Is Seminary a Sustainable Practice?
Editor's Note: This article is part of an online symposium, "Does Seminary Have a Future?" hosted at Patheos this month. Read other perspectives here.
I graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary about three months ago, and that time has been filled with getting my house in order. I let life details go in order to keep up with working full-time, enjoying my wife and little girl, and making a respectable and spirited showing in my classes. Now I'm consumed with home repairs, updates to insurance policies, and so on.
Also, now that the stimulation of seminary has gone, I have entered into one of my deepest depressions. All the dopamine that it took to do well in seminary has vanished. I've never known a pressure that compares to the pressure of the last three years. I took classes two at a time to avoid interest on my loans, which made the otherwise delightful journey feel rushed.
I attended seminary for the love of learning, and also so I can better contribute at my nonprofit job. Now, I'm left with sizable school debt on the same salary that was exactly paying the bills before. I know there are people who earn counseling degrees or MDivs who have more debt and less ability to pay than I have. It's a major problem that our system kicks people who are passionate about their ministry out of the nest with worry packages strapped to them. Failure to launch should not surprise anyone, since worry about finances easily saps one's ability to focus on their calling.
Seminary depends on a culture of certification that perpetuates this pressure, which creates a dynamic that can cripple potential servants in Jesus' kingdom. Follow the path: Denominations want to hire qualified candidates to tend their flocks. They make rules about seminary attendance to validate credentials. Seminaries are watched closely by accrediting bodies to ensure quality education. Accreditation and hiring great faculty cost a lot of money. This is naturally passed on to students. Students feel called, and they have to meet requirements, so they start the expensive seminary journey. They brave the rigors of seminary, and if the church does not pay for it, they are saddled with debt, entering what is often a moderate salary market.
Is there a better way?
Everywhere we turn today, people are talking about things organic. Is there a way for theological education to be organic? What if those who have been theologically trained (by whatever means) began to mentor those around them? I know pastors are busy. But perhaps those who don't already do so could take one or two from their congregation and spend time with them, sharing their wisdom and knowledge. While I'm not a pastor, I can help those around me form categories and questions about the world. That's what I benefited from most in seminary.
I hear the objections already. That's too simplistic! There's no quality control! They won't have time! There's no way to multiply their energies as is done through the classroom! All valid. But crazy things happen when education and power turn populist rather than elitist. And the world has survived for millennia without efficiency widgets that surpass human scale. Maybe efficiency and control are not what they're cracked up to be. While it's true that processed foods usually lack harmful bacteria, the powerful nutrition found in more organic foods is stripped away by all our controls.
This model is nothing new. I think of L'Abri and other centers of mentorship and learning. Perhaps the reputation such a place gains over time is adequate accreditation. Maybe the mentoring minister has gained their own certification through years of faithful service. This wouldn't rule out specialized higher learning. But it would help humanity step back toward local scale, where communities form around the necessities of survival.
John Dunham lives and loves in Colorado Springs with his wife, daughter, and one-on-the-way. He loves words, ideas, and the Bible, and he is lucky enough to get to work with those every day.