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Advocating a Cheaper Wedding

Posted on April 22, 2015

weddingThis may step all over the ideals of the wedding shows and the whispers of your friends, but I believe there is something wrong–bordering on lunacy–with having an expensive wedding. I speak as one who has officiated at 378 weddings (yes, I have kept track) and because I notice patterns, I have seen the real nature of an expensive wedding.

To give perspective, I can declare that the most expensive wedding I was ever part of was also in the top three greatest wedding disasters I know. This wedding took place in 1984 and cost $70,000. This woman, who had been planning the wedding since she was a little girl, had live swans, trumpeters, silk aisle runners, a rented church which was an historical landmark, three limos, 18 bridesmaids, 12 flower girls, 4 candle lighters, a $10,000 wedding dress (in today’s money it would be $30,000) designed exclusively for her. I could go on, but you get the picture.

The ceremony had over 50 parts to it and the rehearsal took us 4.5 hours. None of us had any idea that the smallest detail would derail the entire thing. But it did.

At one point, one of the groomsmen was supposed to signal the first limo to bring the bridesmaids up to the door. He forgot to do this, but all of us assumed he had done it. So the limo sat there, thus delaying the start of the ceremony–for 3/4s of an hour. Because the finely honed details of the wedding ceremony could not proceed until the bridesmaids arrived, we were stuck–in an old church with no air conditioning. It was over 100 degrees inside. At one point, the groom passed out, the bride broke down in tears–twice–and all was chaos at the end when four of the flower girls got into a fight.

From that day, I began formulating some ideas and reasons why elaborate “royal” weddings are both unhealthy and unnecessary. During the 1990s, I actually convinced a number of couples to jettison their plans and go simple. But the advent of wedding shows on television has buried my good advice.

So I turn once again to my blog in order to put a monkey wrench into the Wedding Industry. And it is a lucrative business. According to the International Business Times, Americans spend 55 BILLION DOLLARS every year on weddings. This is a ceremony to commemorate wedding vows. And it is the third largest industry in America after computers and cars.

Here are five reasons why couples are better off not spending much on a wedding:

1. Stress Level:  Almost every couple who spends inordinate amounts of money and time getting ready for a wedding ceremony is so stressed out that the first few months of their marriage they are emotionally worn out. At the same time, this is actually one of the hardest seasons of a newly married couple’s life, even if they did have the energy to care. I believe that the greatest contributor to early divorces (under three years of marriage) is the elaborate wedding ceremony.

2. Taking Focus Away from the Vows: The more elements you have to plan and execute in a wedding, the less important the vows become. And to be fair, there are only two critical elements in a wedding ceremony: The presence of friends and loved ones, and the vows. Couples who spend their time planning their vows instead of calling photographers and venues, say they can remember every idea they expressed to each other. I just talked to a couple I married last Fall and they cannot remember one element about their vows. They spent their emotional load on the planning and not enough on the real meaning of the wedding.

3. Venues: The more elaborate and larger the wedding the less options you have. Therefore, instead of planning a wedding when most of the people can come, it is often at times when many important people are not available or have to juggle many things to make the time. And the more you spend on the ceremony, the less likely you are to adjust it to realities like illness, job changes and last minute decisions. Which leads to #4…

4. Second Thoughts: The more  you spend on a wedding, the more committed  you are to going through with it. Maybe to some of you this sounds like a great reason to spend more. It is not. There are many couples who have had second thoughts leading up to the wedding who would have pulled out except for the $30,000 they have spent. And don’t believe this silly idea that everyone has second thoughts. Most couples don’t. But the ones who do reconsider getting married, really ought to put it off until they’re sure. I believe the marriage vows are to be taken seriously, and if you aren’t entirely sure this relationship will last, don’t go through with it. A simple, inexpensive wedding affords that opportunity.

5. Big Weddings Lack Real Intimacy. The more you spend on a wedding, the less that individual guests participate in it. The more elaborate the reception, the less time the bride and groom really spend relaxing with friends. By contrast,  in most older cultures, a wedding was hosted and planned by the family and friends. The bride and groom didn’t have to do much (think of the movie “Fiddler on the Roof” minus the part where the Russian soldiers came in). When you have a wedding that focuses on simple things, the guests are close friends and family. Everyone pitches in. I remember one wedding where we decorated the hall between the wedding and the reception. And everyone pitched in. I used to go to wedding receptions all the time which were potlucks. Better that a couple spend very little for the wedding and more on the honeymoon and first year of marriage. Better that parents give them a check for $10,000 to help them through the first year than spend that much on a venue. Better you buy a gorgeous dress that  you can wear many times than a fortune on a dress you will wear once. Why is it that brides who do it for the second or third time never bother buying a wedding dress? Because they saw that silly dress hanging there every day after the first wedding like a mocker saying “you will never wear me again”. And let’s not even get started with engagement rings. A simple gold band or an understated diamond that costs $200 is fine. It will last just as long. It is a symbol after all, not proof of anything.

Next article, I will give several ideas about how to make a great wedding much more affordable.

How To Provide Affordable Theological Education in the Near Future

studentdebt1For the past 20 years, author Frank Viola has been writing non-stop about the need to eliminate pastors from the rolls of churches. Actually, in one sense, Viola has been advocating the end to all organized churches. He champions the validity and superiority of the House Church movement. He believes the only truly Christian model of the church is the one found in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Viola teaches that the hierarchical pastor is the main reason the church is not effective and is not growing. He posits that if we just had home churches led by the average person the church would be much stronger and would have more impact on this world.

 

I don’t want to argue his basic premise. There are aspects of his teaching I agree with and some I strongly disagree with. What I want to highlight is one of the key arguments he uses to base this view upon. He believes that modern college education has made it prohibitive for a person to rise to the calling of Pastor. The cost, the demands, the time necessary and the type of person that has to fit these roles are extremely limiting.

 

I agree with him completely concerning the cost of theological education,. What I don’t agree with is his assertion that we don’t need full-time pastors and other paid church leaders. There is enough biblical basis for paying leaders. But even more so, I have seen cults and aberrant teachings destroy groups of people. And I have seen this happen more in house churches than anywhere else. In any group of people, the strongest personalities always take over. Better to vet those personalities and hold them to a community standard, as many denominations do, than let them take over a small group of people.

But as I said in my last article, we have a looming crisis on our hands. The average young person will never be able to afford their theological education and will certainly not be able to pay it off in a timely manner once they graduate. But I have a number of ideas that I have gleaned from others who are concerned about this matter. I believe all of these could work, and any combination of them would make the situation better.

Re-establish the Specialty Theological Schools: Before the mid-1970s, the average pastor was trained in a Bible School of some kind. These colleges devoted themselves to teaching a pastor the necessary skills and were not overly concerned about accreditation. Therefore they could hire professors and teachers that were more spiritually gifted than academically advanced.  But as more and more people in churches started to get advanced degrees, pastors felt very inadequate teaching this group if their degree was not from an accredited college. So pastors, congregations, denominations and college alumni pressured these pastors, and the colleges who trained them, to get advanced accreditations. This meant that the colleges had to require their teachers to have doctorates or other advanced degrees. The libraries had to contain a certain number of volumes.  The institutions had to offer a larger selection of majors and the administration of the college had to have more overseers to ensure the institution maintained their standing in the accrediting body.  What this meant is these colleges became liberal arts universities. Their focus left theological training and landed on science and arts degrees. They still maintained their theological focus, but the amount of students seeking a bible degree dropped off. In addition, as these changes got more expensive for the college, they had to charge the students more. This accounts for much of the growth of the tuition. Now, most theological students cannot afford these degrees.

 

But the answer is simple. The Bible College degree needs to become fashionable again. Colleges whose purpose is ONLY to provide theological training could be much smaller and even church-based (so they don’t have to build new buildings). At the very least, these colleges could hire professors who have years of ministry experience instead of profs that have multiple advanced degrees. Everything would be cheaper.

Church-Based campuses: This idea is already happening. Organizations like “Antioch School of Ministry” have created curricula that can be used to establish satellite campuses on existing church properties. Most churches do not use their campuses during the day except the offices. The classrooms could be used for any number of theological training options. This has been done for years in developing world countries, but is just now coming to the United States. The American church still has caviar tastes and we now realize that we only have a spam budget. One example of this being done is Salem Alliance Church in Salem, Oregon. They have designed a four-year degree program based on Antioch School’s curriculum. The estimated total cost for four years is $12,000. This is approximately 10% of what it would cost at an existing liberal arts college.

Denominational Changes in Policy: Actually to make theological education more affordable, denominations and church movements would have to make a number of changes to their training policy for pastors. Here are a few changes that would make this process so much simpler.

  1. Decide on the full number of credit hours a person has to have in Bible and Theology and then allow them to be licensed based on that instead of full degrees.
  2. Allow for degrees from non-accredited colleges as long as those colleges show sufficient levels of theological and financial accountability.
  3. Encourage establishment of regional church-based campuses all over the country so that students can save money on room and board.
  4. Maintain scholarship programs for students that show spiritual promise rather than just those who have academic ability. This would mean that denominations would have to work with local churches to find worthy candidates before they even start their education.
  5. Encourage and allow people who feel called to ministry but who have degrees in other areas to be licensed as long as they obtain the minimum level of bible and theology courses.

 

Bible-centered Intensive Programs: I am referring to a relatively new phenomenon where students learn to study the entire bible and learn the basics of theology in less than two years instead of four or more. As far as I know, the most successful of these programs is the School of Biblical Studies run by Youth With a Mission at many sites around the world. The SBS training regimen seeks to teach every student how to do inductive Bible study, and then works with them to study and outline every verse of every book in the Bible. This 9-month intensive course varies in cost depending on location, but averages between $7500-$11,000 for the entire nine months (including room and board and all materials). After completion of this bible intensive, the students are given the opportunity to join a Titus Team, which is an additional practicum, showing the students how to take the skill they just learned and pass it on to pastors and church workers around the world. Titus Teams, as the group of students are called, often go to the remote parts of the world providing bible education for pastors who cannot attend a school or may not even be able to read. These teams are also valuable resources to train people in North American churches who may want to obtain the basic skills to learn the Bible for themselves. But this model could also be used to adequately train pastors for the local church.

Student Loan Forgiveness Programs: One of the great, and least heralded, programs in our country is one where people who have graduated from college and then go to work for a public sector employer can apply to have a portion of their student loans forgiven for every year of service they give to that organization. This program includes school districts, state, federal and local governments and the military. What if it also included churches? If a young pastor who graduated in the past five years with mammoth debt were to work with a local church, the church could agree to pay off 10% of their student loans for every year of service the pastor gave to the church. This money would be tax-free and would benefit everyone concerned. In combination with the other four ideas, it would erase billions of dollars of debt that hangs over the heads of the generation that went through theological training in the past two decades.

These ideas can work and in one sense must work if the church is to survive. I believe if even a few of these are instituted and adopted by the majority of denominations we can have a strong and dynamic group of young missionaries and pastors to carry on the work of Christ’s Church.

In the Future, Will There Be ANY Pastors or Missionaries?

studentdebt1The church in North America is in more trouble, and more quickly, than anyone realized. I am not speaking of culture wars, moral deterioration or theological error. It is more insidious and potentially catastrophic than that.

In less than a decade, we may not have any more qualified pastors under the age of 35. Or if we have some, they will be woefully inadequate for the job ahead of them. In addition, if this trend continues, North American churches may not have any qualified pastors to lead churches in 30 years. Let me explain.

When I received my theological training in Canada during the mid-seventies, the cost of Bible College was about $4000/year. Some schools were more and some less, but that was the average. When my wife and I graduated from college, between us we had two degrees and a total of $600 in debt. By Christmas of that year, we were all paid off. We took out no student loans and had nothing preventing us from going wherever God called us. Certainly there were no financial impediments.

That was good, because we couldn’t have afforded any debt. Our first church paid us $9500 per year. The second church supplied us with a parsonage and gave us $15,000 per year in income. That was below the poverty level for Canada. But because we had no student loan debt, we could afford to do it. Things were incredibly tight, but through God’s help and a lot of creative cooking and sewing, we made do.

Two things have changed since those halcyon days; and two things have remained the same.

First, the things which have changed. Almost any church will require a pastor or missionary to have at the very least a bachelor’s degree with at least 24 credit hours in Bible and Theology. Not every community has a Christian college near them. Therefore, the majority of students will have to travel a distance to get educated. This requires those students to pay for room and board as well as tuition. Hold onto your hats. The average cost of tuition for a ministry degree at Christian colleges in 2013 is $18,000. The cost of room and board ranges from $10,000 to $25,000. Let’s be conservative and estimate this cost at $15,000 per school year.

This means it will cost a theological student seeking a four-year degree around $33,000 for each year they go to school. These students, of course can apply for scholarships, but because of economic hard times, schools are offering less scholarships. Legacy scholarships and Foundation scholarships. These scholarships were often the core way that colleges helped out students who couldn’t pay for college. But these funds are disappearing fast. Leaving a legacy of scholarships was the focus of the Builder generation who have all but faded away from this earth. Their children and grand-children are much more self-absorbed and much less likely to pour their money into the lives of potential pastors and missionaries.

Denominations are not providing very many scholarships either. Therefore, let’s assume that with summer jobs and scholarships, a student might possibly be able to cover a third of that cost. That still leaves them with $22,000 of the expense to carry with student loans. But wait: Most colleges require one or more internships in order to graduate. This reduces the amount of time that students can give over to earning their way through college. When I was in college, my summer jobs covered over 2/3rds of my expenses for the coming school year. Not any more. Most employers are not making room for summer students. They only want to hire someone who will be there in the Fall and Winter. It’s an employer’s market still, and a college student is on the lowest rung of the employee desirability ladder.

So this brings the potential cost for a school year back up to about $25,000. Perhaps parents have put aside money for their kids’ college education; but most have not. This leaves the number about the same for most students. By the time they are done with their Bachelor’s Degree, they will have $100,000 of net expenses.

Now some will observe I haven’t deducted the savings that may be found by taking part of that degree at a community college. I didn’t include it, because in essence it is a false hope. Four-year colleges cannot afford to have students come for only two years. So, even though it is technically possible to get an Associates Degree from a community college and then do the last two years at an accredited college, that is not how it works out in real life. Most four-year colleges have lists of prerequisites that change from year to year, and sometimes from semester to semester. By the time a student is finished, those last two years now take three to three and a half years to complete. I know one student who got an AA degree. Then, he went to a Christian college expecting to be done in two years. Because of changing requirements for his degree, it took him four years to finish.

But let’s assume you can knock off one year of college with an Associate’s degree from a relatively inexpensive Community College. That would reduce your cost to around $75,000 for the entire degree.

These are the things that have changed since I went to college. Let’s look at the things which haven’t changed since my day.

First, denominations and churches still expect the pastor and missionary to be the expert in their field. These graduates are expected to know how to do preaching, teaching, counseling and administrative duties with aplomb and skill. This means must receive a degree from a reputable school, and it should include as many courses in real-life church situations as possible. You can’t just get an online degree from Backwoods Bible school and Coffee Shop. It won’t cut it when you get into a church setting.

Second, the income for pastors and certainly for missionaries has not risen anywhere nearly as fast as other professions – or as fast as the expense for that degree. Graduates with church ministry degrees aren’t going to be making anywhere near enough money to pay off those student loans. Sorry to break that news to you. It is literally not possible to do that and to have any family, a home or even to pay rent. I know several pastors who have graduated in recent years. They all barely pay the interest on their loans. One guy estimated that he wouldn’t have his loans paid off until he retired.

Here is another problem. Of all professional degrees, the theology degree is the only one that is next to worthless unless you are working in that field. An engineer, doctor, lawyer, physiotherapist normally have a wide range of jobs they can apply for if they want to take a break from their field. This is never true of people with a theology degree.

Therefore, young students looking into pastoral ministry are figuring this out. Because the cost of theological education has skyrocketed so fast, this has taken a few years to figure out. Friends of mine in the field of higher education for theology are now admitting their degree programs will soon run out of viable candidates.

This is scandalous. We can’t expect pastors and missionaries to go into one of the lowest paid professions with such exorbitant expenses. Most students are beginning to figure this out. Because denominations (including my own) have just talked about trying to solve this and haven’t taken the radical steps necessary to make a real change, we may lose an entire generation of young pastors.

I think there is an answer to this dilemma. In the next article, I will lay out five ideas that could work if people have to will to make it happen.

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