The Cost of Becoming a Pastor

students-loans2I absolutely love being a pastor. There isn’t a single thing I would change about what I do—not even the meetings (which often include one of the prayer offices and theologically-driven conversation). It is a joy to be in the pulpit, to comfort terrified consciences, to baptize sinners, and to teach God’s Word to His people. My father drives a truck for a living, and I have in a sense followed in his footsteps. I’m just the delivery guy. I have the privilege of delivering the most precious gift the world has ever known, day in and day out: the Gospel.

My purpose in writing about the expenses involved in becoming a pastor is not to discourage men from pursuing ordination. However, it is a matter of faithful stewardship to consider the financial realities of life in 21st century America and the fiscal health of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and its congregations.

The burden of debt many men incur in the process of becoming a pastor can be suffocating. The educational indebtedness of pastors in the LCMS is just as problematic as the number of inactive (yet eligible) candidates on the roster (what was formerly called CRM), our current lack of koinonia, or anything else. There are faithful pastors who have had to find work in other fields because they couldn’t pay off their debts and provide for their families on a pastor’s salary.

Debt is a serious concern for many pastors, and it is important for prospective (and even current) seminary students to consider whether or not they can afford their education, and—especially in the case of men with a wife and children—to be realistic about the fiscal challenges they will almost certainly face in providing for their families.

Pastor Matt Richard has posted some excellent research on the cost of education and the reality of pastor salaries on PM Notes. 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 around $158,104.[1]

Concordia Theological Seminary has recently published a study called Improving the Economic Well-Being of Future Servants of Jesus Christ. Of those polled, 44% of recent graduates from CTS left the seminary with up to $60,000 in educational debt, and 40% left with debt greater than $60,000 (over 10% had over $100K).

The study also reported that the average starting salary for graduates in 2013 was $40,000. After rendering to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s, paying the bills, and providing for the needs of your family, that doesn’t leave very much to pay off any debts incurred during the seven years of education typically required for a Master of Divinity and its prerequisites.

Prior to learning of the CTS study, we began an informal poll of pastoral educational indebtedness here at The Brothers of John the Steadfast. Some of the discussion that followed that survey was helpful, particularly the comments by Pr. Martin Noland. You can read those comments and find a link to that survey here.

While our survey is much less comprehensive, of the 13 that have responded (as of May 10th), the average educational indebtedness was just shy of $50K, which is in the ballpark of what CTS reported. Our figure is almost certainly low; of the 13 who responded to our survey, 31% reported no educational debt. Contrast that to the 16% who responded to the CTS survey who said they left the seminary with no educational debt. Of those who reported educational debt on our survey, the figures ranged from $30K to $170K.

There’s also the question of whether or not a pastor can reasonably expect to serve in full-time ministry throughout his lifetime or whether he will be required to seek additional (or perhaps even alternative) employment. The CTS survey indicated that most graduates are called to small congregations in rural settings (average weekly attendance less than 100). It would also be interesting to know the average age of the members of those congregations and how fiscally stable they are. According to recent research, if the current rate of decline in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod continues, we can expect to go from 6,000 congregations down to 1,000 congregations in the next 30 years.

The days may be coming when most pastors will be making tents for a living and preaching the Gospel free of charge. Problem is, theology isn’t the most marketable skill in the world and tent-making doesn’t pay all that well these days. Unless a pastor has a background in some field unrelated to theology, it can be very difficult to find work that will pay the bills outside of the pulpit.

Does this mean that faithful, yet struggling congregations need to change? Absolutely not. The Church is to do what She’s been given to do and leave the results in God’s hands (1 Corinthians 3:6). Sometimes He gives numerical growth, sometimes He doesn’t. Such is the theology of the cross. But young men ought to be prepared for the realities of life after seminary and go into the future with their eyes open.

Nor should we be willing to settle for anything less than a robust theological education for our clergy. I agree fully with Pr. Noland’s observation:

“…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.”[2]

The quickest way to kill congregations is to dumb down the education of pastors. Not only will the size of congregations continue to decline, so will the quality of preaching, catechesis, and pastoral care. Maybe the days are coming when seminary professors will also be making tents for a living and preparing men for pastoral ministry free of charge.

Concordia Theological Seminary is to be commended for taking a first step to improving the economic well-being of future servants of Jesus Christ. However, I would urge both seminaries and the Synod not to forget the plight of the economic well-being of current servants of Jesus Christ. Our responsibility toward one another doesn’t end with graduation, does it? (The frequent requests graduates receive to serve as donors would suggest not.) We certainly wouldn’t want to give the impression that we are concerned with the fiscal health of our men only while they are paying tuition dollars.

[1] Having a bachelor’s degree or equivalent is a prerequisite for seminary admission. According to College Board, the average (in-state) tuition per year at a public university is $9,139 ($36,556 for four years). The cost of attendance and childcare at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne is currently estimated at $40,516 per year (after the need-based 55% tuition grant). For the three years of seminary, that’s $121,548. When you add in undergraduate studies, that a total expense of $158,104, minus any additional grants or scholarships.



The Cost of Becoming a Pastor — 30 Comments

  1. Dear Brother,
    I understand your plight brother, but why do you and others constantly use comments like “dumb down” or the quality of pastoral care is declining, when I contend, “is it?” You will not garner much sympathy when you go down that road, especially from fellow “tent-makers” and worker/priests who I believe are tending our sheep well.

  2. I disagree with the notion that the congregations themselves can’t change. The change that needs to happen is combination, consolidation, and closing. We have a lot of congregations that either can’t or won’t afford to pay a pastor what he is worth. They need to be told that there is no church without a pastor to provide the Means of Grace to that church. Without a pastor, they are a glorified social club.

  3. I disagree with the notion that the congregations themselves can’t change. The change that needs to happen is combination, consolidation, and closing.

    And never mind how many old folks you leave stuck out in the country without pastoral care! They are as “expendable” as the confessional Lutherans in a congregation pushed to be “contemporary”. [Seen both, followed by moans about declining membership.] 🙁

  4. @Pastor Prentice #1

    Pr. Prentice,

    I think you may have misunderstood me. Here’s my contention: the solution to the debt problem isn’t to cut corners when it comes to education so as to save money; the CTS report drew the same conclusion. If we water down the theological training of pastors, the quality of pastoral care will decline. I am not criticizing the current M.Div. program. Pastors who go through the M.Div at CSL or CTS are some of the most highly trained and well prepared men out there in any church body.

    I agree wholeheartedly that there are many faithful worker priests out there. However, the fact that they have to work in another field (out of necessity) negatively affects the amount of time and attention they are able to give to pastoral care. That’s why St. Paul teaches those who preach the Gospel should earn their living by doing so (1 Cor 9:14). Full time ministry is the ideal; I suspect the vast majority (if not all) worker priests would agree.

  5. @AB #2

    I’m not suggesting consolidation or closing is out of the question; when I said faithful congregations should not change, I meant in terms of compromising their theology for the sake of bringing people in. I agree entirely with the necessity of a congregation calling her own pastor.

  6. Thank you for the cold, hard financial facts (I think! Yikes!). It’s just a real shame that men like me who believe God may be calling them to ministry have to be concerned with such enormous financial hardships like this when we’re all well aware of the other legitimate “costs” associated with becoming a minister of God’s gifts to God’s people.

    On one hand, faith says to continue to trust God, because if He has planned for someone to become one of His called and ordained servants, then He will certainly make it possible even if there does not appear to be any path to such a reality (at least, financially speaking).

    I know that 1 Timothy 3:1 says, “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” but I can see how a man might question how “noble” it is to pursue something if it means putting himself and his wife and kids in such a precarious situation upon graduation and even upon receiving a call. Does that demonstrate a “lack of faith” on that man’s part, or is that exercising the kind of godly “wisdom” the Scriptures encourage? Those estimates — just wow!

    Sorry for the rant. I know this is nothing new, but I just never really comprehended the specific dollar amounts before reading this today.

    Grace And Peace,

  7. @Pastor Eric Andersen #4
    Dear Brother,
    I may “appear” to be busting you, but I understand fully (I think).

    01) Yes, full time is the best, as I type at the “day job”, I wish I could be in the Church office (going there tonight). I wish I had more time for the duties, but my Church is happy, we are fed and we do try and walk.

    02) I do understand the cost for you men going for that MDIV, is not cheap, as all education (I have three young adults, one now a Junior). Yet as you say, “you knew it going in”. Yet we the Church should not assign you to a place that cannot afford you, with a true wage (and we debate that too).

    03) I am DELTO, alternate route, and to many, I “took your job”.In reality, we could not afford you. Should we stay or go based on that?
    To many, we should give up, our dispersal funds would support…well, sadly, not men like you.

    We are in a pinch, not easy.

    Hmmm, brother, I am in your area, email me. I want to chat.

  8. @Pastor Prentice #1

    Pr. Prentice,

    This has been the criticism since the floor committee meetings at the 2007 Synod Convention: DELTO and SMP graduates ARE dumber than General Ministry MDivs.

    The one thing we could always brag about in the LCMS was that we had the best educated pastors in the world. Can’t say that anymore.

  9. @Jeff Radt #6 “I know that 1 Timothy 3:1 says, “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” but I can see how a man might question how “noble” it is to pursue something if it means putting himself and his wife and kids in such a precarious situation upon graduation and even upon receiving a call. Does that demonstrate a “lack of faith” on that man’s part, or is that exercising the kind of godly “wisdom” the Scriptures encourage? Those estimates — just wow!”

    That might explain why in years past the seminarians held off getting married until after they became pastors.

  10. @Tim Schenks #8
    Dear Tim,
    That is your opinion, but your comment now verges on troll-ish behavior, and just very mean spirited. You may say that, you have the personal right to do so, as many I know have.

    Editors? You are reviewing, chime in please…

  11. Pr. Prentice,

    How is stating a fact mean-spirited or trollish (or an opinion)?


  12. @Pastor Prentice #1

    Yes, the quality is going down. Even at residential programs there is less instruction. Our fathers in the faith would have known German and Latin. We know have residential programs that not only leave these out but also Hebrew (Alternate Route). Distance programs do even less. This is just the languages. Lacking them begins to diminish other areas – exegesis, systematics, and even historical theology. Practical theology suffers dearly when those three are diminished.

  13. @Tim Schenks #11
    Dear Tim,
    OK, I took a little walk to chill, now here is my DELTO trained comment(s):

    01) Ordained is ordained, and when a pastor (however they are trained) forgives your sins in confession, are they not forgiven? When they (myself) consecrates the Eucharist, is it not the Body and Blood for you? When we preach a Law and Gospel sermon, is it not God’s Word proclaimed? I can go on and on.

    02) Yes, my Hebrew and Greek stink (learning a bit as I am in my MA studies at Wheaton College). But a smart man knows to rely on good men to help, and good Biblical commentaries, etc. and understands exegesis and where to go. How many classic trained men “keep up?”

    03) As Grandma said “book smarts don’t mean they have common sense, etc.”. There is more to being a pastor than the education, and much of it comes out in the crucible of life as we sort out things as a pastor.

    04) God calls all sorts of men, and different things are expected of them. I do not think any of us are taking away the jobs or placement of classically trained men in the field.

    05) When a guy like me would drop what he was doing to come to your bedside or help in a financial pinch, etc.; oh, “get lost”, DELTO boy.

    Long story short, a pastor is not the education, it is the man called by God and understands his position.

  14. @Pastor Joshua Scheer #12
    Dear Brother,
    I do understand the education part, men before all of us would probably look down. But does the DR of Ministry or STM, PHD look down on all of us right now (they could)? No, we know our places in His kingdom. We use our skills to assist each other, all our differing skills.

    Man, it is a team effort. No???

  15. 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.

  16. In 2000, I heard the call to Pastoral Ministry. After nearly 8 years as an elder of my congregation, and encouragement from numerous parishioners, my wife and I visited both seminaries. The cost of seminary education staggered me. This was in the days when the seminaries were telling prospective students that through a partnership plan, we wouldn’t have to worry about the tuition costs…they’d be covered. One of the Financial directors of the seminaries was frank…the seminary might be promising it, but I’ll have you out fundraising every weekend. It took me another 3 years to figure out that I wasn’t going to figure out how to pay for it…I’d have to leave it up to God. I sold my house and packed up my young family and went off to seminary in the fall of 2003. For me the “partnership plan” never really worked. My home district and home congregation were supposed to each cover a third of the cost under this plan, but that never happened. I got a total of $250 from my district and about $2000 from my congregation…the rest was made up by every penny I had saved and the equity in the house I sold and student loans. I was on the Alternate Route so I was only on campus 2 years, but came out with a debt load of over $50,000. Ten years later I am still making my monthly payments…and will for the foreseeable future. I wouldn’t trade my seminary education for anything. But something must be done to allow our graduates a better chance at leaving seminary debt free or close to it.

  17. If we are really concerned about the cost of Seminary Education, we need to first consider the cost of running these facilities. First, the tuition has gone through the roof since I attended Ft. Wayne in 90-93. At the time, a quarter cost me about $500 in tuition. How can the seminary justify the huge increases in cost? Second, even when I was there, it seemed that the school was way over staffed. Maybe the seminaries need to consider that maybe they don’t need all the people they have. This is especially true since the number of students they have has shrunk considerably.

  18. P2 –

    Again – chill out, Dude.

    Point of fact – the LCMS does not value the Office of the Holy Ministry in any financial sense whatsoever. Not in my day (82-86), nor today. I did it, paid it off and offered it all to the Lord Christ, Whom I went out to serve.

    I did so knowing my Churh Body would not support me. That was a given, which is why St. Robert (Preus) gave our paint crew (how we paid our schooling and for our families) a whole bunch of leeway. The man was a Prince!

    We just need the right by-law approved by the sheep, and new shepherds/pastors might find a much easier path to serving the Gospel to the sheep.

    Not holding my breath on that one. Sorry, my sandals are dusty.

  19. As a pastor and life long member of the LC-MS these comments concerning this topic concern me too. How about a class on financial responsibility? How about teaching education comes at a cost – self sacrifice. I have five college degrees and two years of post graduate work. Plus, both of our children have two degrees. I did not borrow any money. I worked to pay for it all. I worked full time while earning my undergraduate degree. I worked part time the entire four years of seminary training. I ask how many of those looking for someone else to pay off their debt worked their way through college and seminary. Even as a parish pastor I worked extra jobs and served vacancies to earn the money to pay for post graduate work. I for one am tired of hearing about this. Someone loaned you money with the expectation that you would pay it back. Honor your obligations.

  20. To All,

    I GREATLY APPRECIATE the discussion here in the Comments Section as well as the piece that started it so thank you all for taking the time to offer your thoughts regarding this issue.

    Forgive me, and I hope this question doesn’t stir up debate, but may I ask what a “DELTO/SMP man” is referring too and why it was used in the pejorative sense? I’m sure a quick Google search would provide me with the answer, but I figured I’d simply ask all of you instead. Thanks in advance for your time and help!

    Grace And Peace,

    Curious Lutheran Layman,

  21. @Jeff Radt #20
    Dear Jeff,
    There are at the moment, a few officially sanctioned ways to becoming licensed, eligible for ordination in the LCMS.

    01) Classical route – MDIV
    02) Alternate route(s) – coming over from another Lutheran group, etc.
    03) “More” alternate routes – which DELTO was, and SMP is part of:

    DELTO (which I am, as to name a fellow brother classamate Rev Hering) –
    First off, it is no longer around. It meant distance education leading to ordination. It was a very finite program, for men serving a small parish already, or for a small parish that cannot call a full time man (truly cannot afford it).

    We went to seminary three times a year, a cohort model, we studied on campus and off via Internet, email.

    Qualtifications to enter:
    01) 30 years old (I believe)
    02) BA / BS degree
    03) 10 years minimum of service to the congregation
    04) Letter of recommendation from DP and the Church that we would be ordained and serve.
    05) A mentor / supervisor pastor that would follow us through the program.
    06) About 27 courses, OK, no Hebrew or Greek though.

    We started about 25, ended up graduating 8. I was ordained and now serve Faith which sent me to the program. I am eligible for a call anywhere, no restrictions.

    SMP (specific minister program) – new program and this replaced DELTO. SMP men can only serve under a “regular” pastor, yet they are ordained as well. Go to the SEM web sites for more details.

    As for the pejorative comment, yes, many feel us as “lesser” pastors, many do not. What is most important, the people I serve call me, see me, and trust me as their under-shepherd, their pastor.

    Hope this helps a bit.

  22. @Pastor Prentice #10

    Dear Tim,
    That is your opinion, but your comment now verges on troll-ish behavior, and just very mean spirited. You may say that, you have the personal right to do so, as many I know have.

    Your congregation is evidently satisfied with you. Your redeeming factor, Pr. Prentice, is that you are not satisfied with yourself, entirely, as evidenced by your continuing education.
    You don’t have to bring the “trolls” in. It’s just possible that those who have gone the traditional route, or have sent a son that way, might disagree with you, without being a “troll”.

    “Alternate routes” are an unnecessary concession to liberal DP’s, who have more control that way, (and latitude to destroy the calls of Pastors deemed “too conservative/confessional” for their liking).
    That’s just the way it is… unless someone, somewhere, cares to change it.

  23. @Tim Schenks #8

    DELTO and SMP graduates ARE dumber than General Ministry MDivs.
    Not “dumber”, Tim, (which implies lesser intelligence) but certainly less educated, as anyone who reads a curriculum and course requirements can see.

    [In years past, some few (usually PK’s in my memory) who couldn’t hack the Greek and Hebrew, did get a bye, and your comment was more accurate, then. I think Robert Preus worked to raise the standards of both students and faculty at CTS.[]

  24. @helen #22
    Dear Helen,
    Once again, tone of the comments, as my Dad always said, “how you say it matters.” And he spoke as a collegian, only getting through 8th grade.

    I have no problem with someone saying, you route was less traveled in the realm of education; albeit, I think I “got more street smarts for Church and the work of the Lord” than some more educated men. I have seen some good men come through SEM, some “less than stellar, entitled, petulant, and uncaring” too.

    It is a balance, and most all DELTO, and many SMP know where we sit, we fill niches so the Gospel can be spread and nurtured.

    Hmmm, many here complain that SMP is misused, but for the most part, it is the educated men that use it to “save some money”, etc. I will grant you that.

    Yet, I wish I was SMP. Why? Because I could go back and use the course credits that carry GPA and get that MDIV later when able. DELTO, GPA of ‘0’, goose egg. But I am good with that. I serve.

    Let’s keep the comments at the highest of levels. Old Tim called me DUMB, my feelings will tolerate it. Mom “done well growing me up strong so words will not hurt me.”

    But in the end, a pastor is more than his education, it is his heart for the people he serves, his family, and most important the time he gives up to serve his Lord.

    Remember, the Apostles, many (OK, not Paul, well trained in Torah) were dumb fishermen, etc. They served the Lord well. OK, they had Jesus to teach them, and in the end, He had to “open their minds” to the Scriptures.

  25. “The quickest way to kill congregations is to dumb down the education of pastors. ”

    How well I know. I was a victim of this when I had a problem with an “Alternate Worship” confession.

    My(Alternate Route) Pastor shoved a Hymn Book under my nose and asked: “What is wrong with this one”.

    I went to one of the most respected Pastors in the LCMS to unravel the Alternate worship confession. For my trouble I was shunned out of the Congergation.

    That was just the tip of the iceberg. I won’t embarass by going further…….

    Why yes, indeed!

    (Alternate Route) “The quickest way to kill congregations is to dumb down the education of pastors. ”

    I suppose there are exceptions…….. But not for me. It is too late. Thanks!

  26. @Mark Huntemann #25


    I think there’s a disctinction between what is minimally necessary for pastoral formation, and then ascending grades of what would be preferable or optimum. I would argue that what is minimally required is that which satisfies the stipulations of St. Paul’s Pastoral Epistles… which means a full enough knowledge of Holy Scripture that they are able to faithfully teach it in harmony with our Confessions. And that would also include a suitable knowledge of theology and languages. Without that, there’s no reasonable expectation that they can keep their ordination vows.

    Beyond that, I think the Synod has the right to determine, collectively, what additional standards they might require for certification in our fellowship. They should not be free to reduce those standards below what is necessary for pastors to fulfill their vows. Breaching that lower barrier would, I agree, imperil congregations.

  27. “The cost of becoming a pastor” = exactly the reason–after two campus visits and several years of trying to figure out how in the world ANYONE affords that cost without selling himself into debt slavery**–I’ve given up on the idea altogether and decided to focus on advancing the career I do have. Maybe, if I work hard and keep doing well, I’ll be able to think about seminary again one day…in retirement.

    **Answer: “Anyone” generally can’t. When my wife asked several sem wives how they managed, she kept hearing “We basically live off his student loans.” When I asked an admissions rep how guys could afford the six-figure price tag, he shrugged and started talking about the food and clothing co-op again. I wanted to grab him and say, “I got that the first time! Now how do they PAY THEIR BILLS?”

    I used to wonder, “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I figure this out? Everyone else who attends obviously does.”

    No. No, they don’t.

  28. @lutherancpa #27

    Hi Lutherancpa, Since this post is about the ‘cost of becoming a pastor’, I’ll pipe in with an observation. This week we received in the mail a publication from the LCMS titled, “Lutherans Engage the World”. It’s basically promotional material for both seminaries and a soliciting for monies from LCMS members. One of the stories is about a seminarian, a former Baptist, who has a wife and seven children. He’s eagerly looking forward to his first call. I do not doubt this man’s sincerity for feeling the ‘call’ to tell others about Jesus. What puzzles me is this – How does he pay for it? How does he provide for his family in his vocation as husband and father to seven children? What was the thinking behind the Admissions office? How did the St. Louis seminary make him a Lutheran? On and on my questions keep coming to mind and I just don’t understand it.

    Many decades ago men couldn’t even attend the seminary if they were married. I just threw that out there for something to think about:)

    In Christ,

  29. @lutherancpa #27

    Indeed– seminary is expensive. We have created a situation where only those of means (or those willing to endure the debt– a student loan debt, by the way, which cannot be absolved even by bankrupty) are able to pursue it. It is expensive to pay seminary staff (who themselves have submitted to theological education and achievement beyond what they train pastors to do) and to administer a quality academic university in our day.

    To my mind, we either just face this honestly (and honesty extends to what we tell young recruits to the seminaries, as well) or we change the system. If we want to keep the pastoral office restricted to men who can either afford it, or are willing to suffer the poverty incurred through debt, then so be it. Otherwise, we need to re-direct the Synod’s money to paying for the seminaries and offsetting (dramatically) the cost of pastoral education. It really comes down, in my mind, to what the priorities of the Synod are… and then to put our money where our mouth is.

    My thoughts, for what they are worth.

  30. @Pastor Prentice #13

    “When we preach a Law and Gospel sermon, is it not God’s Word proclaimed?
    This post came up in a Google search and I am hoping you can give me Bible verses of why preaching law and Gospel is not mixture and it is still the Good News. This should be the end of an argument. Thank-you in advance.

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