One of his main concerns is the devaluing of education by denominations – by not having high standards for those entering ministry, not paying for a significant portion of their education, having students take on clerical responsibilities before they are ready and, in some cases, making seminary education optional which begs the question of many, “Why incur the expense and inconvenience of seminary if it isn’t required of others?”
Denominations have left seminarians to pay for their educations, saddling them with debt that they cannot comfortably repay because beginning salaries for clergy are often below the poverty level. And, at the same time, they have offered alternative routes to ordination bypassing seminary entirely, leaving those who do go to wonder why they worked so hard to accomplish the same goal. What we will never know is how many prospective clergy are lost because they conclude that if the ministry is something you can do without preparation it isn’t really worthy of their attention.
Schmidt is also concerned that denominations are merely hoping enough new clergy are produced to fill the ever-shrinking open positions as older clergy retire. It isn’t a model of growth, it’s a model of least resistance.
But denominations aren’t his only target. Schmidt criticizes seminaries for hiring instructors with more academic than pastoral/practical ambition. True, he notes, there’s no excuse for a graduate education to lack academic rigour, but the end-game for seminary graduates is ministering to the needs of real people and translating historic wisdom into contemporary application. Theory is fine, but the resulting practice has to impact the lives of people in congregations.
Now Schmidt is an Episcopal priest, and from my seminary education I can say that the requirements were much higher for my Episcopal classmates than they were for those of us in the United Church of Christ. Though I had Greek, Hebrew and Clinical Pastoral Education courses, they were not required for my ordination. The UCC has recently adopted a “multiple paths to ministry” policy that allows local Associations to decide the requirements for ordination within their region.
Some of those Associations may choose not to require seminary, or even not to require any college education, prior to ordination. This is a major problem, according to Schmidt, in that sending ministers who are unprepared to deal with the complexities of modern life is a disservice to the church.
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.
A larger question may be whether the lowering of clerical education standards, and Schmidt’s assertion of confusion within the ranks of seminaries, happened before or after denominational financial decline.
The elephant-in-the-room questions for me is, “Are denominations lowering their standards in response to their declining revenue or is it a response to the inability of clergy candidates to afford seminary education?”
Thankfully, rather than merely criticize the current state of seminary education, Schmidt offers some good food for thought on how denominations, seminaries and clergy candidates can work together to produce better prepared clergy.