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.
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!)
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.