Imagine an Institution

A short illustration, posted on April 20 by Jerry Bowyer on the blog, was printed in the May 31, 2011 edition of the Christian Century:

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.

So What?

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?


  1. Sane, smart observations and recommendations. Likelihood of this happening? Minimal because the educational institutions are self-serving and self-perpetuating. Seminaries, like law schools and medical schools, derive creditability and status (in the sociological sense of the word) from preserving social structure as well as cultural norms. Reform would indeed need to be radical — getting at and digging out the tangled roots. Who will do this if all the change-agents are leaving in dismay and disgust?

  2. Jerry Franz says:

    Yes, I guess I agree with Dr. Gould that the seminary is here to stay. I don’t know if you are familiar with Phoenix Seminary. I did a case study on them in my PhD dissertation (around 2001-2002). I was really impressed with their church-based seminary approach. Yes, they meet in classes sometimes together, but it is a mentoring, ministry-active training experience. You grow academically, and you grow spiritually, and you are regularly in supervised ministry experiences. If you are not showing growth in both academics and spiritual growth, you are in trouble there, as far as graduation. I know spirituality is hard to measure on paper, but they’ve done a great job describing the spiritual qualities (informed by Scripture) that need to be present in all graduates.

    I remember calling them and asking them some hard questions like, “have you had candidates who are smart, but their spirituality lacks, and you did not graduate them?” And their answer was “Yes.” The person gave me an anecdote of a student they were working with at the time, who admitted he needed substantial growth in a certain area, and they were working with him to bring him to a point of being able to graduate in the future. Nice to see some people doing fresh things in ministry, and this struck me as a very biblical way of training spiritual leaders.

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