Financial education for seminarians makes a difference

Jantzi-BerylBeryl Jantzi is director of Stewardship Education for Everence.

Everence currently partners with four seminaries (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Ashland Theological Seminary, Bethany Theological Seminary and Eastern Mennonite Seminary) assisting students with personal money management life skills.

The first three seminaries listed above also participate, along with 64 other seminaries across the country, in a Lilly endowed program for theological schools that addresses the Economic Challenges Facing Future Ministers (ECFFM). This program is moving into its third and fourth years. In a recent report positive findings have been highlighted regarding students that are participating in financial education from organizations like Everence.

Six “aha! moments”

Financial literacy programs can have immediate impact. A great deal of counseling is already happening at member schools.

In the first year alone, the project yielded 1,606 hours of one-on-one counseling with 985 students, 3,415 hours with 960 students in small groups, and involvement of almost 200 faculty, administrators, clergy and financial experts. More than 180 workshops and courses reached nearly 24,000 students. The most effective programs are those that are required, that include a personal, one-on-one component, and that connect financial literacy to a student’s vocational goals.

Speed bumps in the student loan process help.

When students receive clear information about their current levels of debt, projected salaries, and projected monthly loan repayments at the moment of borrowing, they are more apt to stop and reconsider the level of debt they might willingly assume. A good rule for calculating the household income required to service debt is to multiply the amount of a loan by 132%. How important is it to know the total amount of your student loans? One financial aid officer greets students routinely with a not-so-subtle reminder: “Do you know your number?”

Addressing financial issues for students requires institutional/cultural change.

More specifically, the challenge of financial literacy and responsibility needs to be strongly linked to the school’s mission and consistently articulated as a common message from faculty, staff and administrators. What does this look like? Requiring participation in financial literacy and leadership programs; encouraging admissions to advise students on the financial challenges of theological education; faculty and financial aid advisors working together to determine which experiential courses are both educationally beneficial and financially responsible for individual students to take on; and finally, administrators working together not to just make sure students graduate, but that they graduate with loan amounts that are truly manageable.

Almost half of the graduates from Ashland Theological Seminary member schools graduate without incurring any new educational debt.

This good news is offset by the realization that 24 percent of students incur more than $40,000 in additional debt while in seminary. These numbers will continue to be tracked to determine the overall impact of the ECFFM project.

Decreasing debt and increasing financial literacy for future pastors increases their abilities to lead well.

Research out of the Flourishing in Ministry Project led by Dr. Matt Bloom at Notre Dame suggests that pastors who are financially stressed are less satisfied and, at times, less effective as leaders. It is difficult for pastors to take risks when they are worried about the financial implications of losing their jobs. Lowering student debt and increasing financial literacy equips and empowers students to effectively lead and fundraise in congregations. Reflecting on its first year of the project, one school wrote: “We are already seeing profound differences in the ways [our students] think about finances and fundraising, and are observing a distinctly advanced framework of ministry and leadership that is emerging.”

Partnering on financial issues is strengthening relationships among seminaries, local congregations, denominations and other resource organizations.

Through the ECFFM initiatives, seminaries are reaching out to educate congregations and denominations about the financial challenges facing future ministers. They are also reaching out to local clergy, surrounding communities and alumni with financial literacy and leadership training. In addition, though, they are listening. Through various research projects, they are hearing the concerns of denominational officials, congregations and-most often-their alumni.