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.



deborah said...

oh Sky, I have to disagree...sorry brother - here's my story. I was called to ministry at the age of 42...with 4 children and a husband who had to leave his job. (my husband ended up going to school at the same time I did - so all 6 of us were in school at the same time!)

I did have a student appointment - which covered our housing and utilities - and paid a whopping 11k per year. tuition was not too bad - but our living expenses were of course our challenge - and so we do have substantial debt. But I knew that was part of the deal. I did not go into ministry to make big bucks...I am here because there is nothing else I can do at this season of my life.

I feel like seminary was essential to form and transform me into a pastor. While service has always been an important part of my life I did not have the categories to be a theologian outside of a combination of great classes, intensive study AND community. It was in community with other seminary students and profs. that I was able to work myself out of my first career ways and into life as a pastor/theologian...

I fear that without that time of formation we will be falling toward our cultural norms - yoke the wrong people together and bad theology begats bad theology, and sadly I have met way too many seasoned clergy with bad theology, bad work habits and sour grapes about ministry as a calling.

You and I both know that ministry is not a 40 hour a week vocation - how can we tack night courses on top of full time ministry and hope that families will stay in tact or apprentices will continue to have a desire to be in ministry. (Don't we already have this apprentice type system in place with course of study?)

Do we need to build up the laity - of course? Do some of our smaller churches need to be more intentionally yoked together for shared ministry - I do think so. Do we need to close down some of our 'sacred spaces' Yes, I think so - if they do not bear fruit. Should we consider some circuit riders to serve in some areas - perhaps.

But do not throw aside seminary education - for me it was a foretaste of the kingdom to come - radical Christian community in action! Its something I pray can happen wherever I am appointed to serve.

Taylor W Burton Edwards said...


Two comments.

First, the notion that formation of clergy has been historically "non-professional" is, to say the least, a bit misleading.

Why were universities invented? Well, from the very first one in Europe (University of Paris) to the very first ones in what would become the US (Harvard, Yale, Princeton), universities were created primarily to support the education and formation of clergy. They did more than this to be sure-- but this was their raison d'etre in the first place.

These developments correspond to developments in culture that made it clear that the "local options" were not the best way to deliver qualified leaders for the most part.

So, in effect, for nearly 900 years, clergy HAVE been formed in intensive communities of learning and practice. I don't think one can make the case that the entirety of that 900 year history has been "decline" for those who have pursued it.

Second, one notion you seem to dismiss is the idea that seminary education could be substantially subsidized by the denomination.

I received my MDiv within a denomination and one of its institutions where that was exactly the case. Southern Baptists, through their Cooperative Program giving, supported (and I think still support) seminary education for all students in the denomination. That covered all costs except for books, a very modest registration fee (at the time about $100/semester), and costs of living. Total educational debt at the end-- $0.

Southern Baptists had decided that this was a priority demanding this kind of support in part for the same reasons you have raised-- the low pay scale. Southern Baptists had NO denominational or regional minimum-- and even more very small churches-- so the salaries there were (and often still are) substantially lower than Methodists on average.

Rather than giving up on seminary education, I think the time has come for United Methodists to make seminary education a serious enough priority that we will make a similar investment in our seminarians.

That WILL mean substantial reallocation of dollars within the General Church budget. It needn't mean any additional costs to the local congregations.

This is doable.

And I would argue, something we should do.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

revscottep said...

Thanks for opening up vital discussion on some very important issues.

We must have strong clergy education at all levels in conference from local pastor to full connection. It is necessary that local church, conference, BOM, and seminary all be partners in this equation. While this seems obvious, I'm not sure that it has been the practice at every level, nor coordinated for in ways that emphasize the whole of conference life.

This has relevance for funding, for the type education clergy are receiving, and for the transition that seems to be occuring in both education and ministry. If we created a higher denominational base of funding, which Taylor suggests, we might also create more opportunities for clergy across all the conferences. Further, if this were extended to some UM colleges it might also allow us to call and equip other types of clergy necessary to UM ministry in the present and future with proficiency at a level between local pastor and MDiv. Couldn't this be a WIN for numbers of people and for churches and the Church?

Separate from the educational and conference issues you raise I do agree about apprentice style learning in regards to ministry. Education gives basic tools but it's in the practice and reflection that we learn and grow. Sometimes a DS can be this sort of mentor, but that's rather infrequent these days.

Thanks for opening a worthy can of worms!

"CAPTAIN DAVE" said...

Sky, as your own example deminstrates, an incredible mountain of debt is not the necessary result a seminary education.

I had a full scholarship for undergrad; took a job to cover living expenses. Got my B.A. with no debt.

As for seminary, our conference paid half the tuition -- still does for certified candidates. I also worked in the seminary cafeteria AND at a local church to off-set the rest. I still ended up with some student loan debt, but nothing near what I hear from students today.

And I wonder why???

Huw Richardson said...

I'm with you, Sky. (And thanks for the inbound link!)

We generally do not need professional clergy any more. In the past we expected our local clergyman to be one of the (if not the only) educated folks in the area. He was a vital and valuable community resource. We also used to expect the clergyman to be the CEO of the parish, the head of the Sunday school, the liturgist, the local magistrate (in some cases) the nurse, etc etc. We no longer need that model of ministry. (in all places, anyway) what we need are pastors and preachers of Jesus.

My personal favourite story on this topic comes from John Wesley... about the lay preacher who didn't know the meaning of "austere". We can use both models if a community needs such, but I think we should explore different ways of being church as we do this.

There are places where denominations pay (and handsomely) for education. I've not been in such wealthy places, however, and it seems an odd bit of classism.

I've met plenty of seminary-educated clergy with bad theology, no preaching skills and no-knowledge of anything relevant to either their denomination or their parish life. But they know how to pass the plate and use quickbooks. Seminary is not a guarantee. And I think as a *requirement* it may have played out its usefulness.

There are some folks who want or need it. But a BA plus an honest apprenticeship seems realistic in most cases - perhaps an extended apprenticeship plus continuing education. Anything beyond that as a requirement or qualification seems to be gilding the lilly.

Jason Sansbury said...

Here is what is interesting to me: is seminary the only way to educate our future pastors?
I would say one of the flaws of the system as it is currently structured is that it ultimately is about perpetuating the existing structure. (And to be fair, the existing structure has produced some exemplary pastors and some horrendous duds.)
What we ought to be doing is starting with the end goal in mind and then designing a system to meet that currently.
So, for example, much of any classroom education could be done and done well by distance learning now. (There is this thing called the internet...)
There is obviously still a need for life on life contact and mentoring, so there would need to be some new thinking involved.
But I would say that to keep pouring money into seminaries, when the goal is to equip pastors (not keep seminaries functional) seems pretty foolish to me.

Adam M. Roberts said...

Sky, you have definitely put a spark to a dry pile of kindling with this topic, at least amongst us UM clergy.

I absolutely loved my seminary experience. And, it cost me nothing out of pocket. In fact, I was over-scholarshiped and tried to give back some of the money and the organization wouldn't take it.

I too served as a local pastor, etc. I graduated about 9 years ago so it's not in the too distant past.

I think the education can be paid for. I have a lot of concern for the 44 year old of your example. I have worked with 2 folks just like that recently and neither of them have entered into the UM system. They didn't have undergrad degrees and the road seemed incredibly long.

They're excited, spiritually formed, answering a call...and we offer them the opportunity to go and serve in the places where local pastors can go and serve...small, rural, dying congregations.

They took a pass, and perhaps rightfully so. They've found other avenues for within a UM congregation, another outside of the UM church.

As to the value of a seminary degree...I'm afraid that often we clergy have an "I had to do it so you have to do it too" attitude. Ordination becomes initiation, and seminary is the right of passage (or hazing, depending on the class :)

Much of my degree was helpful. OT and NT. Systematic theology. Pastoral care. UM Discipline. Preaching. Things were woefully thin on practical church leadership. Nothing on congregational dynamics or effective strategies for leading ministry.

Theology of Aquinas taught me the methods of working the theological puzzles of medieval scholasticism.

I don't do a lot of that in the day to day life of the church.

It's a mixed bag, I think. For some, the full-blown MDiv will always be a great option. For others, we've got to figure out how to use their gifts and graces...educating them well and appropriately, and then deploying them somewhere other than dying churches that are shadows of their 19th century selves. Thanks for helping open the conversation.

John said...

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?").

When I did my commissioning paperwork, there were several questions to answer along these lines. With the way that they were written, I found them insulting. They strongly implied that if I was in debt, it was only because of my own bad decisions. It certainly had nothing to do with the expectation that I move wherever the church asks and work for free or next to free, and pay for a 96-hour Master's degree while getting only $1,200 a semester from the Conference.


But let's remember that the purpose of seminary is not to train clergy. It is to provide employment for people in the seminary industry.

Matt Linden said...

I was blessed to have the opportunity to attend seminary and earn an M.Div. However, I think the 96 credits is a bit excessive and unnecessary. There are some courses I believe essential for ministry. Intro to Old Testament, Intro to New Testament, Early Church History, Reformation and European Church History, American Church History, Systematic Theology, Ethics, Homiletics, UM Doctrine, Polity and History, and Pastoral Counseling. This adds up to twelve courses or two and a half semesters if attending full time. Pad the curriculum with three more courses and you have a degree that could be earned in three semesters.

About half of my M.Div consisted of graduate level courses designed for PhD candidates. These electives were enjoyable but I do not consider the course in Gnosticism or the Theology of Karl Barth essential for my preparation as an ordained minister. If I had an interest in any of these areas I could read up on them on my own.

My conclusion: by requiring 40 to 45 Credits instead of 90 we can reduce by 50% the cost of attending seminary.