By Emily Heath, MDiv and ThM ’05
Different mainline denominations have long allowed for functioning pastors to not attend seminary. Licensed ministers, local church pastors, lay ministers and more ably fill pulpits and celebrate sacraments on Sunday mornings, often in churches that could not otherwise call a pastor. This is especially true for small churches and those in geographically remote areas.
Now some of those same denominations, which have seen seminary as a norm for ordination, are debating whether or not ordained clergy need to graduate from seminary. The United Church of Christ, for example, already allows for “alternate paths” towards ordination, though acceptance of this idea varies greatly across the denomination.
Proponents of the idea point to the good ministry that lay ministers have been able to do without seminary educations. They also argue that seminary is expensive, and that candidates for ministry should not be expected to leave behind well-paying careers in order to go to seminary. Others call seminary education “elitist” and claim that by requiring it we are keeping some potential ministers from being ordained.
I’ll be the first to say that our seminary system needs transformation. Students in many cases take on student loan debt to attend. This does privilege those who are more financially secure. The shrinking number of seminaries nationwide also means that rural would-be seminarians are having a harder time than ever. And formation is often incomplete, and spotty. Too many graduates leave seminary without a basic grasp of the Bible, theology, preaching, and worship leadership.
But the fixes we are proposing don’t work. I’ve heard possible candidates for ministry tell me that they don’t have time for seminary. But thinking you should be able to skip ministerial formation is particularly entitled at best, and dangerous at worst. As a rabbinical friend of mine reminded me when I started seminary, “Protestants only go for three years.” She pointed out that doctors go for four, and said “They just deal with the body. We deal with the soul!”
And then there’s the elitism argument. Requiring an advanced degree strikes some as worldly and out-of-touch. But we never argue the same thing when talking about lawyers, teachers, therapists, and numerous other professions. We acknowledge that college alone is not adequate preparation for a profession. And, while ministry may indeed be a calling first, it is also a profession in the best sense of that word. To do it well, education is key.
For others there’s the practical aspect. How can we expect potential pastors to shift their lives for the sake of their education? Ignoring the fact that ministry will likely mean a physical move, along with a number of other changes, I just don’t think that expecting our candidates to sacrifice something is too much to ask. I know that it is hard to commit to seminary, but the majority of my seminary class was second-career. They left behind lucrative jobs and moved their families. When Jesus said drop everything and follow me, I don’t think he was kidding.For others the promise of the future comes in the form of entirely online MDiv programs. Even online CPE programs are cropping up. One seminary advertised its online program by writing that “our seminarians wear robes” and then clarifying that they meant bathrobes. I remember thinking, “if you can’t get out of your bathrobe for seminary then you are going to be eaten alive by the demands of ordained ministry!”
Beyond that, we are forgetting that a major part of seminary isn’t about the kind of classes that can be taken online. Seminary is a place of formation, both academic and spiritual, and it’s a time when you learn who you are and you learn to be in community. We are, with few exceptions, not interacting entirely online with our parishioners. We need to learn how to interact face-to-face, and in real time. Ordained clergy, who will serve in a variety of physical contexts throughout their career, need that dedicated time of formation that seminary provides.
Finally, every Christian is called to minister, but not every Christian is called to be a pastor and teacher. That said, why are we not expecting the minimum level of preparation from our pastors and teachers in the church? Pastors and teachers, inside the parish and out, have the job of sharing the faith in a way that inspires others. They need to be able to understand the Bible and theology well enough that they can break it down and teach it in any context in which they find themselves. We wouldn’t let someone without a solid education teach our child’s elementary class. Why would we let someone into the pulpit to teach the faith without expecting that they would have studied it themselves?
So how do we fix it? I believe we start here: we invest in our seminaries and our seminarians.
First, denominations, local churches, and all of us as individuals need to support our seminaries both financially and through our prayers and words. Money spent to help our seminaries thrive will yield good fruit. Speaking about the good work that is done in our seminaries, and encouraging the next generation of ministers to see seminary education as imperative, will help us to ensure seminary education remains the standard. Once denominations and their leaders begin to see seminaries as optional, the fate of their denomination’s seminaries has almost been sealed.
Next, we have to support our seminarians. Counter-intuitively, that might mean making our seminaries smaller. Increasingly seminaries are becoming places for personal religious exploration, rather than communal formation. Self-actualization is important, but it’s not the same as being formed for ministry.
Because of that, it may be time for seminaries to have honest conversations with applicants for a Master of Divinity program. If they are uninterested in ministry, perhaps other programs such as a university-based religious studies program are better suited for them. That will free seminaries up to be what they are best at: places of spiritual and academic formation for ministers.
It will then be important for us to ask how we can support the next generation of ministers in their education. The church is indeed getting smaller, and in the future will require fewer ordained clergy. Are we being realistic about this when we take ministerial candidates under care in our denominations? Are we willing to say “no” to a candidate who may have a call to Christian faith, but not a call to Christian ministry?
But when we do have a candidate who is following the call to Word and sacrament, and who does have a call to serve God’s people, and who is willing to be in formation, what next?
In an ideal world we could pay for seminary for every candidate like this. I know that’s not feasible at this point, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a goal. My own alma mater does an amazing job providing tuition assistance for their students, all while upholding high academic and formation standards. They are able to do so because people have been generous to the school itself.
For individual seminarians not attending an institution with these kind of funds, though, the church must take up some responsibility for helping students through school. I’ve seen churches spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, on elective building projects while writing their seminarian a $100 check for school. Denominations that once provided some assistance have cut off funds to the point that seminary food pantries exist on too many campuses.
We are being penny-wise and pound foolish. We should be looking at our past decisions, such as the mainline defunding of college ministries, and seeing how saving a little money in the short term always means long-term losses when it comes to education. Whatever we invest in seminarians today will pay in spades for our church tomorrow.
Mainline Christians, we have always believed in the importance of education. We have opened schools and colleges, and expanded opportunities through the promise of education. Valuing educated clergy has been a big part of that emphasis. If there is an outstanding feature of mainline Christianity, in a time of great decline, perhaps it is this.
So here’s the question: do we believe our church is better for that education? If we do, it’s time to open our wallets, and make an investment in an educated future for our churches.
The Rev. Emily C. Heath is a United Church of Christ minister currently serving as Senior Pastor of the Congregational Church in Exeter, New Hampshire, and a writer and public theologian. Heath’s first book, Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity, was published by Pilgrim Press in the spring of 2016.