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The Future of Seminary: Training Tentmakers

The Future of Seminary: Training Tentmakers October 27, 2011

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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