Lilly grants address ministers’ finances

A Lilly Endowment program addresses the growing problem of student debt, which makes it harder for ministers to accept modest-paying church jobs after they graduate from seminary.

By Bob Allen

Seminaries tied to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Southern Baptist Convention were among 51 theology schools across the United States awarded more than $12.3 million by the Lilly Endowment in the second round of its initiative to help address economic issues facing young ministers.

Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary received a $249,132 grant as part of the Indianapolis-based charity’s program aimed at alleviating financial pressures associated with student debt.

Truett will use its grant award to establish the "Truett Seminary Financial Wellness Program" to meet the needs of its students and alumni. Funding from the grant will be used to host one major conference and three workshops throughout the year to improve the financial education of students and alumni of Truett Seminary.

"Our goal is to help students plan ahead for their careers as ministers as they think critically about relevant financial issues,” said Jo Ann Sharkey, assistant director of student services at Truett. “We will invite a team of experts from the fields of ministry and finance to lead sessions at the conferences and workshops to help us accomplish these goals."

Recent research indicates that student educational debt in excess of $30,000 is not uncommon for seminary graduates, and some students are graduating from seminary with loans of more than $100,000. The financial pressures caused by these debt levels severely limit the ability of seminary graduates to accept calls to Christian ministry and undermine the effectiveness of too many pastoral leaders.

To help address the issue, Lilly Endowment created the Theological School Initiative to Address Economic Issues Facing Future Ministers. Its aim is to encourage theological schools to examine and strengthen their financial and educational practices to improve the economic well-being of future ministerial leaders.

Chris-Coble“The Endowment believes that pastors are indispensable spiritual leaders and guides, and the quality of pastoral leadership is critical to the health and vitality of congregations,” said Christopher Coble, the Endowment’s vice president for religion. “Financial hardships can make it difficult for pastors to lead their congregations effectively.”

Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kan., received $250,000 to support a new initiative, “The Economics of Ministry: from Classroom to Congregation.”

The initiative has three parts: research, education and collaboration. As part of the initiative, Central will conduct research on the amount of debt students carry when they come to seminary and how the level of debt impacts the ministry placement options. The school will also work with students to increase their financial literacy and creativity in funding their ministry calling. Finally, Central will collaborate with a group of key churches to assess student debt and church compensation and the implications of these realities. 

“We have designed a project that interfaces with Central’s core values of preparing spiritually healthy ministers, which includes financial health,” said Central President Molly T. Marshall.

The Lilly Endowment conducted an experimental pilot of the initiative in 2012. Grants were given to 16 theological schools to develop programs to improve the economic well-being of their students and graduates.

Success of those programs prompted Lilly to offer a larger, second round in 2013. All theological schools fully accredited by the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada that did not receive grants in the first round were invited to submit grant proposals. Forty-nine grantees representing 51 theological schools were awarded grants. Nearly one-quarter of all ATS schools have received funding in rounds one and two of the initiative.

“Theological schools are uniquely positioned to address the educational debt issue and to lead broad efforts to improve the financial circumstances facing pastoral leaders,” Coble said. “Our hope is that these grants will help them build relationships with church organizations and others to lessen the debt burden and increase support for future ministers.”

Other schools receiving grant money included James and Carolyn McAfee School of Theology of Mercer University, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University and Candler School of Theology of Emory University in Atlanta.