Imagine an institution that requires its leaders to attend not only college, but graduate school. Imagine that the graduate school in question is constitutionally forbidden from receiving any form of government aid, that it typically requires three years of full-time schooling for the diploma, that the nature of the schooling bears almost no resemblance to the job in question, and that the pay for graduates is far lower than other professions. You have just imagined the relationship between the Christian church and her seminaries.
I read these words through the lens of my experience. I spent three years pursuing the theological graduate degree required for ordination by most mainline denominations (at least for candidates who seek ordination through traditional paths) and another three years acquiring a doctoral degree that opened the door to an expanded list of ministry opportunities. I have served for three or more years in each of three mainline denominations: Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Lutheran (ELCA), and Presbyterian (PCUSA. I am now serving a congregation affiliated with the United Church of Christ. I have participated in various aspects of seeking denominational approval for ministry in each of these four traditions and have my undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees from schools affiliated with three other traditions. I now label myself postdenominational and am actively engaged in Christian community, especially online, that includes persons from all traditions as well as those who are non-denominational or who are affiliated with multiple networks.
Over the last decade, I have heard and read many stories of recent seminary graduates who experienced a considerable disconnect between what they learned in seminary and what was expected of them by parishioners. My own experiences were less dramatic, but I suspect my experience is atypical for several reasons: serving in larger parishes, never serving as a senior pastor or solo pastor, and always being in vocational ministry (rather than making the shift to it only after graduation).
Based on my experiences in ministry and in academia (I currently work in distance education for a private university) and enriched by the stories of others, I believe that the seminary system, as the mainline has known it is for the last several generations, is dead. While enrollment numbers would suggest otherwise, they must not be seen as the primary measure of health. Just as the mainline denominations have long recognized the numeric decline in membership, their seminaries have been equally aware of the widening gap between ministerial preparation in the classroom and ministerial effectiveness in leading congregations. In both cases, the groups responsible for oversight have resisted the idea of radical reform. Since so much time has passed, I humbly suggest the time is now.
Specifically, I hope:
- Mainline denominations will
- reevaluate the necessity of the M.Div. as a prerequisite for ordination
- redefine the requirements for ordained ministry
- partner together to create a single ordaining body and a single search and call system for clergy and congregations
- Mainline seminaries will
- reevaluate the core curricula of the basic graduate programs in theology, especially in light of any new standards that may be established by denominations or by a newly formed body representing all mainline denominations
- establish two standards: one for academic preparation expectations for those preparing for parish ministry and another for those preparing for a career in the academy
- learn from recent graduates by engaging in extensive research about the shortcomings of their seminary education
- All mainline leaders will
- reevaluate what it means to be affiliated with a denomination, network or intentional grouping of churches in the early twenty-first century
- partner together in ways that display genuine Christian unity without requiring participants to lose their own unique identities
- understand that residential relocation for extensive periods of academic preparation for ministry is an unrealistic expectation and commit the resources needed to ensure that seminaries become the leading edge of virtual education, especially in the sense of creating community
Questions worth pondering:
- What was your initial response to Bowyer’s illustration? to my proposal?
- What type of seminary reform do you believe is most critical? Why?