From the Dean’s Desk

Gregory E. Sterling

The fifth petition in the Matthean version of the Pater Noster is “forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12). Many of us recite this or the version attested in Origen: “forgive us our trespasses as we have forgiven our debtors” (although we typically use “trespasses” in the second half as well).

Luke’s version reads: “forgive us our sins, for we forgive all our debtors” (Luke 11:4). The fact that the second half of the clause contains the word “debtors” suggests that the first half originally had “debts” (the Q version). Although the Third Evangelist knew and used the concept of sin as debt (Luke 13:4), he and Origen probably changed the word from “debts” to “sins” and “trespasses” to make the offense against God clearer for Greco-Roman readers, just as it does for worshipers today.

I have often thought about the relationship between sin and debt. It is interesting to think of sin in terms of debt; it is a powerful image. It is also worth thinking about this in reverse: debt as sin. The metaphor is shocking when put this way. Though I would not want to make the equation literal, it is worth pondering the moral problems that excessive debt creates.

One of my greatest concerns as dean is the level of student indebtedness. The single greatest problem this creates is that it can force students to make career choices that reflect their sense of fiscal responsibility rather than their sense of calling. So, for example, 66 percent of last year’s graduating class entered Yale Divinity School with an average student debt of $37,886. At graduation, this debt level had increased to an average of $60,045. Now $60,000 is relatively insignificant for graduates of major business schools, law schools, or schools of medicine, but it is excessive for those entering ministry and not-for-profit organizations.

We have also learned that more than half of our students overestimate their future compensation. In a survey conducted among students and alumni/ ae in 2015, we found that 56 percent of our students and 49 percent of our alumnae/i did not have a realistic idea of their earning potential. More directly to the point, 48 percent of our students and 42 percent of alumni/ae indicated that debt is affecting their career decisions.

This makes student indebtedness an issue that we must all face. We cannot afford to make theological education unaffordable for those who have a call to enter ministry. This is a particularly challenging problem for a school that is a full-time residential institution, since students cannot work full-time and attend school full-time. It is an acute challenge for churches who need trained ministers more than ever, but have fewer resources to pay them. The same is true for other forms of ministry in nonprofit organizations that offer limited salaries. The image of debt as sin begins to seem quite relevant. So this Spring issue of Reflections is dedicated to examining theological dimensions of economic justice and reform, with a special look at the crisis of student debt.

In its first decades, Yale Divinity School did not charge tuition. By the early 1900s, Frank K. Sanders, the first administrative dean, proposed a tuition fee. When the faculty rejected it, he resigned. However, financial constraints had become obvious, and future deans succeeded in charging tuition. We are attempting to return to the early practice of tuition-free education for all those with demonstrated financial need. We are taking this on with the help of many donors who want to make sure that students do not have excessive debt. It is in this spirit that we reverse the metaphor in the second half of the line in the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven those who are in debt.