Help wanted: committed, capable people to staff evangelical churches, mission boards, and other church agencies. They are not always available. Persons with the needed combination of professional training and evangelical conviction are sometimes in short supply.

The evangelical church ought to be doing everything in its power to fill this leadership gap. Men and women are urged to enter church-related vocations, and they are applauded when they announce their decisions to do so. Too often, however, the encouragement ends there. It is just at this point that the support should be intensified.

The cost of the average evangelical seminary education, like the cost of living in general, has skyrocketed in the past five years. According to figures published by the Association of Theological Schools, as recently as 1970–71 the average cost of a year’s tuition in seminaries across the nation was about $600. Today, at eight leading evangelical seminaries tuition costs average over $1,400. The typical seminary student used to be able to pay tuition and fees, as well as bare-bones living expenses, from a part-time job. Now he or she must work nearly full time, have a spouse working, or both, simply to make ends meet; and if the student has children, the financial plight is likely to be serious. The prospects for the future look even darker. According to the best estimates, the cost of a seminary education will continue its rise in the next decade, squeezing many students out. They will simply be unable to afford it.

The average seminarian has few places to turn for financial help. The beleaguered seminaries themselves cannot offer much aid; many of them are struggling to remain solvent. Generally, the older and more liberal seminaries have large endowments to draw upon in difficult times, and these tend to lighten the burden upon the student. For example, over one-fifth of the revenues of the accredited Protestant A.T.S. schools comes from endowment funds, and only a quarter has to come from tuition. Contrast this with seven of the leading evangelical seminaries, most of which do not have sizable endowments: they must pass on to the student an average of one-half of the cost of his education; and recent advice from educational experts was that they must increase the amount the student pays to approximately 65–75 per cent if they are to survive in the decade ahead. These seem to be the financial facts of life for private educational institutions in the seventies and eighties. But how will the average seminarian, already staggering under his financial burden, manage this additional load?

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The more traditional ways of financing an advanced, professional education are insufficient for the seminarian. For example, though grants, fellowships, and assistantships are fairly abundant for secular M.A. and Ph.D. students, relatively few are available to seminary students at evangelical schools.

Nor is borrowing the answer. Medical, dental, and law students can incur large educational debts fairly easily, since their future income holds the promise of easy repayment. But seminary students can look forward to no such income. They are viewed as poor risks by lending institutions. Even though certain kinds of governmental (or at least governmentally insured) loans from the state and federal governments, from banks, or from seminaries that meet federal Affirmative Action requirements continue to be available, these are seldom the total answer to a student’s financial needs. If he is able to borrow enough to finance his three or four years of training (which is not likely), he is then saddled with $4,000–$6,000 of indebtedness that he must begin paying off when he graduates. Given the pay scale of the typical young minister, a financial burden this large is staggering. The fact is that, while the student should be willing to borrow to help finance his education if loans are available to him, he ought not be expected to mortgage the next twenty years of his ministry just to get through seminary.

Most seminarians do some form of outside work, but such jobs are seldom high-paying. Thus the student is forced to work more hours. This is inevitably detrimental to his studies, and sometimes to his health, physical, mental, and spiritual. What many Christians may not understand is that the curriculum at most evangelical seminaries requires a rigorous commitment of time and energy. Extensive outside work for the student often impedes the effectiveness of the training. Some seminaries have toyed with the idea of stipulating, as do certain medical schools, that the student can have no outside job, but have dismissed this option as unrealistic.

If the student cannot look to the seminary, the government, or the banks for the solution, where can he look? The most obvious answer, it seems, is that the local church must step into the gap. Even though most congregations are feeling deeply the economic crunch, the training of future leaders ought to be high on their list of priorities. Regrettably, many congregations are willing to support a person only after he or she has been trained and is ready to come as a pastor or begin service as a missionary. What about all that has gone into making that person what he or she is? Should not the churches be willing to help support a seminarian’s training as well as his consequent ministry?

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Certain denominations have taken steps to aid their candidates for the ministry. The United Methodists, for example, collect money from each church for their Ministerial Education Fund, from which seminary students can receive substantial scholarship aid. Other denominations help their candidates by subsidizing the seminaries so that educational costs to the student remain low. Tuition and fees at Southern Baptist schools, for instance, remain significantly below those at other seminaries because of institutional support by the churches. But a large percentage of evangelical students choose to attend the independent or smaller denominational schools where such help is not available, and they must bear most of the cost of their education. For them, the local church can be an immense help and encouragement.

I speak from my own experience. My home church gave me a scholarship that paid all four years of seminary tuition expense and supplied $100 per semester for books. What an encouragement and help this was! It allowed me to get more out of my seminary training than I could have otherwise, and knowing that the folks back home cared enough about me and my prospective ministry to give me this support was an emotional and spiritual boost. It was precisely what I needed, and I coveted this sort of support for my classmates. Regrettably, I could find only two other students of an incoming class of approximately 145 who had any similar help.

The toll the evangelical churches pay for this oversight may be a large one. How many men and women have wanted a seminary training but have dismissed it as beyond their financial reach? How many students already in seminary have dropped out because they could not pay their bills? How many seminary graduates have gotten far less out of their seminary years than they might have because they had to work many hours just to feed and clothe their families? How many have turned aside from their studies because they could not bear the emotional strain of the financial pressure?

A few churches do have scholarship programs. My home church—a large, independent work in Michigan—is one. A sizable denominational church in Atlanta not only supports its own seminaries but also provides tuition scholarships to students who want to study in acceptable independent schools. A church in Oregon sees the preparation of potential ministers as so strategic a ministry that it has given its scholarship program priority over its mission commitments. But such farsighted programs are rare. Far more churches need to recognize the pressing need and to consider what they can do to meet it.

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What should church scholarship programs be like? Each church would have to design its own of course, but it should probably be only for those who are planning for a full-time Christian ministry and who have enrolled in an acceptable seminary or Bible college. Some churches might decide to limit their support to students from their own congregation. In those rare churches that regularly produce a large number of Christian workers, perhaps the students could compete for the scholarships in some way. Still better are standing scholarships for any student who is enrolled in a chosen seminary and who meets a given set of requirements. It may be that the church cannot afford to pay full tuition plus a book allowance, but some program should be initiated as a starter, however small. Anything is better than nothing.

What if thousands of churches across the nation set up a program of support for candidates for the ministry? It could revolutionize the seminary experience for numberless students, as well as encourage others to enter full-time Christian service. The student must not, of course, be induced to enroll in seminary by a promise of financial aid; but this would hardly happen. There are too many other prices the student must pay spiritually, emotionally, and mentally for such a program to become in itself an inducement to enter the ministry. Rather, this support would help to free the committed, qualified student to get the most out of his or her seminary education and become a well-trained, effective minister.

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