Faith Works 10-12-13
Bricks and Mortar and Hearts
First, before I close my reflections on ministerial education, let me encourage any of you reading this early on Saturday morning to make your breakfast or early lunch choice be a "Vancake Breakfast" organized by Wheels for Washka, a group working to help get an accessible van for a fellow over in Granville who has been inspiring to many of us as he has dealt so well with to increase of a debilitating illness that keeps him limited now to a wheelchair.
He's better known, though, for how he's keeping up his health and strength in the face of increasing disability by riding a recumbent bike all over Licking County, pedaling with his hands as he's paced by his faithful companion Scout.
So if you'd like to help Craig and his family get him around when a bike won't do, a few pancakes, or "vancakes" might be just the ticket over at St. Edward's Catholic Church on Newark-Granville Road.
Oh, and if you'd like to join me for a walking tour tomorrow afternoon of the Octagon Earthworks off of 33rd St. in Newark, Sunday is the last Octagon Open House of 2013; we'll be out roaming the grounds from Noon to dusk. Happy to meet some of you!
My conclusion of these last few columns about the growth of virtual learning and online experiences for ministerial training has evoked some strong responses by e-mail and on Facebook. I appreciate all the shared consideration of the subject: it's not simple.
In fact, I'd not planned a third column on this originally, but the feedback to the first, let alone the second, showed me I needed to say a bit more.
Something I've said before in passing deserves saying quite clearly in this context: I don't think residential, accredited, theological seminary with a standard masters (like the M.Div.) is going to disappear, and I do not want it to. It is already becoming less common, less normative, and an expectation that even in mainline/oldline Protestant denominations is lessening.
This is not, for a variety of reasons, an ideal analogy, but I can't come up with one that "works" any better: I think the standard residential seminary degree is going to become like the service academies in the military. Once, if you were going to be an officer in the armed forces, you had to have gone to West Point or Annapolis. Period. Then there were a few "battlefield" promotions, "mustangs" who earned their way from enlisted ranks up to officer without going to the academy.
Today, it's still the general sense that if you want to make a career of the military, if you want to work on the highest levels ultimately, you should go to West Point or Annapolis or Colorado Springs. Yet some who graduate from the academies do their basic obligation and then return to the civilian world, and some who only have ROTC at a state school – like Colin Powell – rise to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. So there are exceptions, yet no one says the service academies have no place, or that they'll close, just because some reach senior officer status without that experience and credential.
Likewise, there will be the choice of churches to want to hire seminary graduates, but some surprising places may choose not to limit themselves to that. Seminary will have the advantages it has, and if graduates and churches don't see those as absolutely necessary, that will prove itself out over the next generation.
Meanwhile, I certainly do think we have too many seminaries. That's not an opinion of mine, that's a statement of fact. They are closing every year, and have been for a while; others are actively pursuing mergers. The supply and demand of their graduates, and the ability of the church as a whole and seminary students individually to pay the bills is proving out that we can probably do with many fewer of them: but they are not, as a species of religious education, going to disappear.
And on the other hand, just as I was writing this, I got a message about a group of Episcopal dioceses in Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska that were working together to establish a "School of Ministry" for their candidates for ministry that would not require travel and residency at a traditional (and costly) seminary experience, allowing them to serve in place, and learn while serving. You can read more about it at www.bishopkemperschool.org .
The only thing I'm certain of about seminary education, other than the fact that seminaries will persist, is that the wider nature of it will continue to change in the face of our changing technology and culture.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; he graduated from seminary in 1989 and is glad he got to do that. Tell him what you think about ministerial education at email@example.com or @Knapsack on Twitter.