Writing the Eulogy of Seminary Education

The Rev Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. offers up some great thoughts regarding the potential demise of seminary education and the demands of those called to ministry in THIS ARTICLE on Patheos.com.

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.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Writing the Eulogy of Seminary Education

  1. Cutch McAtee

    Gregg,
    I am enjoying your blogs, and greatly appreciate this one. I am bothered by our Alma Mater seminary’s move to both lower the hours required (from 90 to 72) and to provide (encourage?) an on-line option. I understand the drive to do so from the financial perspective, but cannot comprehend how that helps further the formation of the student beyond any independent reading they may do on their own anyway. I am also shocked to discover (post graduation) that some of my seminary cohort only had high school diplomas (one a GED) and yet were allowed to do a M.Div. program – seemingly just so that they could be conferred the title of Elder and serve larger UMC churches. And the director of that program skipped the M.Div. program completely, yet was conferred a D.Min. degree. Something is wrong in Denmark … it’s no wonder our churches are mired in misinformed theologies.

    I enjoyed my seminary experience – it changed my life as well as my theology. However, I have discovered that I had a better chance to serve a church had my theology stayed very conservative/fundamentalist. Even within the UCC, my new church start efforts were thwarted by bumping up against a former Nazareen who now heads my region’s Authorized Ministry Council and abhors my Progressive theologies and differing vision.

    Enough venting … keep your blogs coming!

  2. Bullied at Seminary

    Simply put, a seminary education has little if any effect on the person. Just look at the stats on the crimes, divorces, abuse, etc of these “educated intellectuals”. Classmates and professors of mine at a CUE seminary of the UCC were the most hateful, mean spirited, self-centered, angry people I’ve ever encountered. More curse words were said by professors on a daily basis than I’ve ever heard anywhere and that includes time working in the construction industry!!! And you wonder about lowering standards? When an extreme ideology is the prime directive rather than ministry, what do you expect? No standard is too low when “the ends justify the means” to achieve an agenda.

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