If you’ve never sat in the clergy session or attended the Ordination Service at Annual Conference, you probably don’t get this joke. Even if you have, there’s a good chance you don’t find it funny. Neither do I, which is why I created it in the first place.
The question asked of the characters in my comic is part of “Wesley’s Historic Questions” that are posed to every candidate for ordination as an elder in the United Methodist Church. They’re not supposed to be funny, and yet every year when the question about debt is asked there is a chorus of laughter (particularly in the clergy session). I’ve heard it for 12 years now, and it honestly bugs me more and more each time.
You might think I’m overreacting or that I need to develop a better sense of humor (both are probably valid assertions), but I think there’s a real problem when we make light of an issue that presents a serious stumbling block for many clergy- especially the young ones just out of seminary. For while some clergy are blessed to sit in the higher “pay brackets” (usually those near the end of their careers), because of how our appointment system works many of our clergy will be paid at or near the “base minimum” for the majority of their careers.
Now you might be thinking, “you don’t become a pastor to make money”- and I agree- but that sentiment often does little to assuage the stress and anxiety and frustration that occurs once the student loan debts that you racked up in order to become a pastor become due (not to mention any additional expenses that occur due to children, medical concerns, or other life events). You may also be thinking, “student loan debts are your fault” – which is true- but what about the pressure many would-be clergy receive from churches, pastors, District Committees on Ordained Ministry, and even the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry to attend expensive seminaries they can’t afford so that they can have “the best education possible” and “take their call seriously?” Those are both phrases that I heard multiple times while I was selecting a seminary 12 years ago, and from my recent work with young persons currently in the ordination process I know that those sentiments are still being communicated by those same groups of people. And while I’m sure the offending parties mean well, are we as a Church taking seriously the potentially life-altering (and most likely lifelong) consequences of pressuring our clergy into accruing massive debts that will potentially overshadow their ministries and almost certainly affect their mental, emotional, physical, and even spiritual well-beings?
The issue I raise is a complicated and sensitive one, made even more so by a host of other issues related to our denomination that I’d rather not address here. As such, this problem won’t be solved with a simple comic and a rant by a somewhat jaded clergy person. Nonetheless, there is a simple step that we can take to move in the right direction, namely putting a stop to laughing at the financial struggles of our fellow clergy. Perhaps we’re laughing at ourselves so we don’t cry (believe me, I understand), but does that really honor the sacrifices that we’re all making to live out God’s call in our lives?
May God bless us and continue to provide for our needs, and may we support and stand in solidarity with the struggling among us. Amen.