When you take a qualifying call at a smaller church in the PCUSA, you are eligible to apply for a program through the Board of Pensions (our insurance/retirement program) for assistance to help pay back debt incurred through your time in seminary, thus the Seminary Debt Assistance Program. Mason qualified for the program through our new presbytery, Western Kentucky, because he accepted a call at a church with small enough membership numbers and budget. After being approved by the presbytery, we were then eligible to receive assistance through the BOP program…only to find out we don’t qualify. This program is supposed to be one of the benefits of being willing to accept a call at a smaller church over a larger church with a larger budget to provide a larger salary to the pastor.
When we started the call process we looked at churches of all sizes, stating that we were open to receiving calls from varied locations, church sizes, and calls different from what we originally thought when we started the seminary journey. For instance, Mason went from being a Youth Director at a medium-sized church in the PCUSA with a very competitive salary in a larger city to feeling called to a Solo Pastor position in a small church more than 10 hours away from family in a Presbytery with very limited options for his wife who is also seeking an ordained call. That’s just how God works. It’s God’s plan…not ours, after all. And this is not to say that this was our only option. We both had visits and conversations with other churches…this is just where God called us to be for this time in our ministry. We both felt it immediately, our families could tell it when we discussed the possibilities with them, and it just felt right…and we are grateful for this ministry.
All that aside, when Mason accepted the call he was told about the program and applied. We received some assistance from the Presbytery, for which we are thankful, which allowed us to apply to the BOP. We knew that was a long shot because of the way we went to school, not being eligible for traditional educational loans for our seminary tuition since it was a part-time program and all, but we applied anyway, hoping for at least a conversation.
Fast forward two months…still no word, so I made a call this morning.
The member advocate shared with me that the note on our application said “no eligible education loans,” so we didn’t qualify. I thanked her and then asked to speak with someone to just have a conversation…that’s all I wanted…to try and open the door for those of us who decided to go to school through an alternative route. I was able to speak to the SDAP Manager and ask about our application. He told me the same thing, that we don’t qualify. When I asked him “why” and explained that while we didn’t take out educational loans through the traditional route, we did incur debt with books each semester (sometimes exceeding $500/semester) three times a year and other educational expenses, his response nearly knocked me on the floor…
“Your lifestyle choice in going to seminary is why you didn’t qualify. Most students choose to stop working and take out educational loans, so they qualify.”
My LIFESTYLE choice??
I remained professional (my mom & husband would have been proud), but proceeded to, with his permission, correct his choice of language by giving him a little background on our situation that he chose to call our “lifestyle choice” for attending seminary.
I shared with him that first of all, should we have chosen to attend the traditional route we were looking at incurring more than $100,000 in debt by graduation for the two of us to attend, and that was even after scholarships we had been offered. I shared with him that I was diagnosed with cancer at age 22 and we “chose” to stay at home with my doctors and my treatment plan so that I could receive the care I needed over the next 5+ years, but so that we could also attend seminary. I shared with him that our “lifestyle choice” allowed us to work full-time, volunteer at a church (both of us) full-time, and own a home and receive health insurance benefits all while we were attending seminary…not to mention, pay our medical bills and have me receive the care I needed. I shared with him that our choice meant that we had a Dean and professors who were fully aware that for one semester each year I would be undergoing a rigorous treatment plan which would hinder my studies some, but they accepted it, worked with me and prayed me through the process as well as through the semesters. I shared with us that the Government would not allow part-time students to apply for traditional educational loans because we didn’t meet the minimum number of hours for being in the classroom, but that our seminary provided unique to help us cut down costs. I shared with him that we chose to hold off on starting a family so that we could better afford to live and attend school, but that despite some years receiving our textbooks as Christmas/Birthday gifts, there were some expenses that we still incurred that had to be paid on credit since our tuition was paid out of savings every semster…3 times a year for two students.
Oh, and I shared with him that our Presbytery CPM applauded us each year of the 6 years we were in seminary for making the “lifestyle” choice (while continuing to encourage us to be fiscally responsible) that we made because it was more fiscally responsible than attending school full-time and incurring such massive debt for the two of us.
I also shared with him that his immediate response was significantly less than pastoral, very judgmental, and downright rude. I shared that I was appalled that he, the director of the program, and this program, which requires us to attend a “Getting in Shape Fiscally Seminar” in order to attend, consider it better for a student to incur vast amounts of debt by attending school the traditional route, than even being willing to open the conversation with those of us who choose to attend in a more cost-effective (while still not cheap) method of earning our degree(s).
Graduate school is not cheap, and even if we had chosen to attend the traditional way and accept the scholarships we were offered, for the two of us to attend, afford to live, pay for our insurance (even at the discounted student rates), pay for our books and receive the same degrees we both received just in a shorter period of time, we would be in a much worse situation than we are now, I can guarantee you that!
All of this is to expose yet another problem with our “traditional school” versus “alternative school” means of looking at our seminary students today, and how we choose to nurture them spiritually and financially during their journey and after. From the first day we decided to attend school in Charlotte, which was the best decision we’ve ever made in our lives I might add, we were told by pastors that we were young and needed to go to school the traditional way. We were told that it wasn’t smart. We were told that we wouldn’t get the education we needed. We were told that we were wasting extra years of our ministry lives by going to school for a longer period of time. Basically, we were discouraged by PASTORS and other PCUSA professionals from attending school the way we felt was the best “lifestyle choice” for us, our family, our wallets, and our theological education.
I thank God everyday for the community we all built and lived in while on that campus, and now, even in Kentucky, have surrounding us in our ministry! I just wish that others in the PCUSA, BOP and other organizations designed to help new pastors as they enter their first calls would look at the value that such a program has in developing the newest Teaching Elders in our congregations.
No, we didn’t qualify for educational loans or the student rates for insurance options. No, we didn’t choose to move our families to a school campus and live off of a meal plan, school assistance, scholarship monies, and government loan overage checks. We instead chose to work full-time (40ish hours per week) and attend school on Friday nights and all day on Saturdays. Many of us didn’t live in Charlotte, so that meant a drive to campus & an overnight stay…every week…for 36 out of 52 weeks per year…for 6 years. We chose to take 6 years to earn a degree (or two) instead of finishing in 3. Many of us have used the time to work in the church as well as out of the church, helping us to gain very valuable professional and ministerial experience. We chose to pay our tuition out of our checkbooks each semester, which meant some semesters the gas and groceries went onto a credit card or family members helped us to pay for them. We chose to ask for textbooks for Christmas presents so that we had that much less we needed to spend on school. And we chose to either pack our lunches each week or purchase additional school meal plans so that we didn’t have to eat out, to help us save some more money. Ultimately, we chose to graduate from school with around $15-20,000 in educational costs as opposed to upwards of $30-100,000 in education costs.
I don’t think that either “lifestyle choice” for attending seminary is right or wrong. I just hope that one day the BOP & PCUSA will see some real validity in the sacrifices that we made in our choice to attend seminary in the manner that we did…just like the traditional students made some sacrifices as well.
No, sir…it’s not about my “lifestyle choice.” It’s about your inability to open up a conversation with a non-traditional student. It’s about your highly un-pastoral response to the question “Why?” It’s about your assumptions and insinuations about why we are applying for your assistance program without having traditional educational lenders debt for our graduate degree.
And mostly, it’s about not being willing to accept that some life stories need to be heard…doesn’t Jesus show us that somewhere in the Bible???