Current Leaders' Debt
I'm writing to tell you how disappointed I was with your treatment of the seminarian student loan [situation]. It was apparent to me that you spoke to no one who is currently repaying their student loans. Those who did submit articles wrote from the perspective of those who have money, or those blessed with multiple donors, but not from the viewpoint of one struggling to repay such loans. If you had included that perspective you would have received a very different picture than the one you portrayed.
My wife and I both attended an ELCA college, California Lutheran University, which gave us about $20,000 of student loans each. Then, after graduation and getting married, my wife attended Augsburg College and I, Luther Seminary. At both institutions we accumulated debt that has easily together pushed us over the $100,000 mark!
Now try finding a congregation that will help you with that debt. We served one congregation in southern California, but because of financial issues again we decided to move. We moved to a congregation in a small town in Colorado, which took care of us but never had the money to even come close to helping us repay these loans. Even the congregation we're at now, which is paying at guidelines, still is unable to really help us make a dent in our loans. In the past we have been able to defer payment or get forbearances, but that time is almost at an end too. With this load of student loan debt, it is no wonder we find it increasingly difficult to tithe or contribute financially to our church!
Then we have church leaders, including yourselves, encouraging us to tighten our belts? To be "conscientious spenders"? How can we be stewards to the church when we can't even pay the loans we have accumulated in getting here? It makes me wonder, where is the church now that we have this amount of debt?
In seminary, my synod could only contribute $100 to my education! My congregation even less! In the end, the remaining amount was my responsibility, and with rent due each month [to pay for] the seminary housing we had, we had to take out student loans just to finish school! How does the church help its pastors repay the loans they had to take out to become leaders in the first place? Will it concentrate solely on those entering seminary? Or will it look to those pastors who slipped through with massive student loan debt before the church woke up and paid attention. That would be something I'd be interested in hearing more about!
Columbus, MontanaA Response to William DohleEditor's note: Our articles in the January / February 2009 issue did not speak directly to this pastor's concern. I have asked Paul Hanson, director of the Fund of Leaders in Mission, to reply to Pastor Dohle's letter.
I am grateful for the coverage that Lutheran Partners
has given to the debt of graduating seminarians. The January / February 2009 issue covered three perspectives on the issue: what seminary financial aid offices can do, what the churchwide organization is doing, and what students can do to minimize the debt load of new pastors.
I am also grateful for Pastor Dohle's letter to the editor, in which he shares his discouragement, and asks, essentially, "What can be done for pastors who have already graduated with excessive debt?" His plight is evidence that this problem is not just statistical. Real pastors serving real congregations are struggling, and facing difficult choices because of their debt burden. As Jesus exhorted us to "bear one another's burdens," we need to care about these pastors, hear their stories, and ask how we can help them.
Let me quickly add that we must go beyond feeling sympathy only for individual pastors. This issue challenges the whole ELCA. We are entrusted with proclaiming the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ, and blessed with the clear theological understanding of the Lutheran Confessions. We have great seminaries, preparing bright, promising candidates for ministry. We have congregations waiting eagerly for faithful, wise, and courageous pastors to lead them into God's future.
But when those pastors graduate with too much debt, they find themselves unable to go where they are needed (or to stay once they get there). How can they be examples of Christian stewardship when their own finances make tithing impossible? What is lost when a pastor is discouraged by their debt? When someone completes their education and candidacy, only to have their ministry hampered by their debt obligations, we all lose.
The Dohle family's education debt (more than $100,000) falls at the high end of the spectrum. But even a much lower debt total is too much. Seventy percent of seminary graduates report graduating with debt, on average $38,000. Most new pastors have too much education debt.
Deeply concerned about these issues, Presiding Bishop Hanson has convened several consultations. Partners in the conversation include several churchwide units, ELCA seminaries, ELCA colleges, the ELCA Board of Pensions, the ELCA Mission Investment Fund, bishops, pastors, and students. An integrated plan of action and research is under evaluation, as the whole system seeks greater efficiency, broader financial support, and shared wisdom.
At this point, the churchwide organization has focused efforts on the prevention of this debt. Thousands of members give to the Fund for Leaders for Mission endowment, which distributes tuition scholarships to students at each of the eight ELCA seminaries. Twenty-seven synods have now partnered with the Fund for Leaders to build endowments from which their candidates receive tuition help. There are many others striving to prevent this debt: most synods provide financial support to their candidates; candidacy committees hold frank conversations with candidates about their financial situation; and many congregations help with tuition and expenses.
None is more invested in solving these problems than our eight seminaries, which raise and distribute scholarship money, offer financial guidance, and prepare people for Christian ministry in the world. The tuition paid by students is nowhere near the true cost of providing a seminary education.
There are many who are living out their concern with action.
But what about the debts of those pastors who have already borrowed heavily? The remediation of existing debt is probably best done at the local level, as it requires a deep understanding of each individual's set of circumstances and issues, as well as attention to need and fairness. A number of synods (including the Eastern North Dakota, South Dakota, and Indiana-Kentucky synods, to name a few) have established debt reduction funds for pastors who serve in their synod. Many congregations have devised creative ways to address their own pastor's education debt.
I don't have an answer to one pastor's debt burden. I do have confidence that entities across this church will work together to find ways to change the trend, for the sake of the proclamation of the gospel.
Rest of the Story
While I highly commend the attention given to the issue of seminary student debt and the promotion of the Fund for Leaders in the January / February 2009 issue, I was dismayed you did not tell the rest of the story. Why was there no mention of the fact that student tuition covers only 30 percent of the cost to prepare that person for service to and within the church? Why was there no mention that financial support for the seminaries from synod and churchwide expressions of the ELCA has been essentially “flat” for over a decade? And why was there no mention of the question that seemingly can only be whispered behind sacristy doors — does the ELCA really need eight seminaries?
As a retired pastor, it seems to me we have set in motion an economic Darwinian process as to which seminary can endow its future through pervasive fundraising endeavors. Who else do we expect to train and educate our future pastors and church leaders if it is not our own church? Will economic necessity force our seminaries to accept any warm body walking through the chapel doors?
The whole story needs to be told — especially to the pastors now serving the church. That's why [I’m sending you] my letter since you are in a unique position to inform the rostered leadership of the ELCA. I hope you could do a follow‑up in the near future.
Catching the thrust [of the January / February 2009 issue], Luke 16:11 just seemed to leap out at me. Jesus sure speaks to the subject under discussion in my old Bible.
So if Jesus is truly Lord of us pastors and rostered lay ministers, I guess we ought to listen to his advice. Just how could Jesus make it any clearer?
"So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?"
Questioning Questions 2.0
Geoffrey Scott's recent review and implied recommendation of the Living the Questions 2.0
education materials greatly alarms me. Once more I am left wondering if the ordained and lay leaders of the ELCA truly have any real partnership in the gospel together.
The Living the Questions
curriculum is linked to the so-called "progressive Christianity" movement. The eight primary tenets of this ecumenical, loose affiliation of mainline Protestant congregations include the belief that all faiths lead to God apart from the unique atoning work of Jesus Christ in his life, death, and resurrection; that the unbaptized should be admitted to communion; and that the historic, biblical doctrines of Christianity are, in large part, no longer helpful or necessary. This "progressive Christianity" therefore stands in direct opposition to apostolic Christianity.
Moreover, among the authors of the Living the Questions
materials are John Spong, Marcus Borg, and John Crossan. All three deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus and denounce many of the basic, creedal core beliefs of Lutheran Christianity and historic Christianity in general. Living the Questions
presents a different gospel than the gospel of Jesus Christ, proclaimed in Scripture.
What then are we to make of the endorsement Lutheran Partners
gives to this curriculum — indeed, to this heretical teaching? It leaves me to surmise that the key leaders of the ELCA would have local pastors and educators incorporate these materials into their teaching and education ministries. I can think of hardly anything worse.
As the Lord says to us, "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves" (Matthew 7:15). Living the Questions
is another example of that wolf. And such a wolf, if left unchecked, will eventually consume the whole flock.
Teaching Kids Stewardship
I have found the articles about children and stewardship very inspiring (Written on the Heart, January / February 2009). I am teaching a stewardship class and one of the main foci is on re‑teaching the stewardship principle to our children.
It seems that what we learned as children growing up has fallen by the wayside, and we need to get back to the basics of teaching the kids at an early age about the meaning of stewardship. Even our confirmation kids seem to be lagging behind in this area.
Thank you for sharing and I will pass these stories on for others to reflect on.
Fort Worth, Texas
Kudos to Jerry Pedersen! (Letter to the Editor, January / February 2009)
For too long Christians have kept silent in their witness for peace. We have been brainwashed to think that war is inevitable. We have given authority to military power that perpetuates human suffering and environmental destruction. There is no way to victory. War begets more war, therefore it must become obsolete. The irony is that the country is deteriorating from within [itself], without outside terrorists dropping a single bomb.
The church as conscience lays low in the weeds protecting its own small flock with reassuring prayers of comfort. Prayer is fine, but when the boat is sinking, should the captain not rally the crew to bail out? Should not our pastors lift the lantern and cry out to the people in the pews, who have just slept through the sermon, "Wake, awake; there is more to smell here than just the coffee"?
June (Nilssen) Eastvold
Port Washington, Wisconsin
We [in the church] have done quite an in-depth study of sexuality in Scripture and found some interesting things, which I am sure you must have covered [in the past], but here they are again.
- Polygamy was not specifically condemned in Scripture. It is even practiced today by some Christians (non-Mormon) in Utah.
- Having concubines may have caused problems, but that plus visiting a prostitute now and then are not openly condemned.
- The only problem with Onan who "spilled his semen on the ground" (Genesis 38:9) was that Onan refused to raise up children for his dead brother — even if he already had a wife.
- Using Sarah's handmaiden was not specifically condemned, though the problems because of it have been abundant.
- Incest or marrying a half sister were not condemned. Abraham married his half sister and Tamar was assaulted by her half brother, but that was not openly condemned.
On the other hand homosexuality is explicitly condemned in both Old and New Testaments! Why is that different? It should open the door to a whole host of other practices that have been in the "closet" for ages. Why can't we have a mistress on the side in this enlightened age? (I know at least one pastor who went off with a girl even though his divorce was not final.) He used the arguments in the sexuality studies as an excuse. If we liberate gays only, is that not discrimination?Evolution and the Book
Robert S. Ove
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
It is truly amazing that Darwin's theory of evolution has antiscientific opponents yet in 2009. Most, if not all, of those espousing "creationism" or "intelligent design" are of the three major religions of the so-called People of the Book: the Bible. As a Lutheran, I learned that while our Bible is "the cradle that holds forth Christ" as Dr. Martin Luther said, we do not worship the cradle as sacrosanct literal fact for time immemorial. I, for one, cannot get myself to begin my prayers: Dear Intelligent Designer!
I trust that people of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity are not so dogmatic that the Big Bang of the start of our universe and evolved life from one cellular source for all beings is somehow atheistic thinking. Frederick Buechner, a writer and pastor, said that all theology, like most fiction, is autobiography. Opponents of evolution are expressing themselves as the truth, and science be damned, or at least suspect and denied in the name of God.
This article appeared in the May / June 2009 issue of Lutheran Partners (vol. 25, no. 3).