A foundation for financial health and wellness

By Ashley Festa
Posted Nov 21, 2014

[Seminary of the Southwest] Stephanie Knott will testify that staying debt-free while attending a private graduate school is almost as challenging as the coursework.

During her first year at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, Knott commuted from her home in San Marcos to Austin for classes, then to New Braunfels for her day job and back again to Austin for her overnight job. Sometimes she would be awake for 24 hours straight.

Her determination to leave seminary without debt is palpable. At one point, she was working four jobs to keep afloat while pursuing a master’s degree in counseling.

“It has been a roller coaster,” she said. “But I’m investing in myself and my future, so I don’t regret it.”

Southwest never wants students to buckle under the financial stress of paying for an education, said Jennielle Strother, vice president of Enrollment Management. So the seminary has created a plan to help alleviate the monetary burden of following God’s call and to prepare students for a healthy financial future.

Profound peace of mind

Since its founding in 1952, Southwest hasn’t accepted federal financial aid; instead, it has offered scholarships to encourage students to remain debt-free. Last year, more than half of Southwest’s students received tuition scholarships averaging $7,500 towards the $13,150 annual tuition cost, and students also raised an average of $1,400 from their dioceses, families and parishes.

But some students find there’s still a wide gap between the sticker price and available funding; therefore, the seminary will make federal loans available for the first time in its history.

To uphold a commitment to students’ financial health, Southwest has established two new programs to help seminarians maintain fiscal stability: One program will provide financial literacy resources throughout a student’s entire lifecycle – from prospect to alum. The other will provide a guide for all facets of a pastor’s or lay minister’s lifelong wellbeing.

The Enrollment Management Office plans to create an array of tools to prepare seminarians to manage their finances wisely, starting as early as the prospective student stage. Resources such as webinars, personal phone calls and even one-on-one counseling sessions will help them understand the true cost of student loans. With the help of a Lilly Endowment grant, Southwest will make those resources available, said Strother. The Lilly Endowment has long supported projects that strengthen congregations and the ministers that serve them, and it offered Southwest a $250,000 grant over three years to offset the cost of this robust initiative.

“I want anyone who is discerning a call to ministry to have access to resources in order to plan financially to attend seminary,” Strother said. “Being saddled with debt will only impede their ability to do God’s work.”

Lending students a hand

When Pam Hallmark felt her call to attend seminary, she knew the journey would be difficult and slow going. First, she needed to complete her bachelor’s degree. So she quit her job to attend the University of Washington and earned a degree in comparative world religion. Financially, life was a struggle. She and her family lived on food stamps while she worked toward her Bachelor of Arts.

“You would think it would be scary, but it was one of the most certain things I’ve ever known in my life,” Hallmark said of quitting her job to return to school. “This was something that I had to do. I can’t not do this.”

She’s now a senior at Southwest and expects to graduate in May with a master’s in Chaplaincy and Pastoral Care with plans to become a hospice chaplain. Although she felt sure of the direction she was headed, she wasn’t sure how she would get there. She felt a huge burden lifted when she received a 50 percent tuition scholarship from Southwest. Still, coming up with the remaining sum strained her family’s budget.

“I started paying as much as we could afford on a weekly basis,” she said.

Some students struggle so much that they are forced to leave the seminary, a painful option both for the student and Southwest. To prevent that unwelcome choice, federal loans can now assist Hallmark and her peers.

“We felt like not offering federal aid was closing doors to students who wanted to come here but financially couldn’t make it work,” Strother said. “Offering federal loans makes the seminary an option for people who want a degree with a theological foundation rather than a purely clinical degree from a state school.”

The availability of federal loans couldn’t have come at a better time. Hallmark’s husband lost his job, and her temporary part-time job recently ended. She feels relieved that she’s now able to apply for federal aid, which will help her complete her final year.

A rewarding investment

Like Hallmark, Knott had no doubts when she decided to attend seminary. As a prospective student, she searched for a counseling program with a spiritual foundation, which she hadn’t been able to find at state schools. A faculty member at the University of Texas recommended Southwest.

“I visited the campus and there was an overwhelming sense of peace that came over me,” she said.

Knott also received a scholarship that covered 50 percent of her tuition. The rest she committed to paying out of pocket, and she’s not the only student to take on that challenging endeavor.

“Full time residential seminary requires a substantial commitment from our students,” said the Very Rev. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, dean and president of Southwest. “But in this intensive formation, they become bearers of the Christian tradition and its creative adapters in the contemporary world.”

Like Knott, first-year student J.P. Arrossa will use federal aid only as a last resort. Before coming to Southwest, Arrossa worked as a financial expert, managing other people’s money for a living. When he sat down to calculate the price he’d pay to follow God’s calling, he fully realized what he would be getting himself into while he pursued a Master of Divinity degree.

But Arrossa has felt called to the priesthood since he was 12 years old, so he and his partner created a budget and saved money to pay for his tuition. He also approached his parish to request funding, something Strother’s office will teach students how to do as part of the seminary’s resources for financial literacy. Asking for money can be an uncomfortable topic, so the enrollment office will provide workshops on how to craft a message to make the request.

“We will talk to students about how to raise money to get through seminary,” Strother said. “We encourage them that it’s common to reach out to their parish, their community, their family and friends.”

A lifetime of well-being

Southwest students may be leading these parishes one day, and Kittredge wants alumni to be healthy enough to do the job well. “Sometimes a temptation for Christian leaders is to overlook their own health and wellness,” Kittredge said. “We want to instill this awareness as part of the education here.”

The seminary’s goal of promoting financial, spiritual, physical and vocational wellness developed into an extensive new program called Comprehensive Wellness for Ministry, now required for all incoming students.

“If you aren’t physically well enough to do your job properly, you’re going to run into financial issues, as well as vocational and spiritual issues,” said Micah Jackson, dean of Community Life. “They are strongly interdependent, so we wanted to address all of these areas at once.”

Students helped design the mandatory program, providing insight on what seminarians could realistically handle with the rest of their workload. They didn’t have time for busywork. They wanted a practical plan for lifelong wellbeing. The idea that emerged – the Rule of Life – provided a blueprint of wellness.

The Rule of Life is a decision-making guide for students to write while at seminary and later amend as their financial, spiritual, physical and vocational situations change. A student might, for example, include a financial aspect to the rule that limits the amount of debt he will carry. The rule reduces the temptation of a dazzling opportunity because the student has already determined the limit in a clearheaded moment.

As an incoming student, Arrossa already has ideas for his Rule of Life.

“It’s natural to worry about those we serve and forget the importance of our own wellbeing,” said Arrossa, one of the first students to learn about the new program. “One aspect of my rule will be creating some sacred space and boundaries around that space. Personal time will allow me to rest and recharge.”

The Rule of Life will change as a person advances through the stages of life. Age, health, financial position and career changes will affect the evolution of a rule as students move from seminary to workplace to retirement.

“I hope this shows students that we care about their whole person,” Jackson said. “We’re not just dispensing factual information. We understand that they are undergoing transformation based on a call from God, and we want to be part of that process. It’s a promise to help them live well.”

— Ashley Festa is a higher education freelance writer.