Saying “I do” to Debt

Kendra Joyner Miller

He was standing across the table from me, another face in the sea of unknown faces at a celebratory barbeque at Yale Divinity School’s new-student orientation. After we made small talk over potato salad, I smiled and returned to the safety of fresh friends who would become my family for the three years of school and to this day.

That day, though, I didn’t know all I would be saying “yes” to. Just a few years later I would be promising to love, honor, and cherish the man who stood across from the potato salad. A few months after making those promises, I would take another set of vows to “be faithful in my preaching and teaching of the gospel, in administering the sacraments” as an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. I was bound in love and covenantal promises to this incredible man. I was bound to this calling to serve God and live into the gospel. And I also found myself bound by the financial burden of paying for my undergraduate and graduate education. I said “I do” to my husband, to God, and to federally regulated interest rates. I said “I do” to student debt, both mine and his.

Having married a Lutheran minister, I have become familiar with the saints of his tradition and almost chuckle as I think of Bonhoeffer’s writing on the “cost of discipleship.” The debt-induced cost of living as ministers-preachers-teachers-disciples has never been so great. As a clergy couple we hold no illusions that our lives will be marked by affluence, but we consider ourselves among the fortunate. Our calls allow us to authentically live into our ministry, amid communities that can support us with fair compensation. We have friends for whom this is not the case. They are forced to make the impossible choice of following where they feel God’s spirit calling or satisfying their ever-multiplying interest rates. We have friends who’ve entered into calls where they do not feel particularly led in order to settle their financial debts, hoping later to move to placements that feel more spirit-filled.

I work with young people at my current congregation, and I have been blessed by the deep theological thoughtfulness of many of them who when leaving for college hope to study theology. As they come back for breaks, though, I hear of changes in their plans, how advisors and parents have helped steer them to other degree programs and greater job security. They study international relations, psychology, business. Maybe these young people are not called to ministry, but my heart cannot help but wonder if their call is getting drowned out by the daunting combination of student debt and job insecurity.

I said “I do” to this life, to my marriage, my calling, my debt, and every day I recommit to this life where I know the joys and the cost of discipleship.

The Rev. Kendra Joyner Miller ’14 M.Div. is an associate minister at First Congregational Church of Glen Ellyn, IL.