What Nobody Tells You Before You Start Seminary, Part 2: Cash Money Dolla Dolla Bill Y’all

Money: If you are answering God’s call to a vocation in ministry, you are probably not going to have a lot of it. Still, even in graduate school, there is no reason to be more broke than necessary.

If you’re looking for a holistic framework for thinking about money from a Christian perspective, Boston University is offering a cool-sounding free online course in Faith and Finance that starts next week. Here, all you’ll find is a handful of lessons I learned courtesy of experience, my least favorite teacher.

Before I get any further, a disclaimer: No thanks to my own talents, I was super mega lucky with respect to finances in seminary. I had an employed spouse, zero dependents, and robust financial aid. Our household was carrying no consumer debt and a manageable amount of student debt. And I was still worried about money.

If your present straits are more dire, please know that I am not sharing the following advice in the spirit of finger-wagging or suggesting that lattes are the reason you’re poor. So much about our financial circumstances is beyond our control … so here is my small offering of things you CAN control in order to worry just a little bit less.

If money is an issue for you, apply to a whole bunch of schools because financial aid offers can vary by orders of magnitude.

When I entered the ordination process, I sat down with my bishop, and together we made a list of prospective seminary options that were Catherine-tested and bishop-approved. Because my wife and I are (alas) not rich beyond the dreams of avarice, I applied to every single one, then sat back and compared the aid packages they offered me.

One school was struggling financially and not in a position to give me any money at all. Yuck.

Another offered me a 50% tuition discount. Blah.

A third handed me full tuition, fees, and an annual stipend. BINGO.

And that is how I managed to scuttle out of seminary debt-free.

… Just kidding! My stipend was nowhere near enough to keep me fed and housed in Boston, one of the most expensive cities in the country. My seminary adventure also began with a hella expensive cross-country move. I had the great luck of a spouse who easily found a job when we relocated, but unfortunately she is a teacher and not an investment banker, so I still had to hustle. However …

There are so many (legal) ways to make extra cash in seminary.

Here are a few of the things I did for money while I was in divinity school, or wish I had:

  • Work at a church. If you have the skills to be a part-time youth minister, musician, or office assistant, there is a church out there that wants you on their staff. Most regional denominational bodies have job posting pages on their web sites (for example, here is mine). The spring before I started seminary, I drafted a cover letter for the hypothetical youth ministry position I hoped to find and checked this page every single day. My eventual boss was surprised to receive my application minutes after the job was posted, and somehow chose to interpret this as evidence that I was detail-oriented and responsible, rather than evidence that I was a compulsive freak. Thanks, boss!
  • Babysit/nanny. Some schools (like my alma mater) make this easy by offering databases where people who need child care can connect with people who want to provide it. I charged $20 an hour, and I got so many requests that I had to turn a lot of prospective employers away.
  • Teach a test prep class. I taught one SAT prep course for Kaplan and it frankly made me pretty miserable, but I hear better reports from people who have worked with other test-prep companies. The money’s not great but not terrible, and teaching is fun even if the sole purpose of your class is to reinforce the achievement gap.
  • Participate in psychology studies. Are you at or near a research university? No? How about a big hospital? If you Google “[name of school] psychology study,” you’ll find out how to join the study pool. (Some business and management schools offer paid studies, too.) My divinity school was right next door to the university’s psych research facility, so I made a habit of moseying over there a couple of times a week. Sometimes I spent fifteen minutes looking at colored dots on a computer screen before a student assistant handed me $10 in cash. Sometimes I got MRIs of my brain, which paid well because most people are too claustrophobic to lie in an MRI machine for three hours. I made Excel spreadsheets of my memories and rated how strongly I felt about them. I memorized long strings of nonsense words. I played little gambling games. It was honestly sort of fun.
  • Write freelance articles. Be wary of publications that just want to give you “exposure.” If you write well enough to get into graduate school, you write well enough to get paid for your work.
  • Get into the tutoring pool at an independent (private) school. If you are fluent in a commonly taught foreign language, are exceptionally patient at explaining math problems, or are fabulously organized and enjoy helping teenagers organize all their files in Google Drive, consider becoming a tutor. If you have prior teaching or tutoring experience, so much the better. Use the National Association of Independent Schools directory to look up independent schools in your area, then search for “[name of school] learning center” or “[name of school] tutoring.” Send your resume and a brief letter explaining your qualifications to each school’s learning center director and see what happens. Some experienced tutors in wealthy areas command over $100 per hour. I’m just saying.
  • Become an outdoor facilitator. I love being outside and once spent a summer directing a ropes course. Instead of teaching that crappy SAT class, I wish I had signed up to lead outdoor adventures with my local Girl Scout council, which is literally always recruiting adventure facilitators. If this kind of gig appeals to you, check local Girl Scout and Boy Scout employment postings, look for openings through the Association for Challenge Course Technology, or search out the ropes courses and rock climbing gyms in your area and see if they’re hiring.
  • Cash in an AmeriCorps education award. If you are sitting on one of these (shout-out to my fellow AmeriCorps alums), do not let it expire! Even if your term of AmeriCorps service was six years ago and you have no idea how to get your hands on that sweet sweet award cash, take heart. It’s actually pretty easy, as long as you can remember your Social Security number.
  • Apply for one gazillion tiny regional scholarships. Because …

Patching together a bunch of tiny scholarships can make a real difference.

$500 might not seem like much against the staggering weight of tuition, but it can mean the difference between giving the financial aid office money at the end of the term and getting some back. At the end of my last semester of divinity school, when I got an ominous email saying “pay your last bill or we won’t let you graduate,” I checked my tuition account balance and was pleased to find out that I had come out exactly $42 ahead. I’m not making that up for all you Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fans. It is, somehow, true.

A few quick searches will turn up a bunch of scholarship options, such as:

And that’s not even counting the many, many denominational scholarships out there. Give up a couple of hours and fill out all the applications. The worst anyone can tell you is no.

Changing your course of study can mess with your financial aid.

THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT.

If you enter seminary as a Master of Theological Studies student, then suddenly discover a previously latent ministerial vocation burning deep in your soul, go ahead and switch to a Master of Divinity. It might be a great idea.

But! Talk to a financial aid officer first!

If you are the recipient of a special named scholarship designated for a student who is pursuing an MTS in Pastafarian Studies, and then you drop that MTS like a hot rock, you may find that you drop your entire financial aid package with it. I’m not saying this is a compelling reason not to change programs if you truly feel that a different degree will better prepare you for your eventual vocation. But I AM saying, don’t let the money part take you by surprise.

You do not have to buy all those books.

Libraries have reserve texts for a reason. Instead of buying my own overpriced editions of page-turners like The Rhetoric of Sobriety: Wine in Early Islam, I just spent a few extra hours each week in the library, kicked back with the school-owned copies, and saved myself both the expense of buying books I was never going to read again and the hassle of offloading them at the end of the year.

After seminary, if you serve a church with any money at all, you will have a designated line item for buying books to strengthen you in your ministry. That is the time to start building your personal library with texts you actually want to read. Not in grad school, when you are broke.

… And that’s all I know about money in seminary. Come on back for Part 3, in which I will share some strong opinions about field education.

2 thoughts on “What Nobody Tells You Before You Start Seminary, Part 2: Cash Money Dolla Dolla Bill Y’all

  1. I just graduated with my M.Div. and was fortunate financially in a couple of ways:

    1) I attended a school where my tuition was covered and that had bursaries etc. that covered my school fees and most of my text book purchases. It was a pain every year to fill out the paperwork to apply for funding, but I always put it in to perspective by saying that it was the highest-paying hour of work that I would ever do!

    2) I came to seminary with a previous career (physical therapy) that allowed me to work full-time during our summer break and casually (1/2 to 1 day per week) during the school year which almost covered my living expenses. The rest came from my savings from working as a physical therapist for 15 years before starting seminary.

    I know that this doesn’t help most people, but I second your advice to apply to everything that you could possibly apply for!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That sounds like a very good approach indeed … and a previous career in physical therapy sounds like some of the best preparation I can imagine for ministering to people in pain.

    Like

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