Friday, November 4, 2011

Does it make sense to go into Seminary?

In the last month or so there has been a question floating around some of the blogs I read: How do seminaries need to change in the coming years to meet the needs of the future church? Given the current state of the church in North America a prospective seminarian is faced with on the one side racking up thousands of dollars in debt to pay for an M Div and on the other side knowing full well that there are more folks coming out of seminaries than there are churches that are able to support a full-time pastor and his thousands of dollars of debt. How about if I, or other prospective clergy, want to work in smaller churches that are more rooted in their communities? That debt may prevent me from doing so in the same way the bill from law school may force new lawyers away from things like civil rights work or labor law and into a firm that pays six figure salaries. David Fitch and Tony Jones (among others) are calling for the transformation of these institutions from their end.
They have each pointed out that these institutions are, as they saddle folks like me with insurmountable financial responsibilities, largely failing to teach their students how to lead a church in a post-Christendom world. In a recent blog post Fitch argued that seminaries have failed us by:
teaching one person to do everything in the church as a professionalized clergy person. It is heavily cognitive. It trains people to be experts. It takes leaders out of their context to learn information. None of this works when the church is largely disestablished...
he continues by arguing that seminaries must break with the model of grad schools that are training folks for high paying jobs and start training folks in a way that looks more like the National Guard “one night a week/ plus a weekend a month (to name one option).”
Both of these fine gentlemen are professors at seminaries (Fitch at Northern Seminary in the greater Chicago area and Jones as an adjunct faculty here there and everywhere) and are making these sorts of calls from their end but I wonder what it might look like to make a similar sort of demand from mine. Or are there ways to preemptively avoid the debt altogether?
Before I get in too deep I want to acknowledge that I am currently not in any sort of staffing or leadership position in a church. I've given a few sermons from the pulpit over the last ten years as an intern and as Joe Congregation stepping in as the pastor was out of town. I don't handle the money and to be quite honest I think I'd have a panic attack if someone asked me to. That said...
Apprenticeship positions: the apprenticeship as a model has fallen out of favor in just about every line of work in this country. As of the 2007 National Census 40% of farmers were 55+ and on the rise, and though a quick glance through the want ads just about anywhere is likely to find you a opening or two for a journeymen carpenter or plumber every employer wants someone with experience and how you go about getting that experience with out already having it seems to be anyone's guess. The American church seems to me to be in a similar bind, with a aging congregation and an inability to support a freshly seminaried young pastor, their debt and their family. What would it look like if instead of hiring one full-time pastor more churches instead brought on, let's say two seminary students and agreed to share the financial burden of their schooling? What if we didn't ask them to go to a traditional accredited seminary at all but instead encouraged them to audit a class here or there and learn on the job? But I can hear some of your reservations already around a kind of pastor quality-control and to be perfectly honest, you may be on to something there. But at the same time I think this kind of a model has the potential to do exactly what both Fitch and Jones are arguing for, creating “tent makers” not superstar celebrities who wow the congregation from the front. We cannot compete with the entertainment industry and when we try and beat them at their own game we will loose. The only people that we tend to attract is the people who go to the church that's a little less flashy than our own. If I wanted to be entertained basic cable is cheap and HBO puts on a better show than you any day of the week (besides I don't have to interrupt my sleep schedule to catch up on Six Feet Under or The Sopranos)
What I'm proposing has a few things going for it:
1. Many hands make light work. Instead of asking one pastor to meet all of the needs of that local body we are spreading the work between more two or three (or more) people. Not only would this reduce burnout among staff but it would require staff to get jobs outside of the four walls of the church, get pastors interacting with people they currently don't and at least for my money that is a positive in and of itself. I'd like to think that my pastor understands the stresses of having a job, that he, just like me has a boss that can be a real pain in the alter, if you get my drift.
2. This kind of a model could encourage a rooted theology and praxis. Let's use an already established church as means of example (church plants will clearly be different): the pastor and the congregation who is already there is going to get to participate in the teaching of the new pastors. Obviously this already happens, this is the function that internships serve and any new pastor should be getting to know the folks in the church. It is, I think, a little different to imagine pastors in training as being actively taught by community elders and to say that this isn't an annoying part of seminary but this could be some of the real meat and potatoes. Also studies on eco-theology or social justice for instance, are no longer necessarily abstract but can be rooted in a concrete place with all of the knitty-gritty particularities that come with it. The church my wife and I attend has in the last few years, among other things, worked extensively in combating human trafficking as it exists particularly in the I-5 corridor. What I'm proposing would, to use my own church as an example, would have pastors-in-traing looking at social justice as a whole through the lens of human trafficking particularly here in Olympia.
3. This model can keep the church's money local and can avoid debts that hurt the community as a whole. By moving to an on the job training model the church keeps seminarians in the context they will be working in and in turn keeps their dollars working there too. Many of my friends from college have thousands of dollars in debt that they pay each month to folks like Bank of America and Wells Fargo. I know no one talks like this but I don't think it should be too crazy for us to say that the church is about the Reign of God. That's our business. Furthermore, like many of the people who are involved in the #OccupyWallStreet, I think the big banks like Bank of America and Wells Fargo have been lousy for America. From there I don't think it's a stretch at all to say that the banks purpose is not the Reign of God. Why should the church encourage their up and coming leadership to take out loans from them? Furthermore freedom from these kinds of debts allows people to be more daring and, God forbid, listen to the Spirit when She calls us to say things that will be wildly unpopular and maybe even cause them to lose their job (be they clergy, teachers, or activists of any stripe).
4. Opening up the pulpit a little allows for some new voices and fresh readings of texts that have become stale. Once we have widened the circle of who teaches this could create the potential to allow us to encourage parishioners to become active participants not just passive consumers always waiting for cues from up front. In a two part interview (part 1 here) Tim Conder and Dan Rhodes talked about how their church in Durham, NC does a group discussion between some of the leadership about the next Sunday's topic and then “Pub Night” once a week where they see lots of people who would never darken the door of a church come to discuss the Bible and sometimes bringing readings to the texts that enliven words we've come to take for granted.

Ok, so that's a lot and I suppose there are some who would argue that I'm being naive and that this can't work for any one of number of reasons. That said, it seems clear to at least a few of us that these antiquated models are running out of gas and if we don't find a new and more sustainable way of teaching the next generation of leaders, then the Church is in trouble.

You can find the complete series Jones has been doing on the future of seminaries here.


  1. great post Gus. one thing seminaries can do are offer cheaper and smaller degrees for those who want to lead within churches but can't or just don't want to do the three years to full-time route. it seems to me you have pointed out the need for seminaries to do this kind of work. wouldn't it follow as part of the church's educational resources to equip the church's leaders in a variety of ways for a diversity of situations?

    the best perk of actually going to seminary for three years with a group of people is the community. you make friends and you do all the theological dreaming and BSing such that the intellectual tools become easier to use. it's like being immersed in a new language or something.

    hope you are well Deacon Gus!

  2. Hey Gus, followed your comment from Dave's blog over here. You may have already stumbled upon this, but I'd encourage you to check out (and lend your voice to!) Besides serving alongside Dave at Life on the Vine and Northern, I am a part of this initiative that, quite honestly, has exactly folks like you in mind. We need a real alternative that doesn't throw out any babies with the bathwater, and there are some signs of this really beginning to emerge.

  3. An old preacher once told me 'Many heretics have/had seminary degrees.' I would add: many really great pastors have/had seminary degrees. To me, this means there is neither correlation or causation between an M.Div and a Kingdom ministry. So, you're local apprenticeship idea makes sense. A degree means you were a good student. A track record of love and Christlike love means you are a good pastor. Let's find a better way to meld the two.

  4. I'm a twenty-something almost out of college, and considering earning an mDiv next. However, I also want to get involved in a community right away and not be infinity dollars in debt. Where's the balance? Anyway, I really enjoyed your thoughts. I hope this kind of change happens and soon. Thanks.

  5. @ Micah, That's the rub isn't it? I've been savvy (and lucky) enough to manage to make it this far (28) with zero debt, I have that college degree but the seminary bill is a big one. Same kind of question I'm asking, I wish I had the solution

    @Tripp, What you are saying makes sense and I've had enough of a seminaried community around me to get just a taste of that. My question is still can we justify the bill for that? And is there a way we can get a similar result at a cost that shows better returns? I think the work of guys like Ched Myers and Elaine Enns in the LA area and Wes Howard-Brook up in my neck of the woods with attempts at alt ed facilities might be closer to the happy medium for many people.

    @JR, will be sure to check that out. Thanks for the pointer :-)


  6. Don't ever think you are being naive. The congregation was never meant to be a spectator sport, just read Paul.

  7. I like your proposals...

    To build on #2, we need to embrace mentoring.

    I had a professor once tell me the secret of seminary. She said, read three or four of the best books on the subject discuss, write on it and apply it.

    If churches could form mentoring groups around this model and self-train leaders we could do much more work with much less time and money. The only think lacking would be the degree.

  8. Gus,

    This is a great post. I have taken a couple of seminary classes while working with IV full-time and I have noticed a growing disconnect between myself and the fresh from college full-timers. I think that the education is valuable and I am always humbled by what I don't know, but I am not sure that the set apart structure allows for the Spirit to make what is learned in class, applicable outside of it.

    Thanks Gus for diving into the tension that I have been feeling for almost a decade.