If you are a Church of England priest worried about the level of personal debt you are trying to service each month, take some comfort from the fact that you are not alone.
Personal debt is a significant problem for many clergy families, not because levels of debt are any greater than the general population, but because so few clergy families come forward for help.
One problem is the lack of clear data about the issue. The last national survey of levels of debt among Anglican clergy families was in 2000, when some questions about debt were included in the ‘Generosity and Sacrifice’ survey which went out to around 10,000 stipendiary clergy in the Church of England and which informed a review on stipend levels.
Of the 6,000 or so who responded to the survey, almost a third reported having unsecured debts of some kind, defined as all debt excluding mortgages and car loans. Of these, around a quarter had debts in excess of £5,000, while almost 10% had debts in excess of £10,000.
Applied nationally, these figures would suggest that over 700 stipendiary clergy were struggling at the turn of the millennium with unsecured debts of over £5,000, a figure which equates to almost £8,500 in today’s money.
Given the boom in consumer credit over the last twenty years, it is likely that the problem has worsened in the last twenty years. Student and car loans have also coloured the picture. But again sources of data are scarce.
How clergy debt has changed
A question about debt was included in Ministry Division’s most recent (2019) ‘Living Ministry’ survey of over 500 stipendiary and self-supporting clergy ordained in the period 2006-15. Further analysis of the data was commissioned by Clergy Support Trust: Living Ministry Wave 2 Panel Survey: Exploring Clergy Debt.
Car loans were excluded in the 2000 survey but have grown significantly in the last twenty years and now account for around 40% of the personal debt of clergy families applying to Clergy Support Trust for financial help with living expenses. So if car loans are included now, then around two-fifths of the clergy surveyed in 2019 admitted to being in debt. Of these, over a half (54%) had debts (including car loans) in excess of £5,000, while almost a third (29%) had debts in excess of £10,000. Around 10% of all those surveyed also reported some level of anxiety about their debt levels.
The survey also revealed that a third of ordinands had debts. The figures for retired clergy, and for Anglican clergy in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, are unknown.
Why clergy debt is a concern
One reason why anxiety may be high is because many clergy are in denial about their debt problems and are reluctant to seek help. Clergy families amass debt for a host of reasons, including inadequate stipends for those with children, the requirement to run multiple cars in the household (especially in multi-parish benefices), the need to fund family holidays away from the goldfish bowl of the vicarage, low or non-existent spousal income and difficulty in financing general living expenses.
The 2019 Living Ministry survey revealed that those clergy reporting some level of debt were more likely to be stipendiary, younger, male, and have dependent children, compared to those with no debt.
A further problem is that some clergy may be too ashamed to admit their debt problems to their diocese. Debt is also potentially career-limiting for many clergy, since those with bankruptcy or debt relief orders against them are usually disqualified from being trustee members of their PCC.
Help is available
Fortunately, help is at hand. Clergy Support Trust has recently launched a new initiative for Anglican clergy struggling with personal debt.
This involves a partnership with the Churches Mutual Credit Union involving low interest restructuring loans for those with debt of between £5,000 and £20,000, and a collaboration with StepChange Debt Charity for those with higher levels of debt in need of a more structured debt management plan.
But clergy families struggling under unsustainable levels of debt first have to admit that they have a problem.
Jeremy Moodey is Chief Executive of Clergy Support Trust which provides help to Anglican clergy families struggling with financial difficulties, including debt, and also provides health and wellbeing support.