For heads of Black religious institutions, sustaining a pipeline of quality church leaders requires strengthening ties between historically Black theological institutions (HBTIs), churches and those aspiring to assume leadership roles in the future.
Earlier this month, a group that includes HBTIs and Black denominational leaders convened a two-day meeting where participants committed to attracting more institutional support for HBTIs and conveyed the urgency of the student debt grappling so many seminary students.
“We have to assist church leaders to understand the burden of debt. They agreed to take the message back to their congregations,” said Delores F. Brisbon, leader of The Gift of Black Theological Education & The Black Church Collaborative (also known as The Collaborative).
The Collaborative held a two-day discussion about student loan debt at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), Feb. 9-10, which brought together students, deans, presidents and a denominational representative from each of the five participating HBTIs. It preceded a four-day conference scheduled for April during which church and seminary leaders will further explore how to prepare the pulpit for social action.
“The Collaborative is a project to realign the schools with their denominations because enrollment in the past came from those churches,” Brisbon said. “We want to strengthen the pulpit to heal the trauma of the Black experience. It’s a movement to see social change through the lens of faith.”
The Collaborative came out of a prior six-year assessment of the six historic Black theological schools, including Howard School of Divinity. It currently includes: Samuel Dewitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University; Hood Theological Seminary in Salisbury, North Carolina; Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, North Carolina; Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio; and Interdenominational Theological Center [ITC] in Atlanta.
Several of those schools, Hood, Shaw University and Payne Theological, have longstanding ties with the African Methodist Episcopal [AME] Zion Church, Baptist Church, and AME Church, respectively. ITC represents five, Black Christian denominations, including Christian Methodist Episcopal and Church of God in Christ, while the Samuel Dewitt Proctor School of Theology grounds itself in African and African-American religious life and culture.
During The Collaborative’s conference, students recounted their experiences with debt and how it not only affected the structure of their family but their ability to provide for their household with jobs that can’t help them comfortably pay back their loans.
Research conducted by ATS estimated the average debt accumulated by Black seminary students at $43,000, an amount $10,000 greater than their white counterparts. The burden of student loan debt has been connected to Black pastors’ decisions to simultaneously pursue other vocations, personnel shortages at Black churches and Black generational poverty.
At Hood Theological Seminary, The Rev. Lawrence Ganzy, Jr. continues to pursue his Master of Divinity, even as his debt from his graduate studies surpasses $40,000. However, with a burgeoning career as an admissions officer at another university, he hasn’t had much concern about how to pay back his loans.
Ganzy, an ordained elder in the AME Zion Church for four years, sees his studies at Hood Theological Seminary as part of a larger plan to spread his ministry inside and outside the church. He said Black seminaries must inspire students to forge unique career paths within their ministry, whether it be in the church or other places where church officials can provide spiritual guidance to others.
In espousing the need to encourage religious study at the undergraduate level, Ganzy explained why movements such as The Collaborative must make such advancements come to fruition.
“We have to develop ways that theological education can receive the same support and resources that other programs receive,” Ganzy said. “It’s a collaborative effort where we can work together so students can receive full rides to seminary with historically Black theological institutions. Even though our HBCUs are receiving millions of dollars, our HBTIs can receive them too. We want to find ways to have our HBTI to survive, thrive and go to the next level.”