Monday, August 31, 2009

Do We Need to Reconsider Seminary-Trained Clergy?

I learned the other day that a candidate for the ordained ministry in another annual conference was deferred ordination not because he didn't measure up to doctrinal or psychological issues or didn't have the gifts for preaching or teaching; he had too much educational debt (for those of you not United Methodist, ordination candidates are asked, "Are you presently in debt as to embarrass you in your ministry?").

After doing some checking, I discovered that the average student gets out of undergraduate school at a public university with about $21k of debt, a 108% increase from 10 years ago (God only knows what the average debt is from a private school). In looking around at United Methodist related seminaries (the encouraged education of UM clergy), the average seminary debt (3 years of graduate school) is presently running around $30k. That's really not that bad, considering a year's tuition and at Duke Divinity runs $21,640, a year at Emory runs $15,500, a year at Asbury $14,400, and a year at Garrett-Evangelical $15,600 (I didn't include yearly living expenses, which estimates run $11k to $18k a year).

So let's say an ordination candidate gets the minimum education required and comes out of undergraduate and graduate school with "average" educational debt. That will be $51k. The problem is that the minimum salary for seminary graduates ranges from $25k (Rio Grand) to $47k (Western New York). In other words, the debt load (at least from a financial institution's viewpoint) is unacceptable given the income of the individual.

My education has served me well: I have diplomas from the University of Tennessee and Emory University hanging on the wall of my office. My educational debt? $0. I got 1/2 of my undergraduate tuition covered since my father was UT faculty, and I was able to work to pay the other half. I received a fellowship for seminary that paid my tuition and served as a student pastor for a place to live and living expenses. My situation was not - and is not - the norm, I fear.

Are we pricing ourselves out of ministry? One blogger suggests so ("Can We Afford Seminary?"). And more to the point, does the M.Div really serve the Church well? Has it contributed to the life of the Church or exacerbated clericalism? Do we see the role of clergy as "keepers of the faith" or do we see clergy leadership and preaching as part of what the Church does as a whole body?

I am convinced that God doesn't need our M.Div degrees, but I am equally convinced that God does not need our ignorance either. However, we might be better served going back of the very traditional model of local seminaries and apprenticeships as opposed to a professional degree. For one, it's much, much cheaper. For another, the last 50-70 years when M.Div's have become the norm have not seen a marked increase in the number of Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, etc. - in fact, we have gotten smaller.

Perhaps we would be served much better by a work-study type of program, night classes, online study, and the like. Some say this is dumbing down - but the reality is, especially in the United Methodist Church where the "average" church is less than 150 folks, that we probably need fewer M.Div graduates and more folks who are spiritually formed and called. It certainly worked for 1900 years.

The other alternatives are not viable ones: higher clergy salaries are not realistic. Raising church apportionments to cover the total costs of seminary graduates is unrealistic as well. And as a seminary education necessarily takes place in a private university, private education is not cheap. I am just wondering how long this present model will work: we can't require folks to get an education to be qualified and then tell them they are carrying too much educational debt so we won't ordain them.

I think are kidding ourselves if we think this problem will simply go away. If I were 44 years old with a family and felt the call to preach, I don't think I could do it in the United Methodist Church: I couldn't afford it unless a rich uncle paid my way... and I am fairly sure I don't have any rich uncles.

Perhaps a model the General Board of Ministry should consider is a localized seminary option (it worked in the Early Church for a long long time). Maybe we've bought into American consumerism too much and just tried to "buy" what we need instead of doing the hard work ourselves.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009


[from Newsletter 8-26-09]

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (turn and face the strain)
Ch-ch-changes, Oh, look out you rock n rollers
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (turn and face the strain)
Ch-ch-changes, Pretty soon now you’re gonna get a little older
Time may change me, But I cant trace time
- David Bowie, 1971

No one likes to face the strain of getting older. The first time I heard this song I was in the fourth or fifth grade. Now that I’m realizing that there may be fewer days ahead than there are behind, I understand the song better. David Bowie knew 38 years ago that even “rock n rollers” were going to get older and face the strain of change and getting older.

We all witnessed changes in our sanctuary furniture the past three weeks. I heard people say they liked the new changes. I heard people say that they didn’t. Folks were mad I changed things. Folks were mad that I changed them back. Some didn’t like the way the choir looked. Many liked a central pulpit. Others want a split chancel (pulpit/lectern) with a central table.

The reality is I can make historical, theological, and liturgical cases for each configuration. The split chancel and central altar-table comes from the Roman Catholic tradition (although the pulpit is supposed to be stage right and the lectern stage left – ours are opposite of that). A central or single pulpit (called an ambo) comes from the Protestant tradition. To have the chancel (“stage”) as elevated as we have it at RUMC is really more from the evangelical/free tradition than liturgical tradition. Our choir sits in the very front of the church, which is also from the evangelical/free tradition. If we were following traditional church architecture, the choir should either be split in half facing each other (with the altar/table in the very front of the church) or should be in the balcony.

We obviously are a mixture of all of these – which is neither right nor wrong. It has served us well for many years. My purpose is moving some of the things around was to look at the possibilities for the future. Change is inevitable, and if we want to continue to make disciples for Jesus Christ, we have to be sure we are ready for the everchanging world to communicate the Gospel as clearly and effectively as we can.

One of the things the last Council on Ministries meeting did was to make a recommendation for a new wor-ship chairperson, and empowering the worship committee to explore how we might commission a new worship service to reach out to the younger adults and unchurched of our area. This worship service will no doubt look differently than the two present services that we have. It might result in having a third service. It will take a lot of study and prayer to discern what will work best for us. However, we have a finite amount of space, and a new worship service will necessarily mean flexibility in our present space to accommodate musicians, different modes of preaching and communicating the Word, and other aspects that we have not even considered yet.

Is this different? Yes. Will it mean changes? Yes. Will all of us like them? No. Being the traditionalist that I am, I am quite sure I will not like them either. But I don’t think God cares what we like and what we don’t: he asks us that if we love Him, we will feed his sheep.

Are we willing to make changes to feed the sheep and make disciples? That is something we will have to pray about.


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Church: Ditch “Liberal” and “Conservative.” Let the Politicians Have Them

No one knows what these words mean anymore – we choose one and if people are not like us, then they must be the other and they are bad.

Be forewarned. This is a rant.

Take worship. I think we ought to celebrate Eucharist weekly or actually follow the order of worship as proscribed in the Hymnal and Book of Worship, and when I advocate it, someone envariably tells me, “Some professor espoused that liberal stuff in seminary.” When I point out that our liturgy basically follows the same form as the liturgy of Justin Martyr (ca 155 A.D.), I get a blank stare. And if I am feeling particularly impish, I might even start singing, “Give me that old time religion, give me that old time religion, give me that old time religion, it’s good enough for me.” So really, to NOT worship in this manner is quite liberal, since the Church basically worshiped this way for nearly 1700 years.

And if I get the, “Well, it certainly isn’t Methodist,” I will quickly quote John Wesley from his sermon The Duty of Constant Communion:
Let every one, therefore, who has either any desire to please God, or any love of his own soul, obey God, and consult the good of his own soul, by communicating every time he can; like the first Christians, with whom the Christian sacrifice was a constant part of the Lord's day service. And for several centuries they received it almost every day: Four times a week always, and every saint's day beside. Accordingly, those that joined in the prayers of the faithful never failed to partake of the blessed sacrament. What opinion they had of any who turned his back upon it, we may learn from that ancient canon: "If any believer join in the prayers of the faithful, and go away without receiving the Lord's Supper, let him be excommunicated, as bringing confusion into the church of God."
Receiving communion regularly (i.e., weekly or more) has always been the norm in Christianity. To receive it once a month is quite a liberal notion, historically and theologically!

It’s funny that the folks crying “liberal” in church the most are actually the ones who are the most liberal (in the real sense of the word, anyway). So that’s why these words really aren’t that helpful, much less accurate. The words have been bastardized and politicized into labels.

It also makes Christian orthodoxy more difficult to explain. In United Methodism, we have a Book of Discipline that continues to grow larger and larger and also continues to be ignored more and more. To overgeneralize: “Liberals” often don’t follow the covenant of what the UMC says about homosexuality. “Conservatives” often don’t follow the liturgy and worship resources that all ordained ministers vowed to accept. Neither takes the phrase to “be loyal to The United Methodist Church, accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word” very seriously – we pick and choose what we follow and what we won’t. Our covenant is qualified, not bonafide.

It seems that neither liberals nor conservatives like the Creeds – liberals don’t want to say “born of the Virgin Mary” and conservatives don’t want to say “Catholic Church.” Liberals want to wake us up with United Methodism at Risk in condescending tone and Mark Tooley leads the conservatives with Taking Back the United Methodist Church in a Christian’s-Guide-to-Voting kind of way. The only differences in the books are in ideology; their tones are the same and, in my opinion, unacceptable. So are the results: zilch. In fact, less than zilch – despite the effort, money, and diatribe of both sides, the UMC is still losing members, infrastructure, and witness.

As a pastor for 22 years, my read about people in the pews is this: the fights of the conservatives and the liberals, at least in United Methodism, is a fight that the extremes created to “take control.” It was not the fight of the average Joe and Jane. But they do have a dog in the hunt: while the extremes are fighting over homosexuality and political bent, people in the pews are starving, being abused from neglect, and dying of thirst. The shepherds, both clergy and lay leaders of our denomination, are fighting amongst themselves and allowing the flock to wither. Spiritual maturity has been co-opted by power plays and renewal groups in order that the correct “side” might prevail and finally be in charge. I wonder if there will be a flock left to shepherd when the smoke clears.

We don’t need “conservatives” and “liberals” - and Christ certainly doesn't. We don’t need folks fighting for power. We need radicals in the image of Christ who are willing to yield rather than control. I’m tired of the fighting over homosexuality (for it or against it) under the guise of family values when we haven’t even mastered the basics of living in community yet much less in making disciples; it’s akin to holding an A.A. meeting in a pub. I’m weary over fighting about equality and diversity and tolerance and the value of each human being and what they hold dear, yet we can’t even say the Lord’s Prayer because it might offend someone. We have become so generic in our language in our attempts to be “inclusive” and in the process have rendered ourselves impotent to make change and foster relationships with God our Father and His children (and yes, I said Father rather than some generic and modalistic Creator – I’d rather risk offending someone than risk calling God nothing).

As I’ve said before, Methodism has done a 360° instead of a 180°. We're right back where Wesley started, I think. The Method is great, and I think we tried to improve it instead of follow it. It may be that making things simple makes faith easier to embrace and follow and live, thus giving it strength and power and propheticness.

At a small group study at our church, the question was asked, “How does God redeem all Creation?” One great answer came from a wise older woman, “That’s all on us.” It's such a good statement: it is on us: We either surrender to God or we don’t. We either seek a relationship with Christ AND our brothers and sisters or remain self-serving and individualistic. If we DO seek a relationship with God, we need to be ready to embrace the costs – and the rewards. The question is: are we willing to risk enough to love God as God loves us?

That’s pretty radical, isn’t it?