I’m on the long, winding, and unconventional road toward becoming a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (one of these days I’ll describe the circuitous route of my call, which began over 10 years ago). Along the way I have seen and experienced many policies, decisions and programs which could make any reasonable person scratch their head in wonderment. But I choose not to complain about every oddity I encounter in the ordination process. As a former pastor of mine used to say, "This side of the Kingdom of God, nothing is perfect."
HOWEVER, there is one tidbit of this process about which I choose to gripe. It is the $250 fee I have to pay for the luxury of opting out of the seminarian health insurance plan. That’s right – I have to pay $250 to avoid receiving the seminarian health insurance. Of course, students who opt out of the seminarian student health plan are generally slightly better off than their classmates who need this insurance plan by nature of having health coverage from a spouse, parent, or former employer. I can opt out of this plan because I receive health care coverage from the ELCA through my wife’s employment as a pastor.
But don’t mistake me for a well-to-do student for whom $250 is inconsequential. No. In a few weeks my wife will be between calls (read: unemployed) as she finishes her PhD dissertation, receiving only a few stipends for seminars and workshops between now and when she begins teaching full-time in January. Starting next month I will be earning the luxurious internship stipend of $1000/month (which covers less than two-thirds of my monthly rent) for the next year. We have two children and a third on the way who require such frivolous things as food, clothing, and care while Mommy and Daddy are at work. For the next year we will have many more expenses than we will have income.
I understand the need for fees. Over the years I’ve paid tuition and numerous fees to my seminary and synod for registration, classes, psychological evaluations, administrative fees, technology fees, retreats, travel, and more. These fees, it seems to me, relate (more or less) directly to the expense of moving me through this academic and professional process. Surely a portion of the tuition dollars and the fees I’ve paid go to general institutional overhead and to pay for those who cannot (or do not) pay – thanks to my dabblings in an MBA program I took an accounting class and understand this a little bit – and that’s ok for me. These are fees for a service rendered. If I want to enroll in a class, I pay a tuition and a few fees. If I want to apply for candidacy, there are a few fees. That’s fine.
I also know that my expenses in this process do not pay for everything. Thanks to the generosity of congregational and individual donors to the seminary and the synod, students pay only a portion of the actual cost of their education and formal process. Students pay an increasingly large portion of the total cost of their education, to be sure, but we are relieved from having to pay full cost thanks to our donors. Thanks to all who give to the seminaries and synods of our church!
But what irks me about this health care waiver fee is that I have to pay to receive nothing. If I don’t pay the waiver fee I receive a much larger bill for a health care plan I don’t need. The letter from the seminary is unambiguous about the reason for this waiver (which is a churchwide, not seminary, policy) – to subsidize those students who have to buy into the seminarian heath insurance plan. I’m all for subsidies (see above paragraph about the wonderful donors whose gifts keep seminarians’ expenses from skyrocketing), but I think I draw the line at requiring students to subsidize students.
Students subsidizing students. Wow. Of all the potential revenue streams in the church – universal seminary fees, gifts from church members, special fundraising appeals, robbing Peter to pay Paul – I find it baffling that the church in its wisdom would require one group of financially-strapped aspiring church leaders to subsidize another group of financially-strapped aspiring church leaders. Not only are seminary students, by nature, not earning much money, but they are also preparing for a career with limited income potential.
Of course, this problem is brought to you by two fractured institutions – our church and our nation’s health care scheme. Heath insurance is a big problem for many employers, and it would be a headache even if our church were financially flush and its members outrageously generous. But our nation’s health care and our church’s finances being what they are, we are stuck with a program that requires students to subsidize students. And I think that stinks.
A generation or so ago, many students graduated seminary and entered the ministry with little education debt because their time in school was paid for by the church. Today seminarians pay the bulk of the bill directly or through long-term student loans, at times with help from families or congregations. It’s a tough burden to carry into the ministry, and one which can be lightened with an increased focus on funding the mission and ministry of our seminaries. The Fund for Leaders, though financing only a relatively small number of students, is a good start. With the fundraising efforts of each seminary, support from local congregations, and the generosity of individuals – particularly those who have the capacity to make gifts of significant size – I hope and pray that support for students can increase and their debt level decrease, so that they can serve the Church where they are needed with less concern for financial considerations and more concern for going where they are called.