Richard Foss: Tending to the financial strain of ministry
Ministry is diminished when new pastors suffer with large student debt, says ELCA Bishop Rick Foss.
October 12, 2010 | Editor’s note: As the Christian landscape changes, leaders must ask and answer a new question: What’s the future of denominations? This interview is part of an occasional series that offers insight on this vital issue.
When Richard (Rick) Foss was presiding bishop of the Eastern North Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, he grew increasingly concerned about the impact that student debt was having on his young pastors and their ministries.
But rather than just worry about it, Foss led the synod to build an endowment that helps seminarians reduce the amount of debt they carry into their first called ministry. Now, for a project with Lilly Endowment Inc., Foss is helping to create similar programs to bolster the economic health of clergy families across denominations.
After extensive service as an ELCA pastor, Foss was called as bishop to the Eastern North Dakota Synod from 1992 to 2008. After that, he became director of the Contextual Leadership Initiative at Luther Seminary. Foss has master’s degrees in divinity and theology from Luther Seminary and Luther Northwestern Seminary respectively.
Foss spoke with Faith & Leadership about efforts to illuminate and alleviate the financial strain of ministry. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: While you were bishop in North Dakota, you became interested in financial difficulties faced by young pastors.
From ’92 to 2008 I led 250 congregations, 100,000 members and 300 pastors. Our young pastors had a lot of debt; they were accruing debt while in seminary. My first thought was why didn’t they live more frugally and get through without debt? My wife and I got married in seminary, and we lived pretty frugally and came out OK.
Then I explored a little and realized that somewhere in the intervening years the whole church dropped the ball with funding for theological education. There were fewer dollars relative to the cost. And then the cost of everything from tuition to health care had risen greatly. I realized that if a student in 1999, when this was taking place, were to do the same thing that my wife, Nancy, and I did in 1970, they would come out with a lot of debt.
The average student-loan debt for our new pastors at that point was over $30,000, and that, of course, doesn’t touch consumer debt, credit card debt and other things that are more hidden. I knew what we were paying those pastors. I said, “This can’t work.”
Q: What are some ways that amount of debt manifests itself in a young pastor’s life?
The first thing that would happen would be stress in the marriage because of the shortfall. Second thing is probably resentment of the church and the institution, the seminary. And now you can’t possibly lead a stewardship campaign, nor can you feel very healthy and whole. Money becomes a barrier in the ministry. It becomes an issue.
Now everything changes -- how the pastor feels about himself, about the congregation, about church. Money is a spiritual issue. It feels like the pastor is trapped. Silently you look for a better-paying job. Even if you want to serve in a small congregation, you don’t feel like you can. And in the end, the ministry is hurt.
The way I would talk about it in North Dakota was, “We’ve got great pastors, but if they can’t make it work, the ones who would like to stay can’t stay.” People didn’t know that pastors were coming out with that kind of debt; they assumed that seminary education was sort of magically funded, because it used to be.
At this point, I said, “If we can put an endowment together, we can help those that we are sending to seminary to defray this for the future.” So we approved seminary scholarships on a matching basis -- the more they can do, the more we’ll do to help pay down those debts. And we’ll do a pension equity element for those who are low-paid, or help with rural internships.
Q: Could you share some specific stories on how the program has affected ELCA pastors in eastern North Dakota since 2000, the year you began?
A second-career pastor came out, early 40s, had two young children, loved small-town ministry and they loved him, but he had 40-something thousand dollars in student debt, and salaries are modest in those places.
He was going to be 70 before the student loans were paid. He would have already put his children through college and retired before his student loans were paid off. We said, “That’s terrible.” He said, “I’d love to stay here.” We set up the matching [endowment]. Seven years later, that student loan was paid off, instead of 30. And he was delighted. The people were delighted. The family is healthier.
Q: My guess is that these are issues for every size congregation, but is it particularly acute in rural churches?
It’s rural churches, but then there’s a hidden one. The associate pastors in our larger congregations turn out to be in a similar situation. Some of our most grateful pastors were associates in those larger congregations. It was a more pervasive problem than I had imagined.
Q: Why do you think the problem wasn’t more obvious?
Pastors are not going to complain. It’s hard enough for pastors to do any kind of negotiating. You’re supposed to serve these people and help them to give money. Economically, pastoral ministry is a very difficult thing, whether there’s debt in the position or not.
I used to go into church basements with the council and talk about compensation for pastors and say, “Now here’s my only pitch. When you talk about clergy compensation, you go into stewardship mode. And for you, stewardship mode means to get the most pickup for the least money. The pastor shouldn’t try to get as much as he or she can out of you, and you shouldn’t try to lowball them.” That whole negotiation for pastors is difficult. Then you put debt on top of that; a pastor gets under pressure.
My second year of call, the congregation was struggling; they wanted to cut the benevolence (charitable giving). I said, “I’ll make you a deal. Don’t cut the benevolence. Leave it the same, but don’t give me the raise you’re proposing. If you can make it up in future years, great.” In the end, they agreed.
Now, if I had come out with $100,000 in student-loan debt, I don’t think I would have had the guts to do that, certainly not admit it to my wife. And right there begins the compromise in my sense of ministry and integrity.
Q: Laity generally seem pretty clueless about seminary education. Like you said, it magically happens.
That was the biggest shock as I would talk to key lay leaders and laypeople. Those who ended up helping this go said, “Really? They’re coming out with that kind of debt? And that’s because the cost isn’t covered somewhere? What can we do?”
It’s a systemic thing. I believe in theological education as a whole, and I know we’re trying to tend to that better than they were a decade or two ago. But that was one of those things we just didn’t want to look at.