Thursday, January 30, 2014

Faith Works 2-1-14

Faith Works 2-1-14

Jeff Gill


Seminary education, and structural decline



Seminary in general among Protestant clergy, and my Masters of Divinity alma mater in particular, has historically been a place designed around a residential experience for learning, reflection, and worship together. For those getting an "MDiv" with plans for ordination to parish ministry, it has usually done all that in tandem with field placement as a sort of leavening agent, though increasingly field placement has been the necessary financial keystone of the process. Seminary students needed the job, and indirectly, the seminary needed those congregational dollars to flow through those students back to the balance sheet of the institution.


As field placement became more important alongside of student loans, the seminaries could shape less and less of the time and experience of students -- the priority was finding where a student placement could be made, and the student looking at what they were doing to themselves in terms of indebtedness, and anticipating how that would push them in certain directions on graduation. Even in the late 1980s for me, the number of students who were in the position of being able to stay in a ministry job because of the quality of the learning experience, and not need to find a better paying position during their three or four years in seminary, and then could go upon graduation where they felt called, not just to where they had an option in front of them that would cover their loan payments (and I was fortunate enough to have all that be true for me): that number was very low.


Since then, the continued decline of student church positions has followed declines in worship attendance generally, and a relative decline in the ability to cover comparable pay & benefits. There are fewer such positions, and pay has necessarily overwhelmed the issue of placement. Some regions have maintained a regular, every semester (or more!) process of formation with seminary students - but most have had annual (at best) meetings, with most "formation" focused on the suite of final ordination requirements, which themselves tend to be academic in nature (papers, sermons), accenting what's already going on in classes, not taking up unaddressed areas of student life.


So where we are is, in retrospect, no surprise, even though there's a great deal of shock and dismay that's been rattling through the "order of ministry" these last few years in most denominational bodies. The seminaries have been collapsing, closing, merging, or announcing "sustainability plans" which sound suspiciously like a retrenching and retooling to a radically new model of post-secondary theological education. They may be pursuing creative options to maintain student counts somewhat better than its peers, but that still means that the number of M.Div. students enrolled and going through to graduation & ordination for service in the local church is shrinking there as well.


And why shouldn't it? The number of full time, benefits bearing positions is drastically lower today than it was in 1989 when I was ordained. That's true for what in ministry would be called "entry level" positions, both as a solo pastor, or as an assistant or "associate pastor." Most of the so-called full time associates are non-benefited, barely into five-digit pay positions. There are very few such positions I think are fairly paid as a "full time" post, even if the title is maintained.


If there's no jobs to go to, why would you encourage people to incur crushing debt to qualify themselves for them? If there are 3 openings for every 10 M.Div.s looking, then for 7, "none" is the answer, job-wise. Full time jobs in ministry are being taken away by large scale changes in the cultural setting of today's church, and only a flexible, adaptive response (including biovocationality as an option, even for M.Div. ordained pastors) is going to sustain congregations.


Which means whatever seminaries, including my alma mater, are going to be in ten years, they will be different. Radically different. A brief mourning period will be allowed, and then the caravan has to keep moving. We are a pilgrim people, and there's no one earthly institution (or art collection, or degree program) that's necessary. Stuff has to be left by the road before the rough patches. Even the heirloom manger scene becomes excess baggage on some uphill pulls -- so set it aside, pick up the little baby Jesus from the box and put him in your pocket, and walk on.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your view of changes in professional education at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

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