Many women and men pursuing a religious vocation long have been hesitant even to ask this question: Can I afford it?

They have been taught to take a leap of faith to a divine call and not to worry about their temporal needs.

But how that promise can be fulfilled is being increasingly called into question as seminarians incur record debt levels as many theological schools raise tuition during a challenging economy.

More than a quarter of students graduating in 2011 with a Master of Divinity degree had more than $40,000 in theological debt and 5 percent were more than $80,000 in the red, a new study found.

Many of these students discovered that not only they or their spouses had to moonlight to make ends meet, but some had to choose another job besides the ministry to pay the bills, according to the study by the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary.

Several seminaries already realize the days of balancing budgets by raising tuition may be coming to an end. Those schools are implementing or exploring more affordable models of theological education. Their models include more online learning, fewer required course hours and greater emphasis on paid internships.

Perhaps as important, however, more theological schools also are asking themselves hard questions about their responsibility to offer financial guidance to students so inspired by what they believe to be God’s call that they pay little attention to the economic costs.

At Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, school officials have a candid conversation about costs with every prospective student. If their projected debt burden is too high, the students may be told to postpone graduate school until they are on a stronger financial footing.

“We’re not about injuring people’s lives,” President Rick Barger says. “We are about bringing healing and hope.”

Tough times

These are not just tough times for the students.

A troubled economy, rising fixed costs and declining enrollments make it particularly difficult for graduate theological schools to turn away any qualified students.

Members of The Association of Theological Schools in the United States reported a total deficit of $71 million on total revenue of $1.55 billion for 2012-13. The schools reported a surplus of $482 million on $1.92 billion in revenue in 2006-2007.

One solution has been to raise tuition costs. The average tuition and fees for a master of divinity program rose across the board from 2011-2012 to 2012-2013, according to the association report. The hardest hit were students at schools with the smallest enrollments, where tuition and fees rose from $11,700 to $13,100.

Achieving balanced budgets without shifting too much of the burden on students “is a huge challenge for schools all the way from the most heavily endowed” to smaller institutions, said Stephen Graham, senior director of programs and services for the association.

Theological schools may no longer have much of a choice. More students, many of whom come to seminary with large amounts of undergraduate debt, are reaching the breaking point, the Auburn study found.

The average debt of master of divinity graduates who took out student loans rose from $11,000 in 1991 to $38,700 in 2011. Even adjusting for inflation, the debt load for borrowers more than doubled in the last 20 years, the study found.

A separate survey of 1,745 master's level theological school graduates from 2000 to 2009 revealed just how difficult it can be to carry such high debt in a relatively low paying profession.

Nearly half the respondents said their current financial situation is not comfortable. Twenty-nine percent said they had to seek better paying jobs than the ministry and more than one in four said either they or someone in their family had to postpone health care.

Schools are responding. With much of the costs associated with living expenses, many theological schools are offering alternatives to the traditional requirements of three years on campus for a Master of Divinity degree.

Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky, for example, has moved to more of an online model of education, bringing students together for intensive short-term meetings on campus, but allowing most of the work to be done from home.

Trinity Lutheran Seminary is taking several steps to ease future clergy's financial burden, from reducing the required number of course hours to enabling students to complete more of their degree work in internship settings where they receive a stipend and free housing.

But the most effective change may be in providing financial education and guidelines for students.

A changing culture

In the Auburn study, nearly two-thirds of graduates said they would have borrowed less if they had to do it over again.

More than half of the respondents said they were not aware of their monthly payments when they took out loans and did not have accurate knowledge of future compensation while they were in school.

But financial caution was not the message they were hearing from their schools. More than nine in 10 said neither the faculty nor the administration discouraged borrowing. Three in 10 students said they received no financial guidance.

The messages some did hear from faculty advisers included, “You should never let pecuniary interests stand in the way of your calling” or “If you’re really called to ministry, you’ll find a way.”

Attitudes are changing, however.

The Lilly Endowment Inc. announced in December that it awarded more than $12.3 million for 51 theological schools to “examine and strengthen their financial and educational practices to improve the economic well-being of future ministerial leaders.”

The grants will allow the schools among other activities to examine new models for financing theological education, explore ways to reduce the number of hours required for degrees, broaden sources of scholarships and financial aid and create programs to improve the financial literacy of students.

For students, it may be more helpful to reframe the conversation from it being somehow a sign of a lack of faith to be sensitive to finances to looking at in terms of “how your calling may be jeopardized if you take on too much debt,” said Sharon Miller, interim co-director of the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education.

On the other side, schools have a moral as well as a professional responsibility to help students understand the financial costs of pursuing a seminary education, says the Rev. Kris Bentley, who is the project director for the Lilly grant at Lexington Theological Seminary.

“We have the Golden Rule, right,” Bentley said. “I would think the right thing for people to do is to be honest.”