Is It Time to Write the Eulogy?: The Future of Seminary Education

To make matters worse, most mainline churches give little more than fitful attention to the formation and support of clergy. Relying on the occasional workshop and briefing from denominational lawyers, churches are effective at insulating themselves from liability for clergy misconduct, but there is often little more attention given; and in the earliest stages responsibility for the effective preparation of ordinands is being tossed back and forth between the church and the seminary, leaving the ordinands themselves to pick their way through a conflicting minefield of expectations.

Seminarians often head off to school, uproot their families, and begin paying tuition bills with little clear indication from their churches that their denominations share their enthusiasm for their vocation; and there is little honest information about the shape of the opportunities that lie ahead. In some cases a seminarian can wait five to seven years before learning if she will be ordained, and in the meantime he is forced to run a gauntlet of committees and requirements that is more akin to hazing for membership in a fraternity, than it is serious preparation for ministry.

So, should we throw the system out, disband our seminaries, and launch even more deeply into the brave new world of clergy preparation? Should we throw the task back on the churches, requiring each one to grow its own clergy? Or should we rely on regional choices and an array of on-line approaches? All of those options are currently in play.

Realistically speaking, I am afraid that we will limp along with a struggling seminary system and a church that never quite clarifies what it wants from its clergy. As one bishop told me, "We (bishops) don't have strategic conversations about this or anything." Although he spoke for his own denomination, I have no doubt he could have spoken for many others. In the absence of bold, creative leadership there is little chance that things will change. Only time and Darwinian forces may resolve the dilemma. But I am equally certain that the survival of the fittest will not provide the church with the faithful, sophisticated leadership that it needs and deserves.

If the world of theological education were mine to remake—and it is not—I would be guided by the following convictions:

One, rigorous academic preparation is absolutely essential to creative, competent, servants of Christ who are deeply formed and capable of forming others.

Two, that kind of preparation is more important than ever before. We live in a complex and fast-changing world that will require a generation of leaders who are as well trained and educated as are the people in any other profession. It is a crime and miscarriage to require anything less. I often tell my students, "If you were laying in the operating room and some one bounded in and declared, 'Hi, I'm Fred, and I don't know a thing about anatomy or the practice of medicine, but I just love the idea of serving God through surgery,' you would use your remaining moments of consciousness to roll off the gurney and claw your way down the hall. And yet it was Jesus who said, 'Fear not those who can kill the body, but those who kill the soul.'" Churches that fearfully cast around for quick fixes to the training of clergy, give it scant attention, and then abandon their priests and pastors to the vagaries of forming themselves cannot expect to be a spiritual force in the world. Nor can they expect their clergy to be positive spiritual forces in the lives of others.

Three, I am also convinced that as many new creative approaches to education as there might be, a residential model of focused, face-to-face education and formation in the faith is the best means of preparing a generation of thoughtful, faithful servants of the Gospel. This is not to denigrate those who have been encouraged by the church to pursue alternative means of completing the requirements for ordination. It is to say that the church should instead make resources available for all those who do pursue the church's ministry to avail themselves of that face-to-face formation.

So, many will argue that what I have outlined below is impractical, but this is what I would do:

Candidates for ordination would be required to:

  1. Attend seminary and complete a Master of Divinity.
  2. Prepare in a residential setting.
  3. Select their schools from a well-honed list of seminaries.
  4. And perform at the top of their ability.

In exchange, the church would:

  1. Help to pay for a significant amount of their education.
  2. Provide close, caring, thoughtful, formative companionship along the way.
  3. Support a handful of seminaries financially in their effort to prepare their ordinands.
  4. Provide their candidates with an early, honest, responsible evaluation of their candidacy. (The ordination process should not take more years than the forming of doctors and lawyers.)
  5. Abandon alternative approaches to ordination, confining its attention to preparing properly everyone it does ordain.
  6. Do what it takes to see that new clergy receive a living wage.
  7. Support the best and the brightest of their clergy in academic formation and pursuits, seeing them as an extension of the church's teaching ministry
3/21/2011 4:00:00 AM