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A Pivot Point in Theological Education

by The Rev. Kaji Douša
Senior Minister, The Table:  United Church of Christ of La Mesa

Rev. Dousa

Rev. Kaji Dousa

The week of March 16, 2015 I returned to my alma mater, Yale Divinity School (YDS), where I have recently joined the Alumni Board. This meeting time was curious and difficult. You see, we typically gather for Convocation (in October) and Commencement (in May). Those are wonderful times to be in New Haven, Connecticut. But San Diego has gotten into my bloodstream and I haven’t the constitution for a New England Winter any longer. It’s a good thing that we were meeting for something as important as we were.

The relatively new Dean of the school, Gregory Sterling, charged a committee of esteemed faculty members to come up with a strategic plan for the Divinity School. In his words:

“I charged the committee with developing four to six ‘pivot points’ or major shifts that would advance the School. There are things that we have done well and will continue to do well, e.g., academic quality, emphasis on social justice. I asked the committee to think of what we need to do that we are not doing. The document is a document about change rather than continuity. We will maintain continuity with our past, but want to make advances.”

The pivot points are still under review, so I can’t share them quite yet. I can share the spirit of the one that excited me most, because I think that the challenge it addresses is one that could put faith institutions into a place of crisis rather soon, if something isn’t done. This pivot point helps to get at it:

Freeing Students from Debt and for Vocation

Fully funding student financial need is critical to strengthening YDS’s capacity to train Christian leaders for the academy, church, and society. Currently, students enter YDS with $28,000 of debt on average, and leave with over $55,000 in debt. Financial assistance has consistently been articulated as our top funding priority because of its direct impact on nearly every aspect of what we do.

Folks: this is HUGE. I graduated from Yale with around $90,000 in debt. And this is not unusual. Yale tends to attract students with expensive undergraduate degrees, like me. Now, consider my earning potential as a minister. Here I am, doing well, yet it would take me years to earn that amount in pretax salary alone.  It will be a long, long time before I am able to even begin to see a decrease in my principal debt. And I am not the worst off, either, and I earn more than many of my colleagues, particularly when you factor in that my church graciously and generously offers a beautiful parsonage for living. But you do see the problem, right? Churches are depending on leaders who take on debt to learn how to lead them. And there isn’t really a good way to pay back this debt. Yale is making a commitment to stop this cycle. This is incredibly exciting for the generations of church leadership to come.

Theological institutions – the places that teach us how to wrestle with text and dogma and ethics with academic rigor and intellectual savvy – are in crisis. The UCC has seven denominational seminaries facing real financial strains that we pray they will be able to resolve.  It is in our interest as a church to do what we can to support the UCC seminaries that are to remain as fertile training grounds for the next generation of ministers. Schools like Yale and Harvard are different. Thanks to enormous endowments and broader funding possibilities, Yale (and Harvard), founded around the turn of the 17th – 18th century to train Congregational ministers, are in stronger shape and promise to stick around for generations to come. I am deeply grateful that my school is doing what it can to pivot away from student debt and into fully funding theological education. The church matters that much.

At the meeting of the Alumni Board, we were able to personally thank Dean Sterling and many of the faculty for setting such a bold course. The church depends on a healthy stream of ministers training to lead. This pivot point helps to move us in just that direction.

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