Higher Education and Ministry aims for affordable schooling

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Part of a series on how the church works

As the agency charged with training the future leaders of the church, the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry’s goals are to recruit and nurture the next generation. The agency especially wants to make a seminary education more affordable for those called to ministry and increase availability of quality theological education worldwide.

In response to questions from United Methodist News Service, executive staff of the board discussed the agency’s role and accomplishments in the past year.

What were the top three to five goals of your agency in 2016?

The board does a great deal to support leaders, pastors, educators, as well as schools, colleges, universities and other institutions. Here are three of this year’s major areas of work:

1.              Recruiting Principled Christian Leaders.

The future health of the denomination depends upon building up a new generation of lay and clergy leaders who are spiritually, emotionally and intellectually prepared build the Kingdom of God by helping both lay and clergy undertake an intentional process of discerning their God-given call. Our responsibility is to foster a culture of discernment, then connect people with opportunities that allow them to fulfill their call.


2.              Nurturing Clergy Leadership.

A particular area of focus in recent years has been clergy debt.

Over the last four years, we have undertaken an in-depth study of clergy debt levels and are committed to finding solutions to the problem of clergy debt. The board received undergraduate and graduate-level educational debt information from 11 of the 13 United Methodist seminaries in the U.S. for each United Methodist M.Div. graduate in 2013-2014. Of the students, 28.7 percent reported graduating with no debt. Graduates who borrowed averaged $22,048 in undergraduate debt and $44,319 in graduate-level debt, for a total average debt of $66,367.

For all active, full-time provisional elders and deacons with two years or less of service, the median total annual compensation is $49,742 — salary and housing. Based on that income and standard interest rates of a 10-year payment plan, a new provisional member can reasonably afford a monthly payment of up to $409 on debt. That’s about the payment on debt of $35,500 — much less than average debt of a United Methodist seminarian graduate.  


3.              Increase the accessibility of United Methodist education around the world.

The board strives unceasingly to make high quality higher education and theological education within reach for people around the world.

Were you able to fully or partly accomplish these goals? How was that done?

·      Foster a vital culture of call throughout the denomination.

The 2016 General Conference approved continuing the Young Clergy Initiative with $6.95 million for the 2017-2020 quadrennium. In the 2013-2016 quadrennium, YCI received 164 applications and awarded 78 projects.

The local church is where faith is formed and nurtured in people of all ages — especially the young. Equipping congregations to speak the language of call and move toward discovering and nurturing vocations will contribute to the denomination’s health and vitality. The board, in collaboration with general agency partners, launched “Called: One Word, Many Ways,” a collection of resources for communication, education and worship that invites United Methodists to listen for God’s voice, discern what has been heard and respond faithfully. Congregations throughout the connection are using these resources. For example, resources were provided to over 400 elders in the Great Plains Conference.

In 2015, 475 attended Exploration, a three-day event where young adults ages 18-26 heard, discerned and responded to God’s call to ordained ministry as a United Methodist deacon or elder. In November 2016, 578 people came together for NEXT16, a three-day event for young adults age 18-26 to discern their call of lay or clergy leadership and learn ways to connect that God-given call through the work of the church.

Are we seeing any progress in the world of recruiting younger clergy? Yes we are. From 2005-2016, we’ve seen the number of elders under 35 steadily increase — both the total and percentage. The total number of elders under 35 has increased 18 percent since 2005— from 850 to 1,003. The number of female elders has increased over 52 percent since 2005 — from 263 to 401.


·      Address the problem of unsustainable debt levels among clergy.

The board led the Seminary Indebtedness Task Force, which reported on its work to the 2016 General Conference. In partnership with Wespath and the Texas Methodist Foundation, we’re working with the Lilly Endowment to reduce the debt burden on seminary students to sustainable levels. In partnership with conference Boards of Ordained Ministry and conference and area foundations, the board is developing strategies to multiply financial support for merit-based seminary scholarships that require students to receive high quality training and counseling on financial management.

We’ve committed $500,000 over the next two years to match the $1 million provided by Lilly in the hopes of gathering additional matching grants from annual conferences and their area foundations.


·      Increase the accessibility of United Methodist education around the world.

The board’s Division of Higher Education works with United Methodist-related educational institutions to reaffirm their mission, purpose and institutional identity and to strengthen relationships with their connectional partners, particularly in annual conferences and local churches.

In 2016, the E-Reader Team continued distributions of technology and texts in English, French and Portuguese on the continent of Africa, and founded new digital libraries in Vietnam and Mongolia. On April 5-6, 2016, the board hosted representatives from general agencies and other partners to develop long-term strategies for the broader use of the technologies and resources, particularly in the local church. 

Recognizing the need for more and better United Methodist theological education, the 2016 General Conference doubled the budget for the Central Conference Theological Education Fund to $10 million for the coming quadrennium. The Commission on Central Conference Theological Education, an independent body of educators and church leaders in the central conferences, administers the fund.

In 2014, 57 grants totaling more than $1 million were awarded for theological education in 11 countries in Africa, Asia and Europe. In 2015, 73 grants totaling $1 million were awarded in 22 countries. Funded projects included the training of local pastors, development of faculty, provision of e-readers, curriculum development, development of libraries and more. In December, the commission will award their third and final round of grants for the 2013-2016 quadrennium.

The board continues to lead clergy continuing education programs including the multilingual UMC Cyber Campus. Fifty percent of central conferences use agency-produced online programming for continuing education.


What was your budget for 2016? How much of that budget was put toward each of these goals?

Total budget for 2016 was $45.6 million. Of that, $42.2 million (over 92 percent) went to programs, scholarships, grants, or to direct support of related institutions through the Ministerial Education, Black College and Africa University Funds.

What particular challenges did the agency face in accomplishing these goals?

The issues that we work to address are complex, involving many different partners with unique needs and strengths. That means complex solutions — often long-term commitments that require years of work and support before bearing fruit.

The Young Clergy Initiative is a good example. New projects may not produce young clergy for many years given the time it takes to be ordained; therefore, evaluation must measure behaviors and intentions as early success indicators.

If the goals are ongoing, what do you plan to accomplish in 2017?

During its September 2016 meeting, the agency’s Board of Directors received revised vision and mission statements, as well as new strategic priorities that include championing a culture of call and leading the intellectual life of the church, from the Rev. Kim Cape, top executive of the agency.

We are implementing an ambitious plan to ensure that all agency work is clearly aligned to those priorities, has a realistic spending plan and a rigorous evaluation plan. That work is in the early stages.

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