Seminaries are among the less expensive graduate programs in today’s higher education market, but students entering seminary with a heavy burden of undergraduate debt may face a challenging financial path following graduation.
“The absolute dollar figure involved with seminary school loans is much smaller than other professional schools.
“But the debt-to-income ratio of most ministers is more than 1:1 when they graduate,” writes Travis Hornsby, founder and CEO of Student Loan Planner. “Added together, some pastors and ministers are coming out of seminary owing more than $50,000.”
It takes students about four years to complete a master of divinity degree, Chris Meinzer, senior director and COO of the Association of Theological Schools, told Religion News Service in 2022.
The average annual tuition for the degree — before any scholarships are considered — is $13,100 for free-standing Protestant schools and $12,500 for Protestant schools related to a college or university, he said.
For the 25,000 or so Southern Baptist students seeking a master’s degree or higher at an SBC theological seminary, the tuition bill will be much lower than that.
SBC seminaries are funded in part by the Cooperative Program. About 22% of CP contributions at the SBC level are directed to the six seminaries and the SBC Historical Library and Archives.
With the CP allocation, SBC seminaries offer a reduced rate for students who are members of SBC churches.
Looking at the broader picture, the good news is that at least half of all seminary students, regardless of age, said they incurred no educational debt for their graduate work, according to a survey of 2020 seminary graduates published by ATS.
Among those who did take out loans to pay for their studies, ATS found the average debt incurred during the 2019–2020 academic year was $33,537.
Black and Native American borrowers incurred the highest amount of debt — $42,700 on average. White non-Hispanic borrowers incurred the lowest debt — $31,200 on average.
Less than 20% of seminarians incurred more than $40,000 of debt for their work, and ATS reports that between 2015 and 2020, the average borrower’s debt decreased $3,275 or 9%.
However, the amount of debt students are bringing into seminary has risen to an average of $32,642 in 2020 — an increase of $4,445 since 2013.
Bill Morrison, who ministers to students at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, advises students to be mindful of establishing healthy financial habits, especially if they believe God may be calling them to ministry.
“You have to choose who or what you’re going to serve,” Morrison told a group of undergraduate students in 2022. “You’re in college to do work, to prepare for doors to be opened later on in life, and you should do that as an offering of worship to God.”
If students are wise about how they structure any college-related debt they incur, they can free up monetary resources for the work of ministry, Morrison said.
Scholarships can help reduce the financial burden of graduate study.
Hornsby said Southern Baptist seminary students have traditionally had access to more aid than students from other denominations. Churches often help fill in the gaps between aid and expenses too. Check with your association or state Baptist convention to find out how they might be able to help. To contact your state convention for more information, click here.
Help for students
The WMU Foundation and national Woman’s Missionary Union manage scholarships to assist Southern Baptist students, including the children of Baptist missionaries and those preparing for Baptist missions service.
For more information, go to wmufoundation.com/scholarships-apply.