May 11, 2023 Print This Article

Making Ministry Formation More Affordable

Nick and Vanessa Palmer of Belle Plaine, Iowa, were scraping a plan together for a move to St. Louis four years ago. He would be starting his pastoral formation studies in Concordia Seminary’s Master of Divinity Program.

It had been a long journey to get to this point. After graduating from college, Nick and Vanessa had returned to their roots in Belle Plaine to live and raise a family. For 15 years he worked in the family business his grandfather started decades earlier.

During that time, the couple was deeply involved in their church. Palmer was head elder, helping with Bible studies, participating on various boards and attending conventions. Members began to comment that perhaps he had missed his calling, words which hearkened to those of his childhood pastor who had encouraged him toward parish ministry. The Holy Spirit nurtured this encouragement in his heart, and Palmer began to ask, “Why not me?”

When we found out my tuition would be covered by scholarships made available by donors, a huge burden was lifted.

–Nick Palmer

When Palmer said “yes” to coming to the Seminary, he did not know how all the details would work out. Where would his family live? Would his wife be able to find work? Where would his children — then 11 and 9 years old — go to school?

There also was another matter: tuition. How would the family of four afford it? Then they discovered just how beautifully the Lord provides. “When we found out my tuition would be covered by scholarships made available by donors, a huge burden was lifted,” said Palmer, who will graduate from the Seminary this spring and will begin serving his first pastoral call this summer. He also currently serves as Student Association president.

Concordia Seminary — thanks to the ongoing support of generous donors — began offering guaranteed tuition to residential pastoral and diaconal students in the 2018-19 academic year. At a time when many graduate school students can face more than $100,000 in debt on average at the end of their studies, the Seminary stepped in with significant financial aid for its residential ministerial formation students.

That means students in the Seminary’s Master of Divinity (M.Div.), Residential Alternate Route (RAR) and residential Deaconess Studies (DCS) programs pay nothing out-of-pocket for tuition.

The guaranteed tuition policy requires students to sign a “Partnership Covenant” with the Seminary, agreeing to the policy and committing to maintain satisfactory academic performance, to apply for scholarships, to disclose all sources of financial aid and to communicate regularly with Adopt-A-Student donors.

“Our students are so fortunate to be able to receive a post-graduate education without paying out-of-pocket for tuition,” said Laura Hemmer, the Seminary’s director of Financial Aid. “With so many people entering the work force with looming debt, it is refreshing to see the Seminary’s commitment to preparing men and women to enter church work without the added burden of loans when beginning their ministry.”

In the five years since the Seminary’s guaranteed tuition program began, the number of students needing to take out loans has dropped significantly.

In the 2017-18 academic year, about 20% of residential pastoral students took on Seminary debt compared to only 12% in the 2021-22 academic year. That means about 1 out of every 5 students took out loans during their time at the Seminary before the tuition guarantee program compared to 1 out of 8 now.

The average debt for residential pastoral students dropped by 31% between 2017-18 and 2021-22, and residential deaconess students saw their average debt decrease by 35% during the same time frame.

“Many in our Synod’s beloved congregations know about the shortage of pastors, deaconesses and other church workers,” said Associate Provost Dr. Benjamin Haupt. “As St. Paul writes, ‘How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?’ (Rom. 10:14 ESV). The guaranteed tuition financial aid program has come from the overwhelming support of donors who love the Word of God and want it taught in all its truth and purity. We are beginning to see enrollment in our programs grow because of the commitment of the entire Seminary community and the good work of the Synod’s Set Apart to Serve church worker recruitment initiative in getting the word out about the need for church workers.”

In 2011-12, the average residential pastoral student graduated with a combined debt of $28,902 from their undergraduate and graduate studies. By 2021-22, their average total debt at graduation had decreased to $5,475.

The knowledge that donor giving would guarantee my tuition was definitely the ‘tipping point.’ The financial aid I received was the encouragement I needed to enroll.

–Joshua Kintz

Again, looking back 10 years, the total amount of loans taken out by students during their Seminary years for all M.Div. and RAR students combined was $1,759,491. By the 2021-22 academic year, that number had decreased by 94% to $103,906.

Less debt and fewer student loans means by the time students graduate and begin their church service, they are on a much better footing financially. Debt can distract church workers, causing their congregations and ministries to suffer.

“I believe one especially important factor in the growth of enrollment is that applicants can enroll in the Seminary without committing to a lifelong vow of crippling debt,” Haupt said. “I pray that this means more lost are found and that more people hear the forgiving, saving Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The Seminary’s substantial financial aid doesn’t stop with guaranteed, or zero, tuition. Students also can receive financial aid and additional scholarships to help with their other educated-related expenses through such competitive scholarships as the Regent Awards, which include two grants that provide an annual cash stipend of $4,500.

Financial aid offered to residential students has increased in the last decade.

Five years before the guaranteed tuition program, during the 2013-14 academic year, the average pastoral student received $20,966 in aid. During the 2021-22 academic year, in comparison, the amount of total financial aid received was $27,161, an increase of 29%.

The Seminary is taking extra steps to help ensure that the church’s future workers are largely debt-free when they graduate but also financially literate.

In addition to guaranteed tuition, the Seminary provides additional budget-saving resources that include the Food Bank, which offers grocery and household staples at no charge to full-time residential students and their families, and the Re-Sell It Shop, which stocks new and used household goods and clothing for students and their families at greatly reduced prices. Student employment opportunities also are available that include federal work-study and numerous other on-campus employment opportunities.

Financial planning services also are provided to students at no charge. Through a partnership with Concordia Plans, the church’s worker benefits provider, all students (and their spouses if applicable) may meet with a financial educator on campus to discuss their financial well-being. The financial educator helps students with budgeting, debt management, financial risk protection, retirement planning and clergy taxation.

“While the Seminary is able to offer guaranteed tuition, that benefit would not be possible without the generosity of Seminary supporters,” said Vicki Biggs, the senior vice president of Seminary Advancement.

Individual congregation members, churches and districts continue to show their overwhelming support for helping to form church workers by providing additional aid to seminarians.

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

(Matt. 9:37-38 ESV)

As an example, Adopt-A-Student support has increased by 83% since 2013, increasing from $5,350 on average to  $9,805 per student. Adopt-A-Student sponsors commit to an annual gift, and every dollar of Adopt-A-Student support goes to their “adopted” seminarian.

“It is a privilege to express our thanks to our amazing donors on behalf of the students and everyone else at the Seminary — look what they have accomplished!” Biggs said. “But it is vital to note that this wonderful promise of support for our church’s future workers can only continue so long as the donor support is there. It is our donors who will continue to make guaranteed tuition possible. By God’s grace, and in partnership with these wonderful friends of the Seminary, we will continue to provide this financial aid, and ease one of the greatest hurdles future seminarians face as they consider their decision to matriculate.”

Not having to carry the burden of Seminary tuition helped encourage concluding seminarian Joshua Kintz of Collinsville, Ill., to enroll four years ago in the M.Div. Program and leave behind a career in banking and sales for a life devoted to serving God and His Gospel mission. Kintz is awaiting his first pastoral call on Call Day this year and will graduate this May, like Nick Palmer.

“Dropping one source of income and taking on a substantial amount of debt just wasn’t an option,” said Kintz, whose wife, Rachel, is a teacher. The couple has two children. “The knowledge that donor giving would guarantee my tuition was definitely the ‘tipping point.’ The financial aid I received was the encouragement I needed to enroll.”

Both students give thanks to the Seminary’s supporters who have helped clear the way for them to become pastors.

“We are very, very grateful to all donors,” Palmer said. “It’s been amazing to see God open doors through them.”

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