little time for part-time jobs with the whole secondary issue of constant applications during seminary.

Thus if you figure that for the four-year degree you might take out three years of loans (managing to live on the maybe $1500/month during your internship that the internship congregation provides), that might easily be a debt load of $90,000. If you have a debt load of $50,000 that you're paying off on a ten year plan at 8%, according to the UUA document linked to above, your payment will be $606. That's $7272 per year, a hard load for a new minister. Obviously if your debt load is more like $90,000 that's going to be more. If you add together the payments for the $40,000 and $50,000 loans, that's a payment of $1091 per month, or $13,092 per year. Subtract that from the lowest ministerial position and you're left with $24,518 to live on. Good news: that's slightly more than the 200% of the Federal Poverty Level that many agencies use as the cut-off for assistance... if the minister has no dependents.

But, you say there are options other than taking out the loans. Yes, there are:
  • The slow route to ministry: Going to school part-time while you work full-time
  • The superhero route to ministry: Working full-time while being a full-time student
  • The rich route to ministry: Having enough money from other sources that you don't need to take out loans.
It's also possible, of course, to choose a cheaper seminary and lower costs that way. I can't argue with that. However, I think we need to make it possible for a UU minister-to-be without independent means to attend a UU seminary and graduate with a liveable debt load.

And, of course, a fair number of ministers will go into churches that are paying more than the minimum. Smaller churches in areas with better costs of living will pay more, but the costs of living will be higher, too. And many ministers go directly into larger churches. But there are also many ministers who will start at the bottom. Something tells me that those ministers who are in the "rich route to ministry" are not all taking the lowest-paying churches.

So you get to this issue of ministers with incredible debt loads. And basically the system needs to change. This is not a good situation to have ministers with this level of debt making these wages. It produces a high level of anxiety in the minsters, for one.

What to do now? Again, there are some options:
  • Make the slow route more standard.
  • Make on-line courses more available, thus lowering the need to relocate to highly expensive areas. Note: this does not necessarily lower the cost of seminary, except for relocation issues. There is often an underlying assumption that on-line courses make it available for the seminarian to continue in a pre-seminary job while completing seminary. In essence, this is a variation on the slow route.
  • Require students to have money to become a UU minister. Couch it in politically correct terms that make it look like you're concerned about the minister and like it isn't classism. (Ouch! Did I say that? Yes I did.)
  • Lower the cost of seminary, or at least our UU seminaries since we can't control the others. (But even so, there's still living costs.) This would require our UU seminaries being more funded by the UUA, which arguably they should be because they're our institutions. (I do think we should be funding them more. Period. There's exactly one UU library that I know of in this country. It's at Meadville Lombard. It is a valuable resource for our denomination. And it's at risk right now. Meadville Lombard is selling its building and has a future uncertain. If you care about our history and our future, care about this.)
  • Lower the cost of seminary through requiring less of it--a two full academic years plus one year of internship? The arguments I see for decreasing seminary time are mostly arguing three years and the internship is separate from the seminary process. Folks, this doesn't change the amount of time spent, it just shuffles it around. Two academic years' worth of classes would be a decrease. It could be done over three years with part-time internships, but only if all the neighboring churches around a seminary take in the interns or if the classes are electronic.
  • Provide more funding for seminarians from the UUA.
  • Provide more funding for seminarians from individual congregations (in congregational polity, such as we have, this would be difficult to mandate).
  • Provide more money for ministers after graduation to pay back loans from the UUA.
  • Require the minimum salaries to be higher (probably would just result in more part-time ministries and under-served congregations, and be detrimental to our movement, but an impoverished ministry is also hurting our movement in ways not fully understood).
  • Assume a bi-vocational ministry as more standard (pass the buck! have other companies help pay off ministerial debts!)
While I think that adequately funding our UU theological schools is a denominational imperative, it is somewhat aside from this issue, as only about a third of all UU students attend our UU seminaries, so the problem of debt load would still be in existence. Although it is arguable that if UU seminaries were among the cheapest for UU students to attend they would be better attended. While at Meadville Lombard and at Starr King I saw UU students attending the other ACTS and GTU seminaries in order to get a lower tuition rate and still have access to the UU classes and resources of our UU seminaries. In some cases, they would transfer to the UU seminary in the last year or two in order to have their degree be from the UU school. The reason that these other seminaries, located in the same city, are cheaper are varied, but one major reason is that they are better funded by their denominations. And seminarians in process with other denominations are better funded, as well, it seemed, as I saw some seminarians go through the motions of being in other denominations until they switched over to UU and let their funding go.

I think the only options that are really viable and just are to either fund our seminarians or ministers better or to decrease our expectations about the seminary process. I'll pick up there next.


Robin Edgar said…
"A number of UU bloggers have been taking on the issue of the cost of becoming a UU minister."

And then of course there is the *cost* of being a UU minister, especially if one is a "less than excellent" U*U minister who makes the costly "mistake" of rubbing The Emerson Avenger the wrong way and ends up getting into a pissing match with The Skunk of the U*U World. :-)
Robin Edgar said…
Private message:

If the above comment is a bit too stinky for your blog there is no *cost* for not posting it Rev. Cyn. You are very much in my good books as far as U*U ministers go.

I am just having a bit of much needed fun while delivering a cautionary message to U*U clergy after having some rather depressing interactions with some "less than excellent" U*U clergy in the last few weeks.

Sorry I missed you at Convo in Ottawa. I would have been happy to have a chat with you. I expect that it would have been more pleasant than some of the other "chats" I had with U*U ministers in Ottawa and online recently.

BTW This is a "private message" but not a confidential one in that you have my express permission to share it, and any of my other non-public messages to you, unless I expressly ask for confidentiality. I am one of these people who is big on transparency and doesn't like secrets all that much. Heck you can post it to the blog if you want to.

I hope that you and yours had a very good Thanksgiving holiday.

Best Regards,

Robin Edgar
Cynthia Landrum said…
Hi Robin. Thank you. I hope you had a happy Thanksgiving too.

Thank you for giving me a pass on posting your first comment. As you know, I'm sensitive about posting things that seem critical about specific colleagues, although open to more general criticism. After reflection, I decided to go ahead and post it.
Cynthia Landrum said…
(Robin's second comment above was the first comment he referred to, but it lists them in the order I approved them rather than the order he wrote them.)
Robin Edgar said…
Well thank you for freely and responsibly deciding that there was enough truth and meaning in my comment to be worthy of posting here Rev. Cyn. I am also happy to see that you saw fit to post my explanatory "private message". I do not mind U*U ministers not posting the occasional "too hot to handle" TEA comment but if I get the impression that a U*U minister is censoring and suppressing my comments in order to cover up and hide my attempts to expose internal U*U injustices and abuses I exact a price of blogging about their "accessory after the fact" complicity in whatever U*U "crime" I am reporting. Sadly I felt it necessary to report a very serious and tragic real crime committed by a U*U congregant earlier tonight.

I am very well aware of the "Code of Silence" that is written into the UUMA Guidelines whereby U*U ministers pledge not to speak scornfully or in derogation of other U*U ministers in public. I am equally aware of how *some* U*U ministers unilaterally extrapolate from that written "Code of Silence" and do not allow anyone else to speak scornfully or in derogation of any U*U minister if they can prevent it. Thank you for not being in *that* camp. I believe that U*U ministers need to be open to criticism of themselves and their colleagues where that criticism is deserved.

And I did have a happy Thankgiving back in early October being Canadian and all. . .
Kim Hampton said…
I think it's laudable that you want there to be a UU seminary option for those who are hoping to be UU ministers. But of the 4 schools that you point out, only two of them are UU. Just because there are a lot of UU students at a school, it doesn't make that school UU. (thank goodness)

And what happens if Meadville does merge with Andover? Doesn't that leave only one UU seminary?

As the costs of education go up, there are going to have to be creative ways of helping people get educated without breaking the bank.
Cynthia Landrum said…
Yes, I'm well aware that there are only two UU seminaries. I did veer off the point to talk about that situation, but, as I said, "While I think that adequately funding our UU theological schools is a denominational imperative, it is somewhat aside from this issue, as only about a third of all UU students attend our UU seminaries, so the problem of debt load would still be in existence." I mentioned the four seminaries I did at the beginning because they're four of the ones the UUA mentions in their document I link to, and I think that they have the largest numbers of UU students, although certainly there are others that are growing, and the UUA lists at least one more in their document where they're comparing costs.

And what happens if Meadville does merge with Andover? Doesn't that leave only one UU seminary?

That's the fear, yes. We'll have to wait and see, I guess.

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