THE BLOG
01/05/2015 11:02 am ET Updated Mar 07, 2015

Middle-aged Seminarian Blues: Second-career Clergy Face Rising Debt, Lower Job Prospects

The substantial increase in middle-aged Americans seeking second careers in the pulpit has been a godsend for seminaries faced with overall declines in enrollment and budget shortfalls.

And for many pursuing a clerical career in their 40s and 50s, it is a dream come true, a chance to follow what they consider God's call and do meaningful work in their later years.

But the realities of a shrinking clergy labor market, and seminary tuition costs outpacing inflation, leave some facing debts of $80,000 or more trying to find work in a relatively low-paying profession.

The burden is falling particularly hard on prospective minority clergy with the fewest resources, analysts state.

All of which poses -- or should pose -- moral issues for seminaries and religious communities that encourage vocations without preparing would-be clergy for the financial realities awaiting them upon graduation.

"Is it ethical for a school to allow a student to become deeply indebted when they know the career choices for that person are limited or uncertain?" Sharon Miller of Auburn Theological Seminary asked at the annual meeting of the Religious Research Association.

"Many of these older women who are attending seminary, particularly older African American women, will find it difficult to find positions -- and they are the ones with the highest levels of debt."

Older adults fill seminary seats, coffers

Fewer students are going to seminaries to become clergy. The full-time equivalent enrollment for students seeking masters of divinity degrees in the United States decreased more than 3 percent in each of the last two years, members of the Association of Theological Schools reported.

At the same time, tuition costs have greatly surpassed inflation. The Consumer Price Index rose some 65 percent from 1991 to 2011. During that same period, seminary students paid an average of 150 percent to 200 percent more in tuition, researchers Anthony Ruger and Chris Meinzer reported.

In the Episcopal Church, 71 percent of clergy in the 1960s where ordained at ages 25 to 35; less than 10 percent were ordained at age 45 or older. From 2009-2011, more than half of Episcopal clergy were 45 or older at ordination.

The largest group of women in seminaries today are those ages 50 and older, Miller reported.

But they also face some of the toughest job prospects. The ideal candidate for many houses of worship remains the young male pastor with two or three children to help maintain or build a Sunday school.

And the emphasis on younger pastors has grown even stronger as religious groups try to reverse a growing trend among younger generations to be less active, or forgo religious affiliation altogether.

In its 2012 state of the clergy report, Episcopal Church researchers noted age influences clergy employability: The older clerics are at ordination, the less likely they are to have a job.

Eighty-nine percent of men and 79 percent of women ordained at ages 25 to 35 were currently employed. Only about two out of five men and women who were 55 or older at ordination are working clergy.

Older clergy, particularly women, also are generally lower on the wage scale, the report noted.

For those ordained from 2009 to 2011, women in their 20s and early 30s earned $50,000; new female ordinands ages 55 and older received an average of $34,300.

All of this does not even take into account the special challenges faced by minority women.

"Black women as a group are usually harder to place," said Garlinda Burton, who from 2003 to 2012 was the top executive of the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women. "We as a society still have issues with gender, and we still have issues with race."

Piling up debt

Add it all up - lower job prospects in a shrinking market, less pay and fewer years to pay off student debt - and going to seminary later in life can be a formidable financial proposition for older seminarians.

One study showed the debt level for graduates with masters of divinity degrees rose from an average among those who borrowed of $10,000 in 1991 to nearly $38,000 in 2011, researchers Miller, Kim Maphis Early and Ruger reported. Even when adjusted for inflation, the debt load for borrowers more than doubled.

Black women by far have the largest burden, with nearly half incurring $40,000 or more in debt during seminary, Miller said at the research association meeting.

Still, talking about financial concerns are hard conversations for seminaries and religious groups to have with prospective clergy.

For one, Burton noted, "The calling is a very sacred thing, and a very individual thing."

But there also are practical concerns.

"It's a dilemma -- schools are loath to deny anyone admission because they are dependent on tuition," said Miller, research director at Auburn Seminary. "They rarely look at a student's or applicant's financial resources when they accept them. So an increasing number of students are borrowing heavily in order to pay for seminary and they are graduating with significant debt."

And the lack of financial counseling and awareness has serious consequences.

In a 2013 survey of master's degree classes from 2004 to 2009, nearly six in 10 women said they wished they would have borrowed less and 55 percent said their financial situation is not comfortable. Many said they have been forced to make tough choices about postponing health care or taking a second job, Miller noted.

One cautionary story Miller tells is of a "brilliant" black woman who left seminary some $80,000 in debt.

The woman felt she only had one choice: She took a corporate job.

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.