6 Questions We Need to Answer about Clergy Formation

6 Questions We Need to Answer about Clergy Formation November 4, 2015

ID-100321226Some weeks ago, a Facebook friend who is also a young pastor posted this message (which I have quoted here with his permission):

So, this is a bit of a vent/rant.  I’m frustrated, discouraged, and worried.  Worried about the future, discouraged about where my ministry career has brought me, and frustrated that I feel like I’m in a prison called The Church with no apparent way out. I’ve been researching a career change to nursing, which seems infinitely more promising for career options and freedom of mobility.  As I loved chaplaincy work in health care–and there’s a good amount of personal spiritual caregiving that goes with nursing–I feel it could be a good fit.  Nurse friends have also been extremely encouraging to me as well.  As I’ve been learning, nursing programs scrutinize carefully your ability to do the work of nursing.  I.e., are you physically able to handle the work, among other things.  Looking back on my seminary experience, at no point do I recall being scrutinized for my ability (financial, primarily) to do ministry in small, declining congregations.  Unlike many of my classmates who received financial support from home congregations, home synods, family, etc., I received nothing beyond tuition assistance from the school, in spite of my best efforts to solicit help from all of the above.  So even with the tuition assistance, I came out of seminary $40K in debt, which nowadays is nothing, but still 40 grand I have to repay.  Not until I graduated did anyone raise an eyebrow or express surprise/concern at how much money I was borrowing, even while the powers that be were guiding me towards ministry in small congregations.  So, that’s where I’ve been for the last 13 years.  Now our newborn son (June 30) has some issues that require ongoing checkups with nutritionists, his neurologist, OT and PT, early intervention, his surgeon, and of course, his GP (we don’t have pediatricians here).  We would love to be closer to those resources than we are, but the synod where they are located is not interested in me even though my wife’s job lies within that synod’s bounds.  It’s a highly popular one, and I’ve heard the bishop has 300 RLPs on his desk at the moment, so I’m not really that surprised either.  We would move elsewhere, but now have restrictions on where we can consider going due to our son’s needs.  None of the other synods I sent my papers to have shown any interest either or even acknowledged receiving them.  Meanwhile, the congregations I serve are on their last legs, and I feel pigeonholed as the guy who will serve the congregations no one else wants, in the places no one else wants to go to.  Switching denominations doesn’t help because they all look like this.  So I’m frustrated that no one taught me in seminary what my ministry was likely going to look like, and asked me whether such ministry would be sustainable long term given my own situation, and what would happen if my situation changed (as in getting married and having kids).  I’m worried how I’ll provide for my son, discouraged that the mainline church is dying, and deeply frustrated that I don’t know how to help it or change my own situation without tremendous cost and risk.  So I feel helpless on so many levels.  They didn’t teach that in seminary–that someday I would feel like that about the church and ministry.  And that there are huge, problematic disconnects in the church and its preparation process which a candidate really ought to know about before signing those promissory notes and registering for their first class.  Sigh.

My friend’s complaint is not uncommon.

Over the years I have been struck by the isolation that seminarians and young clergy experience.  Falling prey to financial burdens that clergy salaries do not address and to congregational dynamics that receive little or no attention, the struggles he describes are widespread and corrosive.

There are a number of reasons for this state of affairs, but two stand out among others:

One: The modern theological school does not control the ordination process and the church does not directly operate the seminaries.  The resulting compartmentalization means that neither institution can take responsibility for the entire process.  Candidates for ordination often “fall between the cracks” as a result.

Two: In the current environment, both institutions are facing demographic challenges that are a break with the high tide denominationalism of the 50s and the 60s.  As a result, seminarians and clergy are too often seen as a solution to the challenges that the two institutions face, rather than as the object of their care and formation.

For people who work in the business world, such dynamics are the norm.  Preparation, professional formation, and career development are largely the responsibility of the individual, but on at least some levels the same people are considered free agents.  They are paid more.  And the masters degrees that they attain can be counted on to translate into new job opportunities and higher wages.

Vocational life for clergy is couched in very different terms and the “return” on a theological education cannot be measured in monetary terms.  Both seminaries and churches also talk about ordained vocations in very different terms.

So, while one might argue that candidates for ordination should weigh the return on their investment and cultivate their careers accordingly, both seminaries and churches assume that clergy are called to do work that demands something very different from them.

If that is the case, however, then churches and seminaries need to work together to create an ecology of formation that will promote the results both believe is important to the work that clergy do.  That will require a conversation that neither institution has with the other very often.

The issues are critical enough to justify that kind of conversation and it should include the following agenda items:

One, what does the church need from seminaries and, more specifically, from their clergy?

Two, what do seminaries understand the challenges to be in helping seminarians with that preparation?

Three, what can both do to help candidates for ordination assess their gifts for that vocation?

Four, what can both do to alert those interested in attending seminaries to familiar themselves with the real world challenges of ministry?

Five, what can churches and seminaries do to focus more squarely on the task of forming clergy and supporting them and their families in that vocation?

Six, what can both do to contain the cost of preparing thoroughly and provide additional financial support both before and after seminary?

A conversation of that kind will not be easy and there are no simple answers available to some of those questions.  But it’s time to stop asking our clergy and their families to make up for our failure to have that conversation.


Photo by stockimages used with permission from

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