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Thinking Theologically about Stewardship

Note: Some of the media and spreadsheets below were produced by Auburn Seminary's "Theological Student Debt" project.

Pursuing a graduate theological education is an exciting and rewarding endeavor that will open up a world of possibilities for ministry, service to others, and future vocational plans. Knowing that graduate school requires significant time and money, Vanderbilt Divinity School is committed to helping our students succeed through smart and sound financial stewardship. To this end, VDS is among 60+ graduate theological schools that have committed to helping students make wise financial decisions and minimize debt.  As full participants in the Economic Challenges Facing Future Ministers Project funded by the Lilly Endowment, our institution has increased our programmatic and educational offerings related to all areas of personal and professional finance.    

As a starting place, it may be helpful for incoming and current students to review the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's definition of "Financial Well-Being."

It is always good practice for students to know their current educational debt balance and continue to track those figures throughout their degree program. Students can look up their current balance any time by visiting the National Student Loan Data System

Budgeting Tools

Budgeting is an essential tool for theological students. Don't know where to start? Try some of the tools  below and see how simple budgeting can be!

Budgeting 101: Creating and Maintaining a Personal Budget

Budgeting Video: Student Financial Aid Office of the U.S. Department of Education

Budgeting Tips and Tools: Student Financial Aid Office of the U.S. Department of Education

Basic Semester Budget Worksheet

Financial Coaching

Current Divinity students have the opportunity to set up one-time or ongoing financial coaching sessions to receive guidance and support for planning their finances during school and following graduation.  For more information, contact Lillian Hallstrand, Director of Stewardship and Vocational Planning.

Debt Repayment Calculators

What are your current debt levels? How much educational debt can you afford to incur based on your intended career path? The calculators below can assist you in navigating repayment numbers and timeframe.

Affordability Rule-of-Thumb Calculator

Household Debt Repayment Plan

Federal Student Loan Repayment Estimator

"Repayment: What to Expect" video by the Student Financial Aid Office of the U.S. Department of Education

"The rule of thumb for borrowing is that debt should never exceed starting salary."
-Mark Kantrowitz, Publisher of

Student Loan Cautions

Minimizing student loan debt allows for maximum freedom to choose a vocational path with your heart, and give less regard to salary levels.  While federal student loans often carry lower interest rates than private loans, they still represent debt, which can be a limiting factor in one's future life plans.

While the Federal Government has an array of repayment options for student loans, there are some cautionary facts to consider:

1.  Income-Based Repayment plans have to be reapplied for on an annual basis.

2.  Loan forgiveness programs currently available under the Income-Based Repayment Plan and the Pay As You Earn Plan treat any forgiven debt as taxable income, usually at a rate of 25%-30%.

3.  There are conversations on the floor of Congress about capping loan forgiveness at anywhere from $30,000 to $57,500.

4.  Even if you declare bankruptcy, your federal student loans will not be discharged.

Before you borrow, know the facts by reading the  Financial Literacy Guidance From Federal Student Aid  document published by the U.S. Department of Education.

Be Creative! (3 surprising ways to help finance your theological education)

  1. Apply to be a Resident Advisor (RA) in an undergraduate dormitory at Vanderbilt through the Office of Housing & Residential Education. RAs receive free housing on campus plus a monthly $2000 stipend throughout the academic year. **IMPORTANT NOTE: RA applications are due January 16th, so prospective Divinity students may need to complete their housing application BEFORE learning whether they have been admitted to the Divinity School.**
  2. Contact faculty who hire Research Assistants each year. Not all Divinity faculty hire research assistants, but some are open to hiring Divinity students.
  3. Consider other "alternative housing" arrangements. The Scarritt Bennett Center (SBC) in Nashville occasionally hires resident-volunteers who live for free or reduced cost on the SBC campus (one block from the Divinity School) in exchange for service to SBC programs and initiatives. Additionally, several of the Greek organizations on campus hire resident supervisors to live on-site in the fraternities and sororities.
How do they do it?  How students say they are graduating with minimal debt:
  • "I worked as many hours as my schedule would allow."
  • "I sought out funding from my denomination and local church."
  • "I took 7 years to finish the degree so that I could work and pay out-of-pocket as I went."
  • "I saved up money in advance so that I could attend without borrowing."
  • "My family helped support me."
  • "I made small changes to save money, like canceling cable at $100/month and just sticking with Netflix at $9/month."
  • "My partner worked full-time to support both of us while I was in school."
  • "It was a priority for me to not have debt so I made sacrifices in lifestyle and worked to have enough money to live simply."

Video: How to Keep from Mortgaging Your Future

This 30-minute video, developed by Auburn Theological Seminary, offers an account of how several students have approached financing a theological education.  For detailed budget spreadsheets and information on national studies on theological student indebtedness, please visit the Auburn Theological Seminary website.