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New Partnership Aims to Streamline Curriculum, Reduce Educational Costs for Seminarians

As published Sept. 3, 2015 on the website of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) of the United Methodist Church, based in Nashville, TN - written by Tyrus Sturgis, Senior Communications Specialist

PHOTO CAPTION: The 3 plus 3 program! KWU President Matt Thompson and Saint Paul President H. Sharon Howell remind prospective students that they can complete their B.A. and M.Div. degrees in only 6 years if they attend the United Methodist-based undergraduate and seminary (Photo/caption: Saint Paul School of Theology)

A bold, new academic collaboration between Kansas Wesleyan University (KWU) and Saint Paul School of Theology may help to solve an age-old problem for students pursuing careers in ministry: debt.

The two United Methodist-related institutions signed a Memorandum of Understanding for a 3+3 theological studies undergraduate-graduate program. Students in the program will condense the four-year Christian Ministry major at KWU into three years, then complete the three-year Master of Divinity degree at Saint Paul. The first year of seminary studies will transfer back to KWU as electives to fulfill the bachelor’s degree. The partnership allows students to prepare for ordination and entry into the ministry in six years instead of the usual seven, saving both time and money. Similar to Morningside College’s accelerated path to ministry program with Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, the KWU/Saint Paul agreement accords with continued efforts by the United Methodist Church (UMC) to reduce and eliminate clergy debt.

The General Board of Higher Education (GBHEM) was charged by the General Conference 2012 to form a Seminary Indebtedness Task Force (SITF) and develop a denominational plan to reduce and eliminate clergy debt. In response, the task force began collecting debt-related data from a multitude of sources—including the 13 United Methodist-related seminaries—and formulated a four-part plan to address seminarian debt.

The SITF found that candidates for ordination most commonly identified finances as a barrier to ordination and other professional goals in ministry. Research also revealed that nearly three out of four United Methodist Master of Divinity graduates in the 2013-14 academic year borrowed money to finance their education with the total debt averaging $66,367. This debt load is well above the “critical debt level” of $35,500 based on the median salary of $49,742 for active, full-time provisional elders and deacons with less than two years of service.

One focus area of the task force’s plan is “collaboration,” or continued conversations and engagement among denominational constituents who are directly involved in the ecology of call for a pastor. As demonstrated by KWU and Saint Paul, the entire Church benefits from these mutual efforts, especially seminary students.

“By condensing the time required to complete both degrees, the joint program provides a cost savings, which should open the door for many people to answer the call,” said Kansas Wesleyan University President and CEO Matt Thompson, Ph.D. “This collaboration will allow us to continue to serve the United Methodist Church, preparing people for ministry with a phenomenal partner.”

Rev. H. Sharon Howell, President of Saint Paul School of Theology, echoed those sentiments. “It has been a joy to work with President Thompson to address our mutual concerns of time and money for students who are being called to leadership across God’s church and world. This is an amazing moment for KWU and Saint Paul.”

GBHEM General Secretary the Rev. Dr. Kim Cape, addressed the issue of increasing student accessibility to theological education during the agency’s board meeting. From Cape’s perspective, the institutions’ new alliance is about opportunity.

“The KWU/Saint Paul collaboration helps to clear the path for students currently pursuing theological education. It also makes seminary a more viable option for people who are considering theology, but are dissuaded by financial concerns. That means a greater opportunity for those called to ministry to answer that call and pursue it wholeheartedly. Saint Paul and Kansas Wesleyan University are to be congratulated on taking this significant step forward to benefit our students.”