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.

Faculty have also indulged their academic interests, creating both classes and curricula that correspond with their research issues and academic agenda but don't necessarily speak to the basic and perennial needs of the church's ordained ministry. The net result is a Master's degree that is often skewed to allow as many electives as possible and catalogues filled with boutique courses that have little application to pastoral ministry. Likewise, seminaries have trimmed academic requirements in some essential fields to the point that graduates often have little more exposure to the Old and New Testaments than a general introduction to each and one elective. In most cases a biblical language requirement is completely missing, and the elective could be as arcane as a class on "Bach and Romans."

In spite of the fact that there is room for so many extras, the degree itself is bloated and expensive. The Association of Theological Schools require at least 72 hours of course work, but some seminaries require as much as 106 hours; and the inside joke among most seminarians is that they will be fortunate to crowd three years into four . . . or five.

Meanwhile, whatever the canon law or discipline of mainline denominations may appear to suggest, the church has failed to articulate what it wants from its seminaries and its graduates.

The church uses seminarians to fill the chinks in its clerical armor, appointing them to serve in churches long before they have completed the education that is needed to do their work safely and with integrity. Denominations have left seminarians to pay for their educations, saddling them with debt that they cannot comfortably repay because beginning salaries for clergy are often below the poverty level. And, at the same time, they have offered alternative routes to ordination bypassing seminary entirely, leaving those who do go to wonder why they worked so hard to accomplish the same goal. What we will never know is how many prospective clergy are lost because they conclude that if the ministry is something you can do without preparation it isn't really worthy of their attention.