Faith Works 10-05-13
Seminary is changing into… something
Do ministers of congregations need to go to seminary?
Not that long ago, historically speaking, this was a perfectly fair question. Today, it's becoming a point of debate again.
For most organized Christian bodies, and in many other religious traditions under different terminology but with the same general structure and commitment, it is assumed nowadays that the teaching and preaching leader of the community has a college degree, and another educational experience beyond that.
It might be called a master of divinity; in some Catholic contexts a bachelor of sacred theology is actually a post-graduate degree, and there are other nuances of nomenclature, but in general, most of the Christian bodies with a national presence and a name you'd recognize call for a post-graduate degree before completing the ordination process (which we talked about last week).
What's changing is a movement in two directions with a single, general impact. On the one hand, nondenominational churches are springing up, with many of the larger or "megachurch" institutions having no affiliation with a denominational certification body, hence no specific requirement for even a bachelor degree or Bible college certificate of one sort or another. Each non- or undenominational congregation can hire whom they choose, and even ordain or not ordain as seems right and proper for their history and sense of tradition.
On the other hand, even mainline/oldline Protestant bodies are looking for ways to acknowledge life experience for older entrants into ministry, along with making use of more bivocational and part-time clergy, which is often a better fit with licensed or commissioned ministers rather than ordained pastoral leadership.
Add in the fact that for the once typical college graduate who goes straight into seminary and then into a small church or an associate pastor position (and they're not that typical any more, and haven't been for decades), the student loan debt from seminary, let alone remaining college debt plus seminary obligations, adds up to expenses that ironically can preclude the new graduate from working in any placement they can reasonably hope to be offered.
Which magnifies the impact and need for bivocational and part-time clergy . . .
So seminaries as academic institutions have seen a contraction in both support from denominational bodies which have financial troubles of their own, and a dramatically reduced applicant pool. Some theological schools had endowments enough going into the late 1990s to make it through this challenging passage, and a number have closed.
The financial crisis of the last five years or so has put a huge new pressure on what are often already beleaguered institutions. A few more have closed, many have sold off prime assets, and most are looking at options to relocate or merge or go "virtual", shedding physical plant along with faculty positions.
For those of us who "went" to seminary, and value the unique Christian community we became a part of for those three or four years, the idea of doing your M.Div. largely online, with face-to-face meetings among both teachers and fellow students only happening once or twice a semester, feels . . . well, wrong.
Students going through these new model seminary experiences report that, using online tools like instant messaging, video conferencing, and e-mail, they are growing closer to their fellow classmates in ways that I would have to admit are rich in their own way and deeper in some content than I had living on campus, but serving a church where my attention often was focused. When class was over, I usually headed on out, and only talked to my fellow seminarians just before the next class session; with online tools, they talk to each other, post to each other's papers, and communicate about both class content and personal response to a remarkable amount in between "sessions," in ways we couldn't imagine in the 1980's.
And as much as I have to work to imagine my way into the actual experience of seminary today with those sorts of distance learning tools, I have to admit it's more seminary, and better theological training than just getting a pile of recommended readings and no schooling at all, especially for a bivocational minister who has their hands full with a job that covers benefits, pays bills, and has to come before running to a church meeting let alone reading Augustine's "Confessions" (which you should do, by the way).
What will seminary & theological education look like in another ten years? You'd have to be a prophet to even guess.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; tell him about your training in ministry at email@example.com, or @Knapsack on Twitter.