Colonial Barriers in Seminary Education

Colonial Barriers in Seminary Education October 28, 2011

I’m glad to see the conversation taking place in the Patheos forum about whether Seminary as an institution is on its way out, headed for radical reform, or if the cries of “fire” are overblown. Many of the issues that concern me have been addressed, but there’s one particular issue I see as central to the problem.

Several contributors have talked about the prohibitive cost of seminary education, and that given the challenges graduates have in finding sustainable employment after seminary, they are set up from the start to struggle or fail. While this is true, there are other considerations related to this that perhaps we all have overlooked.

That, or I missed the point in someone else’s post, which is entirely possible. But we’ll assume it’s an unexplored issue.

I’ve spent much of my ministry focusing on the issue of privilege within organized religion and its effects on both those within and outside the walls. I usually start with a fairly benign example to explore the notion of invisible privilege by asking a few folks to cut some simple figures out of a piece of paper. After some moments of fumbling the participants realize that the scissors are left-handed. Someone inevitably adapts, or the lefty in the group prevails from the beginning. But all players, the lefties included, start with the assumption (though never stated) that the scissors will be for righties.

This is privilege. And although I talk about it being invisible, that’s only partly right. Right-handed people don’t spend much time thinking about being right handed – definitely not as much as we lefties think about being left-handed. This is because in most cases, the world accommodates righties and the rest of us have to adapt. We’re made aware of our difference whenever we have to adjust to a world that doesn’t conform to the way we are, while the right-handers generally just assume that’s “the way the world works.”

For the righties, their privilege is invisible. And it usually takes someone without that privilege to notice that the privilege exists in the first place.

So how does this apply to seminary education? Start by asking those who serve in churches, but who have not had the opportunity to receive a seminary education. Often the reasons are because the tuition is too high, but there are other reasons as well. From geography to access to technology, inability to take time away from work, a lack of connections for references, scholarships, etc., or even a lack of a sense that the education holds the value required to help them fill their call to ministry all are reasons offered. I’m sure there are others, but these are at least some I’ve heard first-hand.

And for most of the items listed above that prove prohibitive for people to participate in seminary, there is an element of privilege at the heart of the issue. Our institutions of higher education emerged from colonial models of our culture, catering to an inherently privileged group. In turn, those with privilege have continued to support those institutions, so there is little impetus from the inside for them to change. Meanwhile those who lack access to this resource adapt, developing more grassroots lay ministry training, opting for hands-on experience over rhetorical or theoretical education.

I’m generalizing here, of course, but the point is that the institutions haven’t adapted because they haven’t had to adapt. It is in an institution’s basic nature to maintain a status quo unless forced to change in order to survive. That external pressure to change hasn’t come from those without privilege for two reasons. First, they generally lack the power to exert such change on an institution from the outside, and second, they have found ways around the seminary track to the point that it doesn’t seem particularly relevant to their own call to ministry.

I’m not sure if it’s entirely a bad thing if some – or even most – of the seminaries as we now know them become relics of a modern past. It’s not that I’m rooting for this; on the contrary, I’ve done work for two seminaries in the past, and my wife benefited greatly from her seminary training. But trying to cut tuition or putting some classes online doesn’t address the fundamental problem that we have a colonial education system trying to remain relevant in a post-colonial culture.

Maybe calling us post-colonial is too idealistic, but suffice it to say that our postmodern, integrated, fluid and pluralistic reality is struggling to emerge from colonialism and its effects. So what would seminary education look like in a post-colonial reality? I’m not really sure, and as one who speaks from a place of privilege, I probably shouldn’t be the one trying to craft that future story.

but as they say in twelve-step recovery groups, the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. And that problem isn’t budgetary, and it’s not about butts in the institutional seats. It runs deeper, and the solution, far more complex.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. Christian is the creator and editor of “Banned Questions About The Bible” and “Banned Questions About Jesus.” He has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called “PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.” For more information about Christian, visit, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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  • Interesting thoughts. Your left-handed example made me think of a friend who is a leftie. One of the ways she has adapted is, when we sit down to eat, she makes sure she is on the left end of her seating row so she doesn’t have to play war of the elbows with her neighbor. This usually works fine because she is usually the only leftie in the group. But I started to think what it might be like if there were more lefties in the group. For example, if we’re sitting at a table with seating down each side, there are only two left ends. If we have three lefties, we have to come to some other accommodation. As I extended my thinking to the seminary scenario, I couldn’t help but think of the initial chaos that would result if the non-privileged were put in charge of solving the problems. It would definitely be a growing experience for everyone concerned.

    • agreed. It takes shaking up and examining everything as it is understood, because you never know where that privilege may be lurking. And I don’t necessarily advocate divesting all control of the privileged to the non-privileged, but rather for those who have privilege, power, etc to use it to advocate for those without.

      Ayn Rand took the extreme view of what would happen if those with power simply divest themselves and walk away in Atlas Shrugged. Of course, we know what mindset she was coming from 🙂