~Chris Markert, Bishop’s Associate for Mission
Note: This article is personal. It was not easy to write. However, I write it for two reasons. First, I want to destigmatize the conversation around student loan debt that millions of Americans carry, including thousands of our pastors and deacons. Second, it is meant to give hope to those who have suffered through the unnecessary shame and agony of student loan debt. You are not alone.
When I graduated from college, I had about $30,000 in student loan debt. After seminary, another $55,000 was added. I also had work-study, and I received a generous scholarship of $1,500 a year from my small home congregation. My synod did not provide financial support. My single mother did all she could to support me. However, in order to follow the call into ministry, student loans helped me get there.
The problem was, in my first call, I made less than $30,000 a year. Thankfully, I had a parsonage. But there was no way I could regularly make the $1,500+/month payment on that type of salary. Luckily, I was able to take regular financial hardship forbearances, which allowed me to make fewer payments throughout the year, but with the interest not paid being compounded. So, even as I made payments, my principal kept growing.
This continued throughout my second and third calls, until Hurricane Katrina hit, and I had to start my life over. I was permitted to take a disaster deferral, which gave me nearly two years of not having to make payments to my student loans. But, again, the interest and the payments I didn’t make were compounded.
In 2007 and 2010, the federal government introduced and expanded the Income-Based Repayment (IBR) plan which allowed borrowers to repay their student loans based on a percentage of their income, usually no more than 10%. This allowed me to begin making more consistent payments without having to take a forbearance for financial hardship. And it came with a promise that after 20 years of on-time qualifying payments, the rest of my loans would be forgiven. Of course, interest continued to compound.
Good news also came in 2007 with the introduction of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. For those borrowers who worked in public agencies or non-profits, after 10 years of qualifying payments, their loans would be forgiven. However, when the program first started, churches and religious organizations were exempted.
But things continued to change when people working for churches were finally allowed to be considered for the PSLF program, as long as the majority of their work was not proselytizing. So, in 2015, I began to submit an annual PSLF certification form. By this time, my student loan principal had doubled from what I had left seminary with. Doubled! It felt like an insurmountable prospect that I would ever get out from under the growing and crushing weight of student loan debt.
But at the end of 2021, due to the pandemic, the federal government invited borrowers to re-apply for PSLF with a special waiver that would allow previously unqualified payments to be considered as qualified payments. Last week, I received a letter from my loan servicer that I had met the 120 qualifying payments and the rest of my student loans had been forgiven!
It was the feeling of being set free! It was the experience of liberation from the shackles of debt. I had been paying on these loans for 20 years, but it never seemed to be enough.
In 2021, The Federal Reserve estimates that there was an astonishing $1.73 trillion in student loan debt in the United States, with the average student loan debt being nearly $40,000 per student. This number can quickly soar to more than $100,000 for those who pursue a graduate degree. For millions of people, student loans are the only way for them to get the education they need to grow professionally.
In the Gulf Coast Synod, we work hard to ensure our candidates for ministry have as little educational debt as possible. Over the past several years, we have often been able to meet 100% of financial need for seminary education for our candidates.
For those of you who work in churches and church-related ministries, and who have student loan debt, if you have not yet looked into the PSLF program, you can find more information here. You can also find more information about the IBR program here.
As the church, we have a responsibility to care for our church leaders, that they are not kept from following the call into ministry because of lack of finances. And I believe we also have a responsibility to assist current pastors and deacons with the crushing load of student loan debt, who didn’t have systems of support at the time they went to seminary.
It is time for a year of jubilee for those with student loan debt.
“The Lord God’s spirit is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. God has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and a day of vindication for our God, to comfort all who mourn.”
Recently, Bishop Mike asked pastors and deacons with significant seminary debt to contact him, as we consider an appeal for debt repayment. Seven people made contact, indicating a total of $300,000 debt, an average of around $42,000 each. The high was $90,000. If you are carrying a significant amount of seminary debt, contact Bishop Mike at [email protected] or by phone. All information will be held in confidence.
Bishop Michael Rinehart