Pastoral Educational Debt Survey

students-loans2Brothers of John the Steadfast is again writing an article on the educational debt of Pastors.

A couple of years ago, Pastor Matt Richard posted some very good research on the cost of education and the reality of pastor salaries (found here). Conservatively, the total cost of education (not necessarily the amount borrowed) for a man who is married and has children to earn a bachelor’s degree at a state school and a Master of Divinity at Concordia Theological Seminary is somewhere around $158,104. The actual amount borrowed in student loans may be reduced by grants above and beyond the need-based 55% grant CTS offers its students (that grant is included in the $158K), scholarships, and other sources (hopefully including congregations around the synod).

We would like to do some research to find the size of debt that actual pastors come out of seminary with in preparation for another article. If you are a graduate of an LCMS seminary and are willing to participate in our anonymous survey, please take our survey by clicking here.

We guarantee your anonymity; you may give us your name or not, but we’d prefer some identification so we can validate the information that we receive. We’ve already received one comment that required us to contact the submitter for clarification, so again — we appreciate your providing your name or contact information.

**NOTE**: We’ve found the data from some older graduates to be informative as well, so even if you graduated several years ago, and are willing to share your approximate information with us, please go to our survey and fill in the information. Include the year with the information in the comments box.

Take our survey



About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord,, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at


Pastoral Educational Debt Survey — 16 Comments

  1. Oh boy… son is a senior next year & is looking at the Office. I’ll wait to show him, & Dad, this once the survey is done. Oi…..

  2. After being in the income based repayment plan for 25 years your student loan debt will be forgiven but it will count as income on your taxes after the 25 years are up. So graduating from seminary at 26 years old means that you will have the hassle of filling out the income based repayment plan renewal form every year until you are 51 years old. So when you are 51 or 52 years old the student loans that have been paid off by your loan provider will count as income on your taxes. So the taxes that year will be huge when you get that old.

  3. To attain a Bachelor of Arts degree from a state school
    should be separated from getting a Master of Divinity
    degree from one of our seminaries. Your lump sum needs
    to be broken down into two different parts.

  4. @Pastor Adam Salinas #2

    Clergy were excluded from the public servant loan forgiveness program as of January 31, 2012.

    What is full-time employment [for the purposes of Public Service Loan Forgiveness]?
    You must meet your employer’s definition of full-time. However, for PSLF purposes, that definition must be at least an annual average of 30 hours per week. For purposes of the full-time requirement, your qualifying employment at a not-for-profit organization does not include time spent participating in religious instruction, worship services, or any form of proselytizing. (Source:

  5. When I tranferred my loans to Direct Loans in 2008 to be eligible for the Public Servant Loan Forgiveness program, the folks there said that the program would apply for me as a pastor. I had the habit of once in a while of calling them several times in an afternoon, that I might talk to different operators, and they all said the same: the program applied for me. I even did that and got the same response when contradictory statements began to appear on dept. of ed. websites in Obama’s first term. I’ve not tried lately. And Andersen’s quote sounds more definitive. But perhaps if you happen to finish 10 years in a different administration that applies the law more amenably to us, who knows? For myself, in addition to making my income based payments, I’m saving to pay that big fat tax bill at what would be the end of 25 years.

  6. I came out of the Fort with 60K gummint loans and 40K personal loans and family help.

    In ’86!

    Sem ain’t cheap. I very much hesitate to blame the Church – after all, we’re the goofs that sign up for weird collar duty, so . . .

    It was paid off in 8 years. I just did it. No medals or bravados my way needed. The Lord provided a way to do it, so I did it. My years at the Fort were the best years of my life, as Bryan Adams sang.

    Despite everything – nary a regret.

  7. Um, yeah…don’t need to see the survey, anymore. My son goes to our colleges, takes the tour, & hears there is a shortage, of those who choose to hold the Office.
    Um…maybe, we, both WELS & LCMS, could tell those who recruit, to lay this on the table, as well?

    Sem’s must be paid. Extended education, of any kind, is pricey. I’d really like for those who recruit, to up front, to both the parents & the student, to the reality, of that choice.

  8. I remember a pastor saying it took him over fifteen years to pay off his Seminary debt, and he’d had the GI Bill to pay for his undergraduate degree.

  9. Dear BJS Bloggers,

    Financing and managing the education of its clergy and teachers has always been the biggest job of the Missouri Synod’s Board of Director. That job finally got so big that the synod had to create as separate Board just for that purpose. I don’t remember the name or the year that it was first formed, but it was something like the Board of Higher Education (including the seminaries).

    When you look at the combined budget of all synodical institutions, the universities and seminaries contatin–by far–the biggest assets and income/expense figures. This is why, since the creation of the CUS, the Board of Directors took on the “historic CUS debt,” since the thinking was that the synod HAD to support all the CUS schools since they all created church-workers.

    But they don’t.

    Only some of the CUS schools have graduates that enter church-work, and the overall percentage is somewhere around 12% for those that do. So there is a lot of assets and income and support that goes into these CUS schools, for a meager–though obviously important–result.

    The synod could use its assets and operating revenue to make church-worker training more affordable, both at the college and seminary level, and thus reduce the loan burden for church-worker candidates. But it doesn’t want to–or at least certain people don’t want it to.

    I have been advocating for budget prioritization of church-workers in the CUS system ever since it was created–and I have gotten a lot of flak for it. This prioritization could be done in any number of ways, but the end result would be little, or at least manageable, debt for CUS-and/or-seminary trained church-workers

    Sometime back in the mid-to-late 1990s, when I had applied for a open position in theology, a CUS administrator told me I was never going to teach in the CUS system, because I was saying that church-workers should have a budget priority in the schools. He said that this was contrary to the purpose of CUS, so I should never even bother applying in the future. And I haven’t–but I still think I am right, and that it can be done if the synod wants to.

    The other side of the equation is congregations following the district guidelines for salaries for their church-workers, and also offering to help repay school debt when it becomes burdensome. This is not so that the church-workers can live “high on the hog,” but so that they don’t have to beg when their twenty-year old car finally dies, or their twenty-year old suit starts wearing through.

    Young people will not sign up for work in the church, if they see church-workers who are living frugally, yet are living in material conditions that are the lowest of any person in the congregation or community.

    Thanks to Norm and Josh for this effort!

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  10. Added to the article above —

    We’ve found the data from some older graduates to be informative as well, so even if you graduated several years ago, and are willing to share your approximate information with us, please go to our survey and fill in the information. Include the year with the information in the comments box.

  11. “Financing and managing the education of its clergy and teachers has always been the biggest job of the Missouri Synod’s Board of Director. ….”

    I can say that the majority of the individuals that are on the board of directors have no clue what it’s like being so strapped with student loan debt; trying to serve a small congregation with a small salary and trying to support a family. The BOD would make sure first they have cushy salaries and then pretend they even care that a large number of pastors are suffering because of the debt from attending our LCMs seminaries.

  12. Dear BJS Bloggers,

    In response to the previous comment #11, my intent was not to single out the LCMS Board of Directors for criticism. I was trying to explain how the financial side of the synod is and has been structured and how that applies to student financial burdens. I disagree with comment #11, for several reasons:

    First, the present LCMS board of directors is one of the best groups we have had in many years. The fact that they chose Rev. Dr. Michael Kumm as their chairman says loads of things about their commitments as a group and as individuals.

    Second, you might think that persons serving on that board all are well-to-do, but that is not always the case. Certainly the pastors and teachers who serve on that board are not. They are, usually, fair-to-middlin’ when it comes to personal career assets and compensation. Although some laymen on the board are wealthy, others are not–though all have demonstrated a high level of competence in law, finance, business, personnel, and other skills needed by that board. We want competence and commitment-to-the-church on our boards, no matter what their personal fortune, because the fates of our institutions depend on them.

    Third, I was trying to give the historical view of things, but also trying to brief. So I apologize if my brevity gave opportunity for criticism of the LCMS Directors.

    Here are some more facts that might help you understand–I apologize in advance for the lengthy discussion that follows.

    Up until the creation of the Board of Higher Education (or whatever its first name was), the majority of LCMS Board of Directors business was devoted to the financial management of the synod’s seminaries and schools. This was not just overview of quarterly financial reports, but hands-on management. The fact that the LCMS Board of Directors originally financially managed these schools indicates, from a historical-organic analysis of institutions, that they really belong to the LCMS and are not independent institutions that just happened to get attached to the LCMS.

    Comparison of our universities–and seminaries–to other church-based institutions often clouds the picture. Many other denominations’ colleges were founded as independent schools, i.e., they were originally managed by an independent board of directors that was not accountable to a church convention or its officers. This was typical for the American experience, which prized autonomy for congregations and individual Christians. Baptists were the most extreme in this view, but also Congregationalists held this view, thus the original independence of places like Harvard College.

    As all those LCMS institutions grew in size and number, it simply became unmanageable for a quarterly-meeting based board operation. At the point, the synod in convention directed that financial management of the colleges and universities be handed over to that LCMS Board of Higher Education. Later that board was split into a board for colleges and a board for seminaries.

    At the founding of the CUS–I think that was in the mid to-late 1980s–the CUS took over the financial management of the colleges, and the seminaries were left in their previous relationship to synod, under the Board for Pastoral Education. The CUS was a separately incorporated synod-wide entity, and it still is.

    The universities are also incorporated in their respective states and have a degree of autonomy–more autonomy than the seminaries.

    One of the issues that developed after the founding of the CUS was that the incorporation documents for the universities did not have reversionary clauses. In other words, the persons who were managing the CUS at that time had basically gifted all the assets of each college, which had originally belonged to the synod, to those individual colleges.

    I sent a letter to the LCMS Board of Directors at the time when this happened, and warned them about the loss of 80-90% of the assets of the synod. I was originally rebuffed and rebuked, but over the years, in patiently talking to LCMS Board of Directors and LCMS Treasurers who would listen, they began to see the point. So during the early 2000s, the LCMS Directors and Treasurer Thomas Kuchta worked with all the universities to reinstate reversionary clauses in all the incorporation documents, so that the assets (property, building, equipment, liquid and invested assets) still belong to the synod, though managed by university Regents and CUS.

    So what does this mean? It means that the synod still, today, owns all of the assets that are controlled and operated by CUS and the universities. But the LCMS Board of Directors, and the convention, have very little say in their actual operation. So you can’t blame the LCMS Board of Directors for student debt. You can debate the positives and negatives of this autonomy “until the cows come home,” but that is what the synod convention wanted–apparently–when it approved the CUS, and its subsequent bylaw revisions.

    The CUS was founded–presumably and according to its promotion–in order to reduce costs to students and build up a sizeable endowment to benefit all. Neither one of those purposes has been fulfilled. How and why it failed in this task, we may never know. Administrators tend to hide their tracks when they are not successful. CUS has not failed in other tasks, so it has not been a total failure; and it may be that no one could have accomplished its goals, no matter how committed or able.

    I once asked a LCMS professor, who had spent his entire career in the LCMS educational system, whether the CUS made any financial sense. His response was “Do you think that it made sense to expand the offerings and capacities of ten universities all at the same time? Do you think it made any sense to let every university choose its own program offerings? Do you think it made any sense to let every university offer whatever church-worker program it wanted, so that there was no concentration of resources in any one school for pastors, or teachers, or church-musicians, etc.?”

    I, for one, believe the synod should offer Lutheran-perspective liberal arts higher education to college-age students. We have always done that, and it is in agreement with the educational goals of Luther, Melanchthon, and Walther.

    But we also need, as a critical function for the synod, the training of synodical church-workers, and in a way that does not burden them financially, since most of them will never have adequate compensation to pay off large amounts of debt.

    The synod is doing a major study of the CUS, through an official Task Force convened for that purpose (see ). It should be giving its first report at the end of this year. Then we should all have the facts on the table that can help the synod make intelligent decisions for the future of these institutions. Affordability for students and student debt should be major issues in those decisions, which is why this survey by BJS is so timely.

    I hope this explanation helps a bit.

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  13. Laymen who are elected to boards are supposed to be experts in their field (hopefully helpful to that specific board) who can use their resources and connections to help the board in that capacity. You don’t need a bankrupt person or someone who’s never held a job on a board of directors. You can’t fault successful people for having money.

  14. Hm, weird. Somehow Greenville Presbyterian Seminary in Carolina can manage to keep tuition costs low. Even more interesting is that its graduates serve denominations (PCA, OPC) that are significantly smaller than the LCMS. What was that about higher ed being really expensive in general? I’m posting this in the other thread, too.

  15. “Although some laymen on the board are wealthy, others are not–though all have demonstrated a high level of competence in law, finance, business, personnel, and other skills needed by that board. We want competence and commitment-to-the-church on our boards, no matter what their personal fortune, because the fates of our institutions depend on them.”

    The board is better off being all pastors. Perhaps second career guys who picked up business world skills along the way. There is nothing wrong with being wealthy, unless you acquired that wealth on the backs of congregations giving their percentage of revenue to synod, district, etc. I commend pastor Noland for being so positive with a reflection of course on the 8th commandment of course. However, I will not sway from saying this : “the board is better off being all pastors.”

  16. And then there are those who work their way through college, go into the military, get their GI Bill, work their way through a non-LCMS seminary, and come back through colloquy as worker priests. But I’d guess that doesn’t fit the survey.

    Actually, there are more than a few of us out there, who have dodged the crippling debt of the LCMS seminaries this way.

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