At its meeting on April 12, the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board approved a proposal from the office of Financial Aid for Service to expand the usage of currently budgeted student-loan funds to provide debt assistance to young adults pursuing opportunities for Christian service.

In presenting the proposal to the board’s Leadership Committee on April 11, Rob Fohr—the young adult catalyst for the Presbyterian Mission Agency—emphasized its relevance to the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s directional goal to “inspire, equip, and connect the church to engage and join with young adults in reforming the church for Christ's mission.”

“Eliminating barriers for service for young adults falls right in line with our directional goal for young adults,” Fohr told the committee. “Our goal here is to use certain funds that have been previously restricted to undergraduate education to provide debt relief to young adults seeking to do a season of service.”

The board’s action further reinforces the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s shift from an emphasis on education purely for the sake of education to education for a life of discernment and service.

“Study is a means, and service is the desired end for all Christians,” said Laura Bryan, associate for Financial Aid for Service in the Theology, Worship, and Education ministry area. “While this office will continue to serve Presbyterian students by awarding them money to go to school, our goal is also to encourage students to discern who God created them to be through such opportunities as mission service. Because of the board’s affirmative vote, we now have greater flexibility to honor that commitment to young adults.”

The proposal presented to the board was designed to expand a 2010 initiative which added loan forgiveness for service to the existing theological-student loan program, a move that eventually resulted in renaming the program Transformational Leadership Debt Assistance. TLDA forgives loans to teaching elders who are called to serve in temporary and/or part-time pastoral positions in Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations of 150 members or less or in emerging new worshiping communities.

The April 2013 board action extends the concept of debt assistance for service to students who have completed or interrupted their college education and are not teaching elders. Awards will be capped at no more than $250 of repayment assistance per month for a period not to exceed 12 months.

“I’m excited about this,” said Nancy Ramsay, a member of the board’s Leadership Committee from Fort Worth, Texas, who serves as professor of pastoral theology and pastoral care at Brite Divinity School.

Bryan envisions a broader debt-assistance program growing in 2014 and 2015 that will be presented primarily to congregations and other Presbyterian organizations as an option for incentivizing service and eliminating financial barriers. “As the ‘Season of Service’ concept is further defined and expanded, Financial Aid for Service will work to identify a reporting methodology that will protect the assets of the church while providing flexibility to incentivize service, accommodate innovation in local models of ministry, and educate Presbyterians burdened with educational debt,” she said.

In a related matter, the Leadership Committee also previewed a new debt-assistance program for Presbyterian women called to serve as practicing physicians in the mission field.                

Charles Wiley, coordinator of the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s office of Theology and Worship, introduced the Agnes and Dorothy Marschner Fund, which will provide up to $35,000 annually to one or two Presbyterian women serving as practicing physicians in the mission field. In addition to mission work under the direction of or in participation with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), eligible positions might also include service with a medical humanitarian organization or in a Health Professional Shortage Area, as defined by the US Department of Health and Human Services.

When first asked to develop a proposal for the use of the fund, Financial Aid for Service proposed a debt-assistance approach. “Because the donor is very clear about the fund’s restriction to Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) women serving as physicians, we concluded that the best way we could respond would be to address the burden of student-loan repayment,” Bryan said.

The fund is named in memory of Dorothy Marie Marschner, who died in February 2010 at the age of 83, and her mother, Agnes Marschner. Dorothy Marschner, a former insurance underwriter at the American Insurance Company in Newark, New Jersey, was a trustee and Sunday school teacher for 35 years at Sanford Heights Presbyterian Church in Irvington, and later a member of New Providence Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterian Foundation was a beneficiary of 20 percent of her estate.

Because of the size of the Marschner Fund and the nature of its restrictions, Financial Aid for Service anticipates making one or two awards per year for 10–15 years before the fund is fully expended.