Economic crises have had a strange effect on the Millennial generation. Many jobs now require a college degree, but we cannot afford college. My parents were able to go to college and to work full-time simultaneously, thus enabling them to pay for their living expenses and tuition. There is no way I could have done that. There is no way I could do that now that I am in seminary.
Millennials are caught in this Catch-22 of economic uncertainty. Without college, your earning potential is severely limited (or so we are told). With college, most start out in debt. Some massively. The one-salary couple and stay-at-home parent are becoming increasingly rare. People with college degrees, some with Master’s degrees, are working as waiters and pizza delivery drivers just to make ends meet. Now, true, some people find good jobs in their field; but, that is the exception. Many feel forced into graduate programs, acquiring more debt just to delay paying undergraduate debt.
God has called me to ordained ministry… and that means one thing for a born-and-bred Presbyterian: a Master’s of Divinity. I have switched into the “Dual Program” at my seminary to receive not only a Master’s of Divinity but also a Master’s of Arts in Christian Education in order to prepare better for my career in ministry. However, the switch also involved me committing to a fourth year at the seminary, my eighth year of taking out student loans. Even with the wonderful scholarship I receive from the seminary, I have to take out student loans just to live. I live frugally, and I work hard at my part-time jobs. But I still rely on student loans.
I have heard some really awful things about what members of my generation “expect” their lifestyle to be. I often feel shamed and ashamed because of the debt I carry. When a pastor nomination committee considers me for a job, they will probably pull up a credit report. Does that really tell people how I am going to minister? Does my credit score affect my pastoral care? Can I preach the Gospel with a low score? After all, I do not know a single pastor who puts together his or her church’s budget alone. There are many members with financial and business savvy. I may even have financial and business savvy, but I may lose job opportunities simply because of factors outside of my control.
I am told actively and passively that people in any kind of ministry should be above worrying about money or haggling a salary. We are not supposed to talk about money in the church. It is impolite. But I see my friends graduating, trying to find ministry positions, and not finding jobs where they can meet their financial needs. It is not just Millennials who are heading into ministry. Many of us in all kinds of different fields and age brackets cannot support ourselves and/or our families. I am worried. I know Jesus told us not to worry, but I am worried. Yes, God clothes the lily of the field. I do believe God does and will take care of me. I also believe God gave me a free will and a brain to make my own decisions. I chose to follow God’s call in my life. I chose to go to college and seminary. I will choose the job where I can make myself financially stable. If I can find that job.
Forget buying a house or considering procreating. Those “normal” mile markers of the American dream are rapidly vanishing. My friends Stan and Heidi began dating in my freshman year of college; they moved in together in a rented apartment during our junior year. They now live together, and their lives are committed to each other in a way I call covenantal. They even have a joint banking account, but in the eyes of the state and church, they are not married. My friends are putting off marriage because they simply cannot afford it. (I am talking about the political and economic status of being married, not the wedding ceremony.) They cannot afford health insurance or even consider owning property. Stan found an entry-level job in his field, and Heidi works at a sandwich shop trying to figure out if she can go to graduate school because she cannot find a job in her field. They have done everything a married couple has done except sign the paperwork, all because of finances.
So, when you look around your church and ask “Where are all the young people?” take a moment and think about a young adult’s financial situation. Sunday may be the only day a young adult does not work and desperately needs a rest (a factor certainly relevant to all ages of workers). Meeting young adults where they are becomes difficult because many of us do not know where we are.
When I graduate my student loans will be a focus for at least the first decade of my ministry.This is a reality formost young adults. Many who did not go to college have other issues. Their prospects for career advancement are limited, and job security is not even a realistic idea anymore. I cannot fathom the difficulties of young adults with families, or the many other factors that can prevent financial stability. I have not even touched upon racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination and oppression that wall off economic prosperity for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans.
Honestly, I do not think I understand those socio-political forces in all their complexity. But I do know that, as a Euro-American, I have a good chance of paying my debt off, eventually. My career will have advancement opportunities that others will not. I also know, however, that as a young, single female there are people who will expect me to work longer hours for less money because I “do not have a family to support.” But being single and without children does not mean I am without a family. I have parents, friends, congregations, the entire body of Christ to which I am responsible.
The modern idea of tithing (donating 10% of my yearly income) is also out of my reach, but if I look back to biblical examples, I see tithing very differently and can begin to think about it in relation to my entire life: how I budget my time, the ways I interact with others, the tangible service I give, the love I demonstrate. People have often pushed away my questions about tithing because I was in college or seminary. They told me not to worry about it. Yet, everything in life belongs to God, and I can tithe my time and talent to the church universal. I want that responsibility, and the respect that comes with it.
I, like many young adults, prefer organizations like Kiva where the $25 I invested in college has been loaned out to people through small business loans and has been returned to me for reinvestment. Seven times. I am lucky enough to be in a community where people understand the importance of being involved in churches and non-profits and the like. Most young adults do not live in a community like that.
So, what can the church do for young adults?
- Do not expect us to be like our parents or grandparents. Their financial and cultural situations were completely different.
- Do not treat us differently (condescendingly) because we are young adults. If we are in your church, we are there because we want to be. So re-define tithing in such a way that all can be included, while still asking serious commitments of each member.
- Be open to different ways of supporting churches by meeting us where we are.
- Talk to us about money. How are we supposed to learn if no one will talk to us? Do not force things down our throats or make us feel bad, but do know the priorities of your church and how the church expects to function.
- Be our spiritual community. We have enough stress in our lives.
Emily Morgan is a student at Princeton Theological Seminary and an Inquirer for Ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She graduated with a BA in History in 2009 from Drury University and plans to pursue congregational and college ministry. She also is beginning a website designed to reach young adults not involved in faith communities to get them thinking about issues in the 21st Century and how they relate to spirituality and religion. Read more at www.fightthebees.com. Banner Photo by Fred Kuipers.
 Names are changed in order to protect anonymity.