Who pays to train our ministers?

It costs £5.7 million to train a fast jet RAF pilot.[1] It costs almost £250,000 to train a doctor,[2] a similar figure for a dentist.[3] Financial consultants KPMG spend around £92,000 training each graduate they employ.[4] It even costs up to £30,000 to train a guide dog for the blind.[5]

On the other hand, a student training at WEST (Wales Evangelical School of Theology) will pay just over £15,000 for three years full-time training. Donations to the college contribute perhaps another £7,500 per student. Students at LTS (London Theological Seminary), studying on a shorter, two-year course, pay fees of just under £7,000, with gifts adding approximately £3,500.

There is an obvious question, isn’t there? How does it cost less to train a man over three years for the pastoral ministry, than it does to train a dog for a little over a year and a half? And how do you train a pastor, missionary or evangelist for a tenth of what it costs to train a doctor?

Balancing the books

I trained for the ministry at WEST, so I’ll use that college as an example in trying to answer the question. The honest answer is to say that working within such financial constraints is incredibly difficult. I asked Kevin Green, recently appointed bursar at WEST, how his first six months in the job had been. ‘It’s been a struggle to balance the books from day one. That’s mainly because only two-thirds of our income comes from student fees, and we rely on gifts for the rest. Much of our gift income comes from individuals giving sacrificially. Obviously what we don’t get is government grants in any form.’

The difficulties are easy to spot: IT and library facilities at WEST, whilst adequate, are not exactly world-class; although WEST’s building (another major expense), is continually improving, it needs substantial further development; whilst the majority of WEST’s expenditure goes on salaries (some £300,000 in 2007), don’t assume lecturers are driving around in Mercedes and BMWs. The average wage at the University of Reading, for example, is 98% higher than it is at WEST.

The student perspective

But let’s look at things from the student’s perspective. Most students at the college will not be fresh from school, but will be men in their twenties and thirties. Most will have already studied at university, and probably still have the debt to prove it. Many will have young families. Several of them will want to study with their wives if that is at all possible.

Of course, when men start a full-time training programme they will need to stop work. If the government statistics are to be believed, a couple with two small children need a minimum of just over £15,500 to live (that’s what they would receive in benefits if they had no income). So, assuming they can get by on the minimum, they’ll need more than £20,000 per year to pay their living expenses and their course fees. If the wife wishes to study as well, that will increase to £25,000. Multiply that by three years, and you’ll find that a student with a family will need to find between £60,000 and £75,000 to complete his studies.

Of course, not all students are married with children. Using the same government figures, a single man would need to find around £13,500 per year (including fees), or £40,000 over the three-year course. That doesn’t include any books, a computer, or other materials.

So where is this money going to come from? Where would you find between £40,000 and £75,000 if you felt a call to the ministry or mission field?

Finding the funds

Of course, many churches will support the men and women that they send to college. But few churches are able to find anywhere near £40-£75,000. It is hard to get accurate figures on the amount of support the average student gets from his sending church, but it is often just a few thousand pounds – sometimes less. For many churches even a few thousand pounds is still a considerable sacrifice – but it leaves the student with a lot of money to find.

That means that many students are going into debt in order to fund their training. Many others are forced to ask their wives to work (sometimes full-time) during the training period, perhaps when they would like their wives to train with them. Others spend years employed in secular work, simply saving up the money that they will require. Still others don’t go to college at all, or take a much shorter course than they really need. Can this really be right?

Undoubtedly there are many students who are able to be trained within their own churches, with some input from a part-time course, such as the one offered by the Evangelical Movement of Wales. For some, this is an excellent option, and I don’t want to suggest that full-time residential study is the only way to study, or that it is necessary for everyone. But whether a student is based in his local church or on a bible-college campus makes little difference to the problem. Surely it must be apparent that training for the pastoral ministry is not normally something that a man should attempt to squeeze in to a few hours a week around a full-time job, his church responsibilities, being increasingly involved in regular preaching, and looking after his wife and children. Even if the student stays based at his own church it is surely best that he devotes a major portion of his time (and hence his income) to training. Even without course fees, living expenses for a two-three year training period could easily top £25,000 – more if he is married.

So whichever way we look at it, full-time training men for the ministry is an expensive business if we are to do it well. At the very cheapest end of the scale a single man who can be trained solely within a church will need to find perhaps £25,000. For the student who is married, and whose church can’t provide full-time training, the figure is nearer £50,000 from him, and another £7,500 from the college.

The role of the denominations

Where is all this money going to come from? It’s worth remembering that this difficulty in financing training is a more serious problem than it has been for many years. Previous generations often found funding for theological training available from the Presbyterian Church or the Baptist Union. Now that (within Wales at least) most evangelicals training for pastoral ministry are no longer in denominational churches, that route is no longer available. And until around ten years ago, Local Education Authorities would pay a grant to degree candidates, even at independent Bible Colleges. With the introduction of student loans, that avenue too has closed. The rapidly increasing costs of housing, fuel and food are only compounding the problem.

Within many denominations, the problem is much less acute. So within the Church of England, for example, men who are accepted as ordinands have their tuition fees and college maintenance fees paid in full by the Ministry Division of the Church of England each year (usually around £10,000). They will also have a personal grant of over £1,500 (rising to around £10,000 where the student is married and has children) paid for by his diocese. This means a married student is likely to receive over £45,000 during a three year course, single students a little over £30,000. In 2007 the Anglican Church contributed a total £16.5 million towards ordinand training. At a time when many free churches are struggling to find trained men to pastor them, it’s perhaps not a surprise that the Church Times (13 July 2007) reported that the Church of England anticipated having more ordinands applying for training in 2008 than at any time in the last forty years.

 A way forward?

I don’t want to make the situation sound hopeless. It’s not. In the next issue of the magazine, I’ll explore some of the solutions to these problems. But one thing is clear. It is primarily the responsibility of churches to ensure that the men who will be leading the church in the next generation (and the present one) are sufficiently well-trained. As Kerry Orchard, Development Manager at WEST, told me, ‘the church has a responsibility to invest in proper leadership training. Why should a man set apart as a teacher of the flock have inferior preparation for this lofty task than his church members have in their jobs?’

It seems within independency, at least, that is happening only rarely. Gifts from churches to LTS, for example, totaled just 8% of their income for 2007. In 2006, it was 6.5%. Even assuming that much more was given to individual students from their sending churches, these are frighteningly small amounts.

Perhaps – particularly if you are a church leader – you could consider how much support your congregation has invested in training men for pastoral ministry, and towards training men and women for evangelism and mission work. And perhaps we might all pray and ask God whether He would have us do more.

[1] Sources: National Audit Office, 14 September 2000.

[2] Source: British Medical Journal, 2003.

[3] Source: Evidence presented to the Committee on Public Accounts, December 2004.

[4] Source: The Times, 31 May 2007.

[5] Source: RNIB (New Beacon magazine), November 2000.

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