Is a seminary education worth getting? It is a major commitment to earn the Master of Divinity degree required for ordination. The three or four years of schooling at the graduate level appears daunting. In my own case, I had been out of college ten years, had a young family, and a student appointment of three churches. I attended a school in another state from where my family and churches were. I made it through in three years. Other students in similar situations at the beginning suffered setbacks from illness, bad luck, or just quit. So, I had good fortune and lots of support for the years involved.
Strictly speaking from a cost analysis seminary education may not be worth doing for a career in pastoral ministry. As professional people, most pastors are in the same boat as public school teachers. The market culture including the churches does not value us highly. Universities tuitions continue rise faster than inflation. Seminaries are no different.
Scholarships and fellowships exist to offset the rising tuitions and fees. Most seminary students receive something from these sources. My tuition and fees for my Master of Divinity program were covered 100% by scholarships from generous endowments.
Still many clergy ask if it is necessary to spend the time and effort for a career when the family will require two incomes to live.
The Practice of Ministry
During my seminary years, I never heard anyone from my student appointment churches claim my practices of ministry were improving as I was going to school. No one said that the quality of my preaching or pastoral care improved during my seminary years.
Improving these practices takes, well, practice. Writing and delivering 50 sermons per year for a number of years, improves preaching. Pastoral care has more to do with character development and experience of the pastor than the training. But, the education provides the pastor with being able to find resources for these practices or ministry.
However, prayer, meditation, and consideration are important in developing pastoral skills too. It is not possible to improve these skills without spiritual self-care.
Do seminaries educate or indoctrinate? I learned the basic doctrines of the Church as well as Wesleyan Theology in seminary. I expected to do so. Denominational leaders expect students to do so. In fact, I was indoctrinated in seminary. If, however, graduate school education is meant to develop new knowledge, seminaries rarely do that. Universities with seminaries often have “Graduate Schools of Religion” as well with a lot of overlap for this purpose.
Still, the Master of Divinity degree is not primarily about developing and defending a thesis. It is about satisfying requirements for ordination. Are the years invested in such programs worth the cost? They are not.
Alternative Theological Education
I call for alternative theological education. Seminary should not look like the schools for professions that require state licensing – physicians, pharmacists, nurses, and lawyers. Our requirements for ministry are different even though character and skill are important.
I propose another type of seminary where the student is already considered a practitioner of ministry outside of the local church. The program I am beginning to envision is based on the workshops model without grading. It provides seminars for spiritual and theological reading. An apprenticeship model is better for learning pastoral care.
The graduate school model for seminaries does not fulfill the needs of the students or the churches. Denominational leaders know this. Here is a beginning to think about it differently.