By Vicki Brown*
The 13 United Methodist theological schools have increased scholarship support for their students by nearly 10 percent to keep students on campus despite the recession – even as the seminaries have faced dwindling endowments and decreasing funds from the church.
For the 2009-2010 academic year, the theological schools awarded nearly $27.9 million in scholarships, a 9.8 percent increase from the $25.4 million awarded in 2008-2009, according to figures compiled by the Association of United Methodist Theological Schools.
Dean Maxine Clarke Beach of The Theological School at Drew University said that means the 13 UM institutions are giving more in scholarships than they receive from the Ministerial Education Fund. The MEF is the churchwide apportionment fund that provides educational support for United Methodist ordained elders and deacons and assists theological schools and clergy recruitment. Twenty-five percent of the apportionment is retained in the annual conference for professional development, continuing education of clergy, and clergy recruitment.
The Rev. Mary Ann Moman, associate general secretary of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry’s Division of Ordained Ministry, said the seminaries are critical in the development of principled Christian leaders for the church and the world – one of the Four Areas of Focus the General Conference affirmed for The United Methodist Church in 2008.
“The resolve of the United Methodist theological schools to ease the financial burden of theological education – even in the face of their own struggles with the recession – shows their commitment to the whole United Methodist Church, not just their individual programs. This will have a lasting and positive effect on the church through the future elders and deacons they are preparing to lead and serve our churches,” Moman said.
Moman said the MEF plays an important role in supporting the ability of seminaries to provide affordable theological education. Of the MEF funds that come to GBHEM for disbursement, 83.6 percent go directly to the 13 UM schools of theology. In 2008, $14.6 million was distributed to the seminaries. Through June 30, 2009, the numbers are down: $4.6 million has been sent to the 13 schools of theology, compared to $5.1 million for the same period in 2008.
“Both GBHEM and seminary staff understand that these are tough economic times for everyone in The United Methodist Church, but the MEF is an important investment in the future of the church,” Moman said. “If we are going to attract the best leaders our churches can get, we need to be sure that those who feel God’s call can answer it, no matter what their personal financial situation is.
“Our seminaries work hard to make that possible, and the MEF provides an investment on the front end that supports their efforts to provide affordable theological education,” Moman said.
Dean Beach and other seminary administrators say the seminaries cannot help students so much that programs are placed at risk, but they are aware of the economic pressures of the recession on students and their families.
“We are trying to help students graduate with as little debt as possible,” Beach said. “We have a bigger and more deeply rooted concern for our United Methodist students, so for the past few years Drew has tried to give as much scholarship support as possible to United Methodist students.”
Myron F. McCoy, president of Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo., said faculty and staff are determined not to cut scholarship support.
“In my school’s particular case, that meant an overall reduction in staff and some scaling back of salaries,” McCoy said. The value of the endowment dipped, but the scholarship awards were about the same.
“We just decided we would hold the line,” McCoy said. He said an effort was made to help students leverage all available scholarship and financial assistance available, not just what the school can give.
Dean Mary Elizabeth Moore of Boston University School of Theology said the seminary does not have a huge endowment and has been feeling the pinch. “We haven’t had to fire people, but we haven’t been able to rehire. A lot of staff positions are permanently closed,” Moore added.
“We took measures in the fall to tighten our belts in every way we could without hurting students. We have several task forces looking at how to save money, and we’re setting aside pools of funds for students with unusual financial stress,” Moore said.
Teams were created to review the emergency aid petitions, said Megan Hornbeck, registrar. Requests for additional financial assistance are up 7 percent – an increase she said is absolutely due to the economy. About 70 percent of the petitions were from international students who were hurt by the exchange rate or had family who lost jobs and could no longer help out.
Dean Moore said the MEF has helped UM theological schools provide a top quality education, and she worries about a decline in giving.
“We are putting money into fund raising in case the MEF continues to go down,” she said.
Moore said she is not sure The United Methodist Church as a whole understands that the fund transcends the support of an individual student. “When you support institutions, you are doing more than helping one student at a time,” she said.
In addition to educating pastors, the support of the MEF helps seminaries provide resources and literature that pastors and United Methodist laity read and use to develop sermons and spiritual practices.
Misty Howick, a second-year student at Drew who has a full-tuition scholarship, said she will still graduate with about $24,000 in debt for living expenses and other costs. She said she is lucky that neither she nor her husband had any debt from undergraduate school.
But the 25-year-old says younger seminary students have different financial needs than second-career students might.
“If the church is saying we need more young people in ministry, I’m not sure they fully understand the difference. Second-career people have savings, maybe a spouse with a good job. Students who enter seminary immediately after college may have undergraduate debt that’s not paid off, they don’t have savings, and their spouse probably isn’t earning a lot of money,” Howick said.
She said she does have friends who decided not to go to seminary for financial reasons.
Virginia Lee Hanna, a third-year Boston University School of Theology student who sought additional financial assistance, said her finances were hurt when her husband’s mother, who was one of her chief supporters, died suddenly last year. Coupled with that, she faced higher food, rent, and utility costs. “The increased scholarship funding frees up more of my student loan to cover the cost of living,” she said.
McCoy, Beach, and Moore all said they have seen an increase in applications – despite the economy – although they are not sure that will results in more students.
“Even though we have more applicants, we don’t want to lower the standards,” McCoy said.
Beach believes the economy is a factor in that increase. “The economy can cause students to put graduate programs in a delay mode, but I’ve also talked to students who wanted to teach but couldn’t get a job; so they are going ahead with seminary when they might have put it off.”
“There’s something about the reality of a recession that people think, ‘Maybe I should do what I really want to do. Maybe it’s not all about money,’” Beach said.
To learn more about the Ministerial Education Fund, visit www.umcgiving.org/mef and www.gbhem.org. To learn more about the 13 United Methodist theological schools, visit www.gbhem.org/education/seminaries.
*Brown is associate editor and writer, Office of Interpretation, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.