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.
Seminary changed my life. Hands down, one of the formative experiences of my 28 years. I’m on the long term plan, finally reaching toward graduation this May after 5 years in a 3 year Master of Divinity program. For most of those years, I served in paid pastoral ministry, which demonstrates only that I have a legitimate reason for taking a bit of extra time. And what a wonderful five years. During this time, I’ve been able to sort through various theological convictions.
- Moved from just war to nonviolent resistance.
- Moved from right wing politics to the subversion of all things empire.
- Moved from reductionist views of the good news to a holistic gospel.
- Moved from 7 day creationism to a God who orders reality as his cosmic temple using whatever methods God so pleases.
- Moved from desiring to be a mega-church leader to a passion to dream of fresh contextual expressions of the church in the world.
- Moved from knowing it all to realizing that I still know very little.
Numerous other examples could be listed, but I highlight a few to show the way in which seminary came alongside me and opened up fresh possibilities for my life with God and ministry aims.
My goal for the next few hundred words is to reflect on the future of seminary education, pointing to both beauty and frustration. First the good, then the bad.
Seminary education as it stands is good.
My coursework clarifying, my learning numerous, and my personal mission refined. My conviction is that too many pastors avoid seminary or simply “get by” and fail to recognize how much our theology actually shapes the ways in which we lead and guide church communities to practice our shared faith. Seminary creates a context in which I wrestle and dream about how the intersections between theological values and praxis will shape what I do with the rest of my life as a minister of the in-breaking Kingdom of God.
Certainly seminary gets critiqued for not providing a context that “really prepares for the demands of actual church ministry,” and I can see how this might be true if all we mean by this is “church work.” Church and mission find themselves in a state of flux and much of seminary work tends to not flex as quickly in some contexts (although my ministry profs are quite aware of the landscape).
In these sorts of areas, I see the need for seminaries to invest in bringing in guest lecturers that are on the “cutting edge” of the mission of God. My school (Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary) will be hosting an adjunct professor from England named Stuart Murray, for instance (author of several books including The Naked Anabaptist). His course on missional church planting will provide the kind of perspective that wasn’t developed in the classroom, but in the context of the UK as the founder of Urban Expressions. Seminaries ought to bring in innovative practitioners to keep our theology honest and our churches missional. In addition to this example, I wonder if the major Christian ministry conferences and seminaries could create an easy path to grad credit? Much of what I’ve learned in addition to classroom work took place at conferences.
President Obama is slated to introduce new policy on student loan repayment this week, in light of emerging statistics that demonstrate that student debt is on its way to surpassing credit cards. In my situation, I find myself worried about the future while also trusting that God can and will indeed provide. When May comes, life could get quite difficult financially.
Think for a moment about the education pastors typically are expected to get, the M.Div. Certainly not all denominations “require” such a degree, but most “encourage” this sort of leap through the ministerial hoop. What strikes me as odd is that the average Masters degree is somewhere around 36-48 units (not based on data, but experience), but we are asking pastors to fulfill 90 rigorous units. The coursework is fine, but the financial burden is not, especially considering that most first year pastors (assuming they get a job) will probably make less than teachers in many cases (who are also underpaid). Then, if a seminary student is married to a grad student in another area of study (like myself), then here comes even more debt!
Pastors are slaves to money from the first day on the job. Where do we move from here? I’m not sure. Perhaps denominations might consider a stronger financial responsibility or offer loan repayment as part of young pastors’ benefits? Or, what if seminary and the church were linked more closely in that churches actually commissioned emerging leaders to go to school and paid half the cost? I’m not sure what the solutions might be, but something needs to change. It’s hard to help others find liberation through the gospel when you live in slavery to finances yourself.
So yes, seminary is great. It’s amazing. It could be tweaked here or there, but theological education in my experience is transformative. Seminary also sucks. Sucks students into a financial hole that in this economic climate, might be difficult to dig out of. Young pastors are slaves, slaves of Jesus Christ and slaves to mammon. May the church and educational institutions dream about fresh ways to send graduates into the world, to change it – not to worry about paying the mortgage. This must be the future for seminary education!