Lifing the Burden Off Students

An Interview with John Wimmer

John Wimmer is program director in the Religion Division of Lilly Endowment Inc., based in Indianapolis. Since 1997, the Endowment has dispersed more than $1 billion in grants in its pastoral leadership development initiative. Its religious grants – approximately $140 million in 2016 – focus on strengthening congregations and ministry. The “Economic Challenges Facing Future Ministers” initiative provided grants to 67 theological schools, including Yale Divinity School, for programs and courses aimed at easing student debt trends. Wimmer, a United Methodist elder with parish ministry experience, is a graduate of Duke Divinity School and holds a Ph.D. in American religious history from the University of Chicago. He spoke to Reflections in February.

REFLECTIONS: Regarding the “Economic Challenges Facing Future Ministers” grant, what findings stand out so far?

JOHN WIMMER: We’re learning that the situation – the high level of student debt – is worse than most seminaries thought. That’s discouraging. However, I am also encouraged, because to solve a problem you first have to realize there is a problem. So now we are getting a better idea, a fine-grained look, at the problem. The good news is that almost half of graduates in theological schools have no educational debt. The bad news involves those who do have debt, often an enormous amount, and how they will manage it after going into ministries that don’t pay as well as other kinds of work. And it’s very troubling that these debt levels are higher for African Americans – even higher for African-American women.

REFLECTIONS: What is triggering these trends?

WIMMER: Rising debt is tied to a variety of reasons. Denominational support has dramatically declined in recent decades. But compensation levels for religious professionals have also fallen compared to other vocational paths. The cost of attending seminary – relocation, housing, lost opportunity costs, the cost of living in urban places like New Haven, New York, Boston, California – is a factor. The net effect is: Students are shouldering more of the cost of theological education.

REFLECTIONS: Does this threaten the future of seminaries?

WIMMER: I do think religious institutions and seminary alums could do a better job of making the case for theological education. They need to stress that it is foundational to the faith in the long run. A good theological education is an absolute requirement for excellent pastoral ministry. Anything that threatens that is a threat to the health of churches and congregational life. We see too much fingerpointing – complaints that “I didn’t learn everything I needed in seminary in order to do ministry” – but that’s true of an MBA program or medical or nursing school. You don’t learn everything in school. What students do get in seminary or divinity school is invaluable: grounding in life-long learning and the skills to share the gospel rooted in the sacred texts and in Christian tradition while making it relevant to a changing culture.

How good theological education is financed is central not just to seminaries but to churches. The faith can survive without money but institutions of faith cannot. It’s a systemic issue. We’ve got to figure out new ways of support – activate alums, identify new donors, create new partnerships between schools and churches – and not default to the students to pay. By training I’m a historian of American religion. A generation ago historians like Sydney Ahlstrom and Sidney Mead talked of the importance of experimentation and innovation that are built into American religious life. We’re always experimenting, innovating. And the next decade is a critical time for theological education to experiment with different models of funding the education of future pastoral and religious leaders.

REFLECTIONS: Are church attitudes toward money changing?

WIMMER: Until recently, there was relatively little focus on the issue of faith and money in biblical studies, theology, or ethics. We’ve had important critiques of the economy, but the role of generosity has been neglected, I think. There’s a new vitality now – historian Peter Brown’s recent books on wealth and late antiquity (such as Through the Eye of the Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD) and Walter Brueggemann’s wonderful new book Money and Possessions (Westminster, 2016), which explores money and possessions as “carriers of social possibility.” We’re touching here on an important part of Christian discipleship – the free sharing of our possessions, including money, as a reflection of the generosity of God. Money can turn idolatrous, but that’s not irreversible. New patterns of faith and giving are part of “the church ever reforming.”