Indebted to Gospel Truth

Justin Mikulencak ’17 M.Div.

Millennial borrowers grapple with the prospect of making monthly loan payments for decades, while politicians and talking heads dissect how the burden of $1.3 trillion in student loans has suppressed home ownership among younger people, delayed starting families, driven down retail spending, and a host of other consequences. These burdens, we’re told, stand as obstacles in the way of flourishing and prosperity, the freedom to pursue “the good life.”

My wife and I currently pay on her student loans and will begin to make payments on mine after graduation. Our total student loan debt, by the time I graduate in May, will be about two and a half times the minimum salary guaranteed for an ordained minister in my denomination. (Many church bodies do not offer the luxury of a minimum salary.) Such debt will undoubtedly affect our financial choices for many years to come.

Yet it is short-sighted to characterize the debt I have taken on to earn my M.Div. as primarily a burden on my ability to consume, spend, and participate in the modern economy. High levels of ministerial debt can lead to something much more troubling: It can erode or silence the church’s prophetic witness.

Certainly I want to be able to pay my bills and provide for my family – but ultimately much of the argument about the burdens of debt is rooted in the uncritical acceptance of an economic system that values material luxuries and preaches a “financial freedom” that merely invites more and more spending. This is the same system that both engenders and demonizes poverty, and casts the real needs of the exploited poor as … burdens. In my view, ministers and priests have a duty to preach and work against poverty, exploitation, discrimination, and other evils of this system rather than be assimilated into it via their debt.

A new pastor’s substantial student debt could discourage important ministries to the homeless and stifle prophetic criticism of wealth and power. A financially strapped minister might feel too vulnerable to speak freely, fearing an eventual loss of salary or standing. In some denominations, it is not uncommon for clergy who rock the boat to be reassigned to smaller churches that often struggle to pay their pastor a living wage. Could the daunting challenge of meeting one’s student loan payments and other financial obligations dissuade a pastor from proclaiming an uncomfortable vision of justice to a comfortable congregation? What if speaking truth to power included confronting the chair of the church council or the congregation’s biggest givers? Such leverage over the pastor and the pulpit could erode the duty to witness to God’s vision of justice in the world.

Such a problem is not easily solved, especially in mainline churches that are sometimes overly reliant upon numbers to tell them whether the church is succeeding or not.

Perhaps an answer lies in greater collaboration between church bodies and seminaries. One possibility: Reduce academic requirements for the M.Div. from three years to two, with the third year given over to full-time, paid training in the candidate’s denomination. One could complete denominational history and polity requirements, as well as get vital experience, through the denomination rather than through costly credit hours at school.

To be clear, this is not to downplay the importance of academics in ministerial training. I believe that clergy who lack acceptable academic preparation or intellectual rigor are just as susceptible to cultural captivity as those with high debt. Nevertheless, we must creatively rethink our models of theological education and ministerial preparation so they don’t foster uncritical assimilation, via debt, into modern popular culture or domesticate prophetic witness. Our burdens go beyond spending power and debt. Our call goes beyond making things easier or more comfortable. Let us find a more excellent way that empowers and sets free a prophetic vision in our communities, pulpits, and divinity schools.