The Spiritual Landscape
Is It Time to Write the Eulogy?: The Future of Seminary Education
Our seminaries are dying and the Master of Divinity degree has been discredited.
Bishops and other church leaders once believed both were essential to effective ministry, but today they are considered one of several routes to ordination and an increasing number of church leaders are arguing that attending seminary may actually be detrimental to the process they once considered the gold standard.
A large number of the mainline seminaries are selling their buildings and property, cutting faculty, and eliminating degree programs. Those that are not, are competing for a shrinking pool of prospective students and rely on scholarships and lower academic standards to attract the students that they do have.
There are countless reasons for the crisis, some of them as old as the professional preparation of clergy itself.
In the quest for academic respectability, seminaries have not always remembered that preparing clergy was the mission and lifeblood of their institutional life. Some have focused on preparing scholars, which though essential, is secondary to its primary ministry of preparing new generations of spiritual leaders. Some have prepared students who lacked the practical skills to effectively lead a congregation. Others have produced students who were so poorly grounded in the Christian faith that they lacked the necessary spiritual formation to be effective.
Changing trends in theological education often truncated and colored the theological education that many received. In the '60s, seminaries prepared a generation of seminarians that rightly attended to issues of social justice. That was fair enough—sin has its corporate dimensions. But some professors argued there was really little else to the Gospel and soon the church's teaching on justice became little more than a brand of political discourse. In the '70s and '80s, this trend gave way to the importance of pastoral counseling. Here, too, there were important lessons to learn, including the realization that many people are defeated spiritually by psychological and familial systems that, narrowly speaking, cannot be easily traced to any classical definition of sin. But, as with other excesses spawned by trends in theological education, the net result was a generation of clergy who practiced unlicensed therapy.
Now the trend is leadership and there can be little doubt that among the next generation of graduates will be the aspiring CEOs. There has never been any doubt that the church needs to be better led, but one has to wonder how much spiritual guidance there is to be had at the hands of clergy who think of themselves as ecclesiastical managers.
Seminary faculty often lack any real affinity for the church and, that too, has colored the kind of graduate that seminaries have produced. In part this state of affairs can be traced to the seminaries themselves, which hired faculty from a wide array of institutions, including many that were shaped not so much by theological categories as they were the assumptions of religious studies programs. But churches also made it difficult, if not impossible, to be ordained and, at the same time, prepare for an academic career. The complaint that anyone with a Ph.D. isn't really interested in the church or is looking for advanced placement is a common refrain sung by bishops, boards, and commissions charged with overseeing the ordination process; and it thins the ranks of those committed to serving the church in her seminaries.
Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: http://frederickwschmidt.com/