Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Faith Works 1-29

Faith Works 1-29-11

Jeff Gill


Ministerial Education Is Changing (Again)



For most Christian denominations, a seminary degree is the baseline credential for ordained ministry.


A seminary is effectively a graduate program, a master's degree beyond a bachelor's, or college degree. In living memory (but just barely), a seminary or "divinity" degree was a B.D., a "bachelor of divinity" such as Oxford and Cambridge in England still grant, but both across the pond and here it was a graduate degree in the sense that you had to have earned your Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.) to enroll.


So to reduce confusion the degree has become known in the last fifty years as an M.Div., for the Latinate "magister divinitatis" or Master of Divinity.  Divinity is, when it's not a very nice egg white based dessert, an archaic term for pastoral theology – the practical study of applied theology in preaching, pastoral care, sacramental theology, and ethics. If that sounds like more than your average master's program, you're right.


A master of divinity has long been 90-100 credit hours to earn, plus an oral defense and/or a thesis paper. Most academic master's programs are 32 to 50 credit hours, in part because they're a high-level overview of a particular field, usually leading to the more intensive doctorate, or Ph.D. program. But the standard "ordination track" degree of M.Div. is a kind of unique creature all its own, not quite a doctorate, but well beyond a basic college diploma.


Like any graduate education, though, it ain't cheap. Or isn't.


I could go over all the woes and complications of having significant student loan debt built up, and then going into a professional field that have average pay rates lower than any other (less than teachers & social workers, let alone administrators & lawyers & doctors, even worse when you compare by amount of education & experience), but the truth is you know all that.


The question getting asked with varying degrees of insight and compassion across the country is: but why?


Why, that is, do we need each gathered congregation to have a graduate-level trained person with a professional certification & institutional oversight, when you just need someone to get up and say a few words on Sunday and go visit a few sick people occasionally, plus read a funeral service out of a book once in a while?


[I'll pause so all the ordained clergy reading this can pause to catch their breath from either weeping uncontrollably or laughing maniacally.]


The problem is, it's not that simple, and never has been. True, the historic roots of "a well ordered and educated clergy" are in the days when you were a day's ride on horseback from the next pastor of your tradition, you had (maybe) a Greek New Testament along with your KJV Bible, and a commentary or two, and a book of printed sermons from an honored preacher of your denomination. Along with the doctor (if there was one) you were the best educated person in town, almost without fail, and when there was no schoolteacher you usually filled in until the next one could be found.


Stipulated: those days are gone. But what cars and interstates and the internet haven't changed is that if someone asks you a pointed theological question in an ER at 3 am, or while standing by a graveside at high noon, you can't often say "What a good question that is; let me go home and look some answers up and I'll e-mail you later."


And you may be able to pass off pre-digested messages out of the gunny sacks of LaHaye and Lucado and Warren and Schuller, maybe even re-purposed as your own, but after a while the least literate of your flock is going to notice that the teaching and tendencies of your preaching is swinging around the compass, like an unanchored ship at high tide in shifting winds.


There's a place & a purpose for seminary trained clergy, even if practically speaking that may not be every pulpit in every church building every Sunday. Meanwhile, church bodies have to accountable to the congregations, who may observe that if credentialed clergy are no better bets for good behavior and solid teaching than a guy off the street, why pay the premium?


Seminary training & ministerial certification are being radically reworked literally as we speak (so to speak). If you hear a conversation going on near you, jump in. We need everyone thinking and working on this challenge.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he's a "magister divinitatis" himself but always thought he should have gotten a B.S. degree. Tell him about your training in ministry at or follow Knapsack @Twitter.

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