The Future of Seminary: Non-Tenured

This post is part of a Patheos symposium on the Future of Seminary Education.

I got tweeted at yesterday by Robert.  He asked:

What I thought is, I should be asking you that question!

There are several seminaries from which Robert can choose in the Twin Cities.  The majors are Bethel, Luther, and United. Then there’s John Piper’s Bethlehem Seminary and several other minor league options.

Although I’m qualified to teach theology at a seminary, none of the majors would hire me.  I’m too liberal for Bethel (and I wouldn’t sign their lifestyle statement), probably too conservative for United (plus, they’re small and not growing), and too anti-denominational for Luther (plus, several of their recent hires have Princeton PhDs, so they won’t likely hire another Princeton PhD for quite some time).

I’m guessing that John Piper won’t be offering me a teaching position either.

If seminaries are to survive, they need to find a place for non-traditional scholars like me.

Thankfully, there are several other seminaries and theological schools around the country who will occasionally hire me to teach a class — and I am grateful to each one of these schools — but at each I’m relegated to the role of adjunct professor, a.k.a., the slave labor of academia.

Being an adjunct professor means that I don’t ever have to go to a committee meeting, don’t have to navigate departmental politics, and don’t have to write academic tomes in order to get tenure.  But it also means that I don’t have health insurance, a retirement plan, an employer paying half of my Social Security and Medicare, or any job security whatsoever.

Honestly, I appreciate the freedom.  And I like that fact that I can interact with students and faculty from both conservative and liberal seminaries.  Thus far in my academic career, I have a very rich and diverse experience.  For that I’m grateful.  But a little stability would be nice, too.

Actually, I’m not unlike the potential seminary students I blogged about this week.  I like Minnesota, and I’m not leaving.  My kids are here, as are my parents and friends.  Our family’s cabin, my spiritual home, is here too.

If I were willing to leave, I could put myself on the job market.  I’d start as a junior-level faculty member at a second-tier school.  After a few years there, I’d apply for tenure-track positions at top-tier schools.  If I got one of those jobs, I’d start the six-year journey to tenure.  If I played my cards just right, I might get tenure by the time I’m 60.

In other words, traditional seminaries don’t have a place for me, and they don’t quite know what to do with me: I finished my PhD at age 43, I’m unwilling to leave my home state, and I’m not interested in writing books for the academy.

I tend to think that there will be more and more like me in coming years: scholars who are uninterested in playing the tenure game and who are more interested in changing the church and society.  If traditional seminaries can’t find a better role for us — the freelance scholars — than adjunct professor, then woe betide them.  Because we’ll simply find other avenues for our work.

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  • Richard Heyduck

    As one who finished his doctorate 13 years ago (at age 36), I am scheduled to begin my first full time teaching job in January. After pastoring for 25 years, I will be taking a cut in salary and a cut in benefits. But I will be able to live in the same town (assuming we can find a rent house in this small town) so our daughter can finish high school. We’ll also be within a few hours of both sets of parents. So it’s a plus over the other jobs out there (that didn’t hire me any way). Best of all, at this age I’m finally getting to pursue my calling – beyond the adjunct route.

    I agree with you, Tony, that people like us have lots to offer seminaries. Maybe less academia, but more church – maybe even more broad culture (mission field) experience. Maybe they’ll wise up some day.

  • Dan Hauge

    Yeah, good stuff. The whole issue of criminally inadequate compensation for adjunct professors needs to be continually highlighted, so thank you for that. So is the whole ‘publish or perish’ dynamic, which takes too much emphasis away from quality teaching, and (in my extremely humble opinion) contributes to a glut of publishing–there are plenty of authors who have about three or four really good books in them yet publish 8 to 10, with different emphases and packaging (and do we really need another collection of essays or sermons on seminary bookshelves just so a professor can ‘keep their name out there’?). But I digress.

    What we really need are innovative economic models for seminary, which are more flexible in terms where and for how long scholars can teach, while still providing a decent amount of economic stability. Being not a particularly savvy business person, I’m a little at a loss but I hope to see more dialogue about this.

  • Jamey W

    The so-called “non-traditional” scholar is not exactly a new thing. Plenty of people have gotten PhDs over the years at academic institutions and have gone on to have careers outside of “traditional” academia (i.e. working for a teaching/research institution of some kind). As such, seminaries and universities have long been accustomed to making use of non-traditional scholars in adjunct or visiting prof roles. And it’s not exactly like the job market for teaching religion in an academic setting is booming, so I don’t think your doom and gloom attitude about the future of seminaries unable to “fit” nontraditional scholars into their programs holds up. There are plenty of up and coming “traditional” scholars who are quite happy to fill the positions that already exist.

    I don’t mean this to sound snarky, btw. I like your blog and read it frequently. I just disagree that academia (even in religious/theological education) needs to feel somehow threatened by non-traditional scholars taking their work elsewhere.

  • Steve Swope

    I don’t mean to get snarky, either, Tony. But this just sounds to me a little too “nobody wants to play with poor me.” So you’ve got your fancy degree, and you want to make use of it for others’ benefit – but you’re not interested in sacrificing at all to do that. And you think your employer of choice ought to accommodate you because – well, you’re wonderful, and comfortably ensconced in your community.

    Bummer. As a local-church pastor and son of a (now retired) local-church pastor, I’ve moved 11 times that I can remember. The one before this was 2400 miles – away from children I no longer had custody of. And for 10 years I did intentional interim ministry in a denomination that does not guarantee me a church or pay my benefits.

    If you really want to teach at the university/seminary level, maybe it’s time to pull up the big-boy pants and do what it takes, go where it takes to answer that call. It’s your choice; don’t blame the seminaries.

    • Steve, I’m not complaining, and I’m sorry that the post came off like that. And I’m sorry that you’ve chosen to mow around so much, because that sounds horrible.

      What I am saying is that more young scholars are going to take the path I have. Seminaries should appreciate that and develop more flexible systems for their faculty, just as they already have for students.

      As for me, I have no regrets about the vocational path I have taken.

  • Steve Swope

    Thanks for the clarification, Tony…an interesting thought. How *might* seminaries better address adjunct-faculty needs, as they are beginning to do with distance-learning for students? I’m not sure…there’s something about student formation in an intentional community that distance-learning doesn’t replicate. I suspect there will be a cost, as well, to recasting systems to better address adjunct-faculty needs.

    As for my moving so often (5 homes I remember by high school graduation, 5 professional relocations of my own since seminary), it’s sorta what you make it. There were times when I was younger that I would’ve said it was “horrible” – but then I partly made that bed myself. And I know I’ve gained gifts from it, too.

    Definitely, I’ve found community when I’ve let it happen (again, sometimes the absence has been self-inflicted). And one move found my wife, while another brought me into the marvelous community I currently serve. In the final accounting, I think I came out way ahead.

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  • CJ

    It’s probably been 15 years or so now, but I once read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about how difficult it was for new PhD.-ers to find tenure-track jobs because so many schools were filling positions with adjuncts for all the reasons you said–no benefits, lower salaries, etc. At the time, this was a bit of a crisis, especially in fields like English where there are typically more students in grad school than there are faculty positions. So it’s interesting to me that the tables might be turning so to speak in that the crisis might soon belong not to the professors but to the institutions themselves. I’m not sure they will care, since there are still plenty of grads out there looking for work and the adjunct pool isn’t likely to dry up any time soon. But it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

  • Tony, the reality is that most seminaries and Christian colleges are using more and more adjunct faculty. Fuller probably has the same number of tenured faculty now as when I was an M.Div. student, almost 30 years ago, but probably 2x the number of students.

    I’ve had my Ph.D. for 20 years, have published the requisite academic pieces — couple of books and lots or articles. I’ve been pastoring now for 13 years. As Richard points out, to teach now would mean a cut in pay and probably benefits. Maybe in retirement. There are lots of us out there with Ph.D.’s pastoring churches and contributing in non-traditional ways.

    By the way, you should check out United. They might find a spot for you!

  • Laura Smith

    I think you and a few others I know should start your own minor league seminary here in the Twin Cities.

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  • Tony,

    My name is Mike Bradley and I’m the President for a seminary right here in St. Paul that does use adjunct faculty, and is seeking to develop students not only in theological awareness but in spiritual and character formation. The name of the seminary is The Master’s Institute. Let me know if you’d like to meet and hear more some time.

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