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New survey reveals debt and mental stress among ordinands

03 November 2023

Diocese of Exeter

Ordinands in the diocese of Exeter in October 2022

Ordinands in the diocese of Exeter in October 2022

THEOLOGICAL students are facing heavy financial pressures, which have implications for the shape of their future ministerial choices, a survey for 2022-23 by the Ordinands’ Association suggests.

The first of its kind from the student-led organisation, the report Financial Pressures on Ordinands in Training echoes many of the questions used in the Living Ministry and Clergy Remuneration surveys, although it was carried out independently of the Church of England. The report is dated 23 July, but has just been published, after a delay over the summer.

There were 271 survey responses. One quarter of the respondents had suffered at least one form of financial hardship, such as falling behind on energy bills. More than one third had gone into debt of some kind; and ten per cent reported regularly missing eating a meal. About half of the sample — 52 per cent of women and 45 per cent of men — indicated that financial worries had a negative impact on their mental health.

Significant proportions of respondents reported having to deal with missed rent or mortgage payments, having to use foodbanks, missing meals to afford bills, and employing various methods. such as borrowing money, to meet everyday expenses.

Forty-three per cent reported having some form of debt — most commonly credit-card debt (21.4 per cent), followed by loans from family or friends (11.4 per cent). The average owed among those who disclosed the amount of debt was £6770.26; 42.7 per cent of respondents had a student loan, but most were not making payments, owing to their low income.

The samples were taken from a range of sponsoring dioceses and theological colleges. Thirty-eight out of 42 dioceses are represented, with an average of seven respondents per diocese. There was a balanced distribution between genders, but ethnicity is acknowledged to have been “notably skewed”, with a dominant white representation of 94.8 per cent. The number who reported being married or in a civil partnership was 168.

When asked whether, over the past three months, they had felt optimistic about the future, relaxed, and interested in other people, and whether they had energy to spare, felt that they were dealing well with problems, or felt good about themselves, 48 per cent of all respondents, and 57 per cent of the female respondents, answered “Rarely” or “None of the time” for at least one of those feelings.

The survey reveals gender differences in training choices. Among women, the majority — 43.4 per cent — are undertaking part-time, non-residential training, and 36.8 per cent are in full-time residential training. In contrast, the majority — 64 per cent — of the men were pursuing full-time residential training, and 23.7 per cent were in part-time, non-residential training.

One said: “I chose non-residential training so that I could remain in paid employment. This is because it was impossible to leave the maintenance of our house in mortgage to my partner. However, I found it impossible to balance training and full-time employment in education. So I went part time (church-employed) which means we struggle to pay bills etc. now.”

Concerns were also expressed about the implications of being forced into a self-supporting ministry, as they might have to balance a secular job alongside their religious duties. One said: “I am SSM as my diocese does not offer stipends over 50. I’ll have to work part-time as well as my curacy, which will have an impact on my work-life balance.”

Others report using savings to manage emergencies, leading to a lack of financial flexibility to respond to sudden crises and putting relationships under stress. The majority did expect their financial situation to improve; a minority of 23 per cent expected it to worsen.

Although the samples are acknowledged to be small, the report observes a clear skewing towards females in self-supporting ministries (72 per cent female representation), pioneer ministry (75 per cent), and distinctive diaconate (100 per cent).

In contrast, 70 per cent of the Potential Theological Educators category are found to be male. Other types of ministry, such as Assistant Ministry, also demonstrate a modest female bias, with 63 per cent female participation. According to the findings, the proportion of men to women receiving maintenance funding is higher: 68 per cent, compared with 52 per cent.

Respondents expressed concerns about lack of information and uncertainty about curacy finances. Some felt that older or part-time students were at a disadvantage. There is a perceived lack of consideration for unique individual circumstances, including age, marital status, and parenthood.

Asked about what worked well and what could be improved for their funding and maintenance, many were grateful that the funding system existed, and recognised it as a privilege to receive support for their training.

Some appreciated specific aspects, such as the book and travel grants, and means-testing. A need for transparency and clarity was mentioned, and reference was made to “long and complicated finance forms, unclear policies and inconsistent information between dioceses”.

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