The Future of Seminary: Training Tentmakers

This post is part of a Patheos symposium on the Future of Seminary Education.  You can see all of my posts in this symposium here.

At Pangea, Kurt makes good points about the massive debt that many seminarians graduate with.  He’s right, they do.  And they’re headed straight into a field that pays about $40,000 per year.  That’s not enough to support a family in many cities, much less to repay student debt.

But here’s the bigger question, from my perspective: Why do seminary graduates expect to earn a full-time salary for ministry?

I get that’s the norm.  But lots of mainline clergy are heading to congregations that have less than 100 parishioners.  It’s completely unrealistic that a congregation of that size can support a full-time salary with benefits plus all of the upkeep that their buildings demand.  Not to mention that a congregation that commits so many resources to sustaining itself will almost certainly preclude its ability to be missional.

Further, I often talk to erstwhile church planters who want to figure out how they can get a full-time salary with benefits while they’re planting a church.  Puhleeze.  Let’s put it in other words: I’d like to do something risky, but without any of the risk.

Most of the successful church planters I know do not garner their entire income from church work.  They supplement it with another source — or several sources — of income.

And an Episcopal priest I met a couple weeks ago, who pastors a small parish in rural Georgia, also runs a local franchise of an employment agency.  Instead of complaining that the church wasn’t paying him enough, he unapologetically stated that this was a much better arrangement for him and the parish.

Less and less clergy in the future will draw 100% of their income from ministry.  Seminaries had better prepare their students for this reality, or else they aren’t really in the business of preparing seminarians for reality.

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  • Jeff Boone

    Right on.

  • Adam Marquette

    I agree. Also think more churches and denominations need to figure out other ways of “educating” ministers outside of just seminary. What’s your take on alternative qualifications for ordination?

  • You are completely correct. And I think this speaks to the need to draw down the time and costs associated with ministry degrees. Your post and Kurt’s suggest that the MDiv might not be a wise offering anymore.

  • Dan Hauge

    The less a church leader is completely dependent on the community they are leading for their financial survival, the better. You can be a bit freer that way.

    My pastoral self, however, would also like to see some expectations shift as to everything a ministry leader is supposed to be doing and accomplishing. Part of the legitimate rationale for a minister drawing a full-time salary is that ministry, as currently constituted, really is a full time job. And then some. Expecting to add a separate part-time (or full time) job on top of all the expectations placed on a church leader and their family is a sure-fire recipe for burnout, and family dysfunction. So there needs to be some realism and care for the well-being of ministry leaders in this regard, as well.

  • Tony, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, (which, of course, doesn’t mean I’ve got it figured out). I recently left a pastoral staff position at a large church after three years, and, from that experience, I have a few thoughts to share. We’ve created a professional clergy class that: 1) at times, is seriously out of touch, 2) make decisions or lead in a way in order to protect their careers, salary and benefits (churches further this by utilizing a corporate model in many ways, such as only giving benefits to full-time staff), 3) sadly, I believe, this syncs right up with a consumer model of church, that comes natural to us. The people aren’t ‘the church’ in the biblical sense, we are the professional Christian experts who do church for them or to them. If they are a ‘member’ (not in the official sense, but more like a paying-membership-dues-to-a-club sense), then they come to us and ask for spiritual services, and we act as their spiritual services providers, 4) most pastors would greatly benefit from a 20% time model. Imagine if 20% of their time, they worked at a real job, with real people, 5) we expect our pastors to do it all because, of course, they are full-time, because we are also full-time in our jobs. Why should we then be asked to commit additional time? It is poor modeling, 6) the Mormons have been ‘successful’ with all lay leadership at the local level. Could we learn something from them?, and finally, 7) sometimes, I hear sermons in which Christians are compared to the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Likely at times to be accurate. But honestly, I think we are quite harsh on them. Despite their obvious abuses, at least they were a lay movement and focused on impacting everyday life. More importantly, I think it is interesting that I’ve never heard a pastor make any comparisons or applications to the Sadducees and priestly class of Jesus’ day. It would do pastors and seminaries well to read the gospels, imagining themselves in these roles, and see what Jesus might have to say to our professional Christian class today. (Enough — likely too much, said.)

  • Tony… I will be responding soon. Good thoughts / I thought you might go that route. 😉

  • @C. Baltzley: right on.

    In my fairly strongly-held opinion, the need for clergy at all is a contextual one, not a universal one, despite the fact that the Church over time and space (with a few notable exceptions – Quakers, Mormons) has treated it as a universal necessity – to have a church community, you must have clergy. I’ve been a part of a healthy lay-led community for over 5 years now, and of course we have problems, but in general we do just fine without clergy. I can’t believe our experience is unique. There must be lots of other contexts – particularly in the emerging church world – where the conditions that allow us to operate without clergy are present.

    In my opinion, these conditions include:

    1) Smaller community (we are probably less than 40 adults, plus kids) or a network of smaller, self-organizing communities.
    2) High percentage of well-educated adults in the community, especially including biblically and theologically literate individuals.
    3) Strong relational ethos within the community – everybody knows everybody, and there’s a culture of helping each other out friend to friend – whether that help involves pastoral care or sharing of religious/spiritual insight.
    4) Cultural commitment to “flat” organization and the priesthood of all believers (for realz, not just lip service).

    You can see how those conditions support one another: #3 is much harder to achieve/maintain without #1, and the teaching aspects of #3 are ineffective without #2. And maintaining #4 without (at least some of) the other three would probably be impossible. I’m sure there are important factors I’m not thinking about.

    Anyway, I’m still somewhat amazed that as we celebrate our 10th anniversary, we’re still just about the only emerging church I’ve encountered without somebody(ies) designated as “pastor”. Many communities do need clergy – but not all of them. We’re living proof.

  • Revruthucc

    For many churches, making the transition from a full-time clergy person to a part-time clergy person would be hardest because a tent-making minister would have to maintain even stricter time boundaries than most of us who are currently full-time do. For a congregation accustomed to nearly instant pastoral response and/or the flexibility of a pastor to meet needs for care quickly in emergencies, the adjustment might be quite a shock.

    I would be most concerned about pastoral care in crisis situations – not that laity can’t be trained appropriately, far from it – but that whatever second job a called pastor has could be flexible enough to allow for crisis care to happen in the absence of a trained lay responder.

  • Daniel Kovaly

    I have noticed that the majority of critics of full time ministry started their career in full time ministry. It seems that the critics are turning on the institution that afforded them their “expertise” on the subject in the first place. I do think that ministry as we know it is coming to an end, but to say people who are involved in the life long commitment to full time ministry are misinformed, out of touch, or unworthy is ridiculous. As I said earlier the old way of financing and running churches is in the process of transformation. Monastic models seem to be making a resurgence for example. To write off full time ministry is throwing the baby out with the bath water.

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  • a really big problem is the level of debt Mdiv graduates have. when seminaries charge what they charge, profs get paid what they get paid, and the institution has its upkeep its hard to say…yeah you got 40k in debt but ill have a couple other jobs too.

  • I think you will see more MICRO churches and more MACRO churches, and fewer and fewer in between.

    Many larger churches will still want an traditionally educated clergy. Micro sized churches will be less and less able to afford them.

    Do you suggest seminaries providing vocational training, or requiring it as a prerequisite, or neither?

  • Collin Adams

    As a full time pastor I have to say I agree and disagree at the same time. Yes, I have a bias in that I like my job. I like working full time in my church, of being on call 24/7 and not having to worry about whether or not I will need to take off from one job in order to be fully present at another. I have also thought that the church I am serving now (just under 100 members) is ill served by a full time pastor model financially. We are always in the red, we know there is a time limit to any call, we could use the money for something else.

    It seems that most of this conversation is on the pastor side of the equation, what about the churches though? The church I serve feels that it needs to have a full time pastor. A CLP or designated pastor just won’t work for them. Though we have been engaged in lots of conversation about what the future will look like, the one thing that these members are standing firm on is having a full time, seminary educated, pastor.

    There is really a great deal of privilege on both sides of the coin. Churches that have full time pastors are often looked at with greater respect. Churches with lots of lay leadership are often seen as dwindling or just stumbling along (in my area at least). I many denominations the only way to really respond to God’s call is to enter the seminary, build up the debt and then hope to get a job that will take you and your master’s degree with a salary that can make a dent in the debt.

    The church is going to have to rethink how we do things, but this is more than a seminary or clergy question. This question goes all the way to the foundations what we think about church, who leads, who follows, how the day to day stuff gets done.

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  • I began ministry in 1985 as a bi-vocational pastor and was able to feed my family and grow the church. I started without a seminary degree, was able to work into a full-time pastorate and eventually get my seminary degree without borrowing money. Now I work for an organization that is looking at renewing and starting new progressive churches.

    Much of where the church is going is bi-vocational, but I think it reflects smaller churches, a better educated laity, more desire for real involvement doing ministry. The economy yes, but folks don’t see paying a full-time pastor for 100 people as a good use of their financial gifts when there is so much need everywhere. I am thankful that some mainline denominations are looking at alternatives to MDiv’s to train leaders. I also feel online practical training will have a greater role. A lot of seminaries will close their doors.

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  • Most of the seminary students TB knows *don’t* expect a full-time salary, but they do have significant student loan debt.

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  • I have served as a full time pastor and am now a tent maker working with a small spiritual community. Both bring pro’s and con’s. But when it comes down to it, I think the roughest hurdle for tent making is also its primary perk.

    There just isn’t enough time in the day. That’s a biggie for me right now. It’s hard to hold down a 40/wk job, have a social life, and lead a community. When I was a paid pastor, I had the luxury of sitting down with parishioners to discuss and plan during “business hours”. Scheduling was easier. I didn’t have to coordinate my time slots like I do now. This hurdle cannot be overstated.

    Yet, I’m much happier now. The work-a-day world I live in isn’t sanitized and secure like the time I earned a paycheck from the church. That, to me, is a good thing. I feel like a more “normal” person with “normal” concerns, because I live in the same world in which the people live in. Make no mistake about it, this has changed everything for me spiritually and theologically.

    I believe the end result is this: I’m a better pastor for it. I understand those around me more than before. And I have levels of trust in and acceptance of me that I don’t think I would ever have achieved if they had been paying me to work with them. Yes, I went into seminary debt free, and I came out with a $40K bill that has to be repaid. Still, right now I don’t think I could ever go back to being paid staff.

  • Sad, but true. I went for the academic approach at seminary, opting for the Christian academic angle rather than the pastoral, perhaps making it even more difficult to find sustainable work in ministry. Perhaps I should complete my PhD and try to find work in the academy since the church places little value on the academy in regards to theology and culture in popular evangelicalism. Either that, or meaningful tentmaking. But you are correct in that this needs to be addressed in forward-thinking seminaries.

  • Hi Tony, thanks for your thoughts. About 2 months into my first full time job – youth pastoring – my senior pastor suggested I attend a free pastor’s luncheon that a business leader was offering for the pastors of the city. I was blinded by the thought of free food and was therefore surprised to be surrounded by so many pastors. I was immediately struck by how strange pastors are and how easily this strangeness could be mitigated if only they worked in the real world part time.

    I’ve been an advocate of tentmaking ever since.

  • I speak as another formerly full-time, now near-full-time pastor of a less than 100-member church. When I graduated seminary and began pastoring I was employed full-time, but financial constraints within the church have necessitated negotiating a new arrangement.

    I was fortunate in only accruing about $10k of additional debt through seminary, mostly for living expenses. I’m lucky that my wife was helping to pay the bills and that my denomination’s seminary (Bethany Theological Seminary, Church of the Brethren) is very generous in financial assistance for students from within our tradition. However, throughout seminary I still carried my student loans from undergrad, so I’m still facing a student loan debt about the size of my annual income as a pastor.

    I echo what’s being said here – that like it or not seminaries need to start better preparing students for bi-vocational, part-time ministry. Alongside that, we need to find ways to prepare our congregations for that too! Tent-making is really an ideal model for smaller congregations, in my opinion, and can even work well in larger settings.

    I’ve recently been inspired by travelling amongst some neo-monastic communities in New Zealand and one thing that struck me was the emphasis on bi-vocationality for EVERYONE in the community. It’s an important reminder that our calling as Christians is a priesthood of all believers, and that everyone in the congregation is engaged in ministry, whether we prioritize it alongside our secular vocations or not.

    For me, moving to part-time ministry has not yet led to true tent-making, as instead of finding a second job my wife and I have instead chosen to live a bit more simply. This is similar to what I experienced in New Zealand as well – people starting to check out of the cultural expectation of having full-time employment and the requisite compensations that go along with it, and instead depending more upon each other and the communities we’re a part of.

    Now there’s something seminaries could help future pastors learn how to lead and live into.

  • Travis Greene

    Seems to me that the best way to prepare for bi-vocational ministry is to be a bi-vocational student. Which the more…shall we say…academically rigorous seminaries and divinity schools seem to look down upon. There’s a lot I love about where I am (Duke), but they seem at best indifferent to and sometimes downright hostile to anything but a 3-year, full-time model for the M.Div. Anybody know of a seminary with a good part-time student model?