The 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.