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A Pastor’s Reflections: The Dangers of Debt

February 28, 2017

VFT

I was in college when I ran across a rep from a credit card company. Money lenders are shrewd. They know that college students don’t always have the money they want or need, and so getting a young financially inexperienced college student to sign on the bottom line is a relatively easy thing to do. Naturally, I signed up and a few weeks later had my first credit card. At the time, I think I had the stunning credit limit of a whopping $700! Long story short, I was able to extend my credit line and I rang up a number of needless expenses. Things were fine until I received the bill and I was shell-shocked. It took me a while, but slowly but surely I paid off my credit card and was debt free again. It was freeing, but at the same time I didn’t quite learn my lesson. It would take a couple more rounds of running up my card, getting shell-shocked, and then paying it off before I realized the dangers of debt.

These days credit cards are very easy to come by. I recall receiving a credit card application for my infant son. It made me laugh but was also a tell-tale sign of the ease of getting into debt. No job? No problem! Sure, we’ll give you a credit card with a $2,500 limit. In addition to credit cards, there are car and student loans. Some people see no other alternative and end up with mounds of debt before they even finish college.

Acquiring debt is a very tricky and risky business and should never be taken on lightly. Whenever you sign on the dotted line and acquire debt, ensure that you have a reasonable plan for paying the money back. And remember, what takes only a few moments to acquire can take you five to ten years to pay off. But the dangers of debt are not simply about financial freedom and responsibility with your God-given resources. Rather, debt can pose a danger to your future ministry. How so?

Due to a number of factors, family sacrifice, church support, working several part time jobs, and even selling virtually every possession I owned (except for my laptop, clothes, and books), I was able to finish my education debt-free. This meant that when I was entertaining a call, I had no minimum salary threshold. In fact, I took a pastorate where I was initially paid a very nominal amount. I was able to do so because I was debt free. Over the years I have run into a number of seminarians who are up against a financial wall and are very limited in the type of call they can pursue because they have a crushing accumulation of debt. In some cases, what a church will pay a newly minted pastor is insufficient to cover basic living expenses and debt payments (car, mortgage, and student loans). In this case, the person either has to find a higher-paying vocation or it means his spouse has to work to service the debt payments.

So what is a person to do? I can only offer some very basic advice. First, don’t assume that the only way to your goal is going into debt. Explore every available option. Do you really need a new car? Can you get buy on a used car, for example? Second, plan ahead. If you think seminary is in your future, start thinking about how might pay for it now. Start planning and saving! And be circumspect about taking on massive debt to pay for college. One way to mitigate student debt is seeking academic or sports scholarships for college. Third, seek wise counsel from parents, friends, family, pastor, and elders. Get their advice on how to manage your finances. In the end, acquiring debt isn’t the end of the world, but be wise about it and think twice before you sign on the dotted line. Don’t unnecessarily hobble your chances of taking a pastorate because you are too laden with financial debt.