A very interesting Forbes magazine article (or two) on the crumbling of seminaries…oh my!

Seminary You can check out both articles on your own…I was going to give you simply the links to check out…but I started to think, one more click might be one more too many.  So, I'm posting both articles (this author posted TWICE on this subject – brave man!) below.  Seminary (in a traditional style) is a paradigm of ministry training whose time is past (since it is based primarily on pedagogies that are disconnected from learning styles and proven methodologies of training and equipping NOT to mention how it perpetuates a ineffective and heirarchically-based ecclesiology).  In addition, as the author clarifies, the new economic realities of the 21st century make a traditional seminary education almost unattainable and financially "unwise."  New paradigms are needed…experimentation and bold adventures in learning, mentoring, coaching and equipping servant leaders and mission-minded followers of Jesus are begging to be discovered.  Fact is, there are some across the country that are trying new ways…usually while most denominational juristictions turn a deaf ear.  Anyway, I'm not writing this to tell you MY opinion…I must admit, as a professor and pastoral leader, I don't have any definitive "answer" for this issue…I'm in community with a few others who are brainstorming new paradigms but that's for another post.  For now, take a look at this…if you would like, post a thought or two!  I'd love to hear what you think!

The Seminary Bubble by Jerry Bowyer (Forbes.com)

Imagine an institution that requires its leaders to attend not only college, but graduate school. Imagine that the graduate school in question is constitutionally forbidden from receiving any form of government aid, that it typically requires three years of full-time schooling for the diploma, that the nature of the schooling bears almost no resemblance to the job in question, and that the pay for graduates is far lower than other professions. You have just imagined the relationship between the Christian Church and her seminaries.

Mainline churches are nearly universal in their requirement that their Priests/Pastors/Ministers/Reverends be seminary graduates, and since seminary is a graduate school, this means the students must first be successful undergraduates. So take all of the arguments about a college bubble and add at least three years of tuition cost and forgone income.

But you’re not quite done: My friend Father Jay Geisler counsels seminary students. He tells me that in his experience roughly half of matriculated students do not graduate within three years. In addition, he tells me that the living costs tend to be higher for seminary students than for undergrads because undergrads are almost never married with children, but seminary students often are.  As such, dorm room type accommodations for grads will not do.

In addition, incomes for late 20- and early 30-somethings with wife and child tend to be higher than the traditional undergraduate-age student, so the opportunity costs — meaning the lost earnings — are considerably higher. Father Geisler tells me that he commonly sees young men graduate from seminary $60,000 or $70,000 in debt with few employment options other than very low-pay youth minister positions. It’s often even worse for women in conservative denominational traditions in which female ordination is still controversial.

And the prospects are worse clergy than for other forms of professional education, because there is no legal seminary requirement which stifles professional competition. If you go to medical school, you know you’ll have challenges in the job market, but at least you know you won’t be competing with non-medical school graduate physicians. Ditto for law school; it’s illegal to practice law or medicine without the requisite graduate schooling. Other professions, such as CPA and engineer, require at least the four-year diploma.

If you graduate from seminary and become an Episcopal priest, the church almost certainly required that you get the degree, but there’s no guarantee that increasingly indifferent churchgoers won’t, at the drop of a hat, leave your church and move a few blocks down the street to attend a Pentecostal, charismatic or fundamentalist church led by a high school dropout with generous dollops of the gift of gab, no school loans and probably less overhead. Interestingly enough, statistics indicate that these less “professional” churches are growing and the top-heavy cousins are rapidly shrinking.

Historian and sociologist Rodney Stark finds that the historical pattern fits the current one. Decentralized church systems with a history of less formal schooling historically outperform top-heavy ones with heavy academic requirements.

Part of this is politics. Mainline churches have largely become local versions of the Green Party at prayer. Leftie fads long ago captured the commanding heights of the established denominations. In fact, they did it through the seminaries. So, clergy moved left, members moved out, and mainline churches became mixtures of union halls, encounter groups and mausoleums.

Non-’professional’ church traditions didn’t have the luxury of indulging in ideological tourism. The ministers there live by the weekly collection plate.

Those who rise to the top are those who actually have a talent for preaching. Those who don’t, don’t last. After all, what matters more to the customer, the member: the ability to discuss the relationship between Paul Tillich’s theory of ultimate concern and Karl Barth’s version of neo-orthodoxy in light of the demythologizing textual hermeneutic of Bultman, or the ability to keep the congregation/audience’s attention for twenty minutes with a relevant sermon about family life? Seminary tends to give you loads of the former and little of the latter.

Seminary training has almost nothing to do with the talent for public speaking, and often leaves any evaluation of that talent later in the student’s training. For example, I know a man who went to a Bible College, worked hard, got good grades, got into a prestigious seminary, got good grades in seminary and shortly before graduation was invited, for the first time, into the pulpit. He found that he was paralyzed with fear and realized that he would be unable to be a preacher. He never became a pastor and has spent his life drifting from low wage job to low wage job and in recent years is chronically unemployed. Eight years of hard work and expensive tuition, wasted.

I’ve known scores of seminary students.  Many have the natural leadership gifts to be pastors, but many do not. I’ve seen the ones who do not jumping through the bureaucratic hoops with a wife and children in tether, sacrifices made, poverty borne with grace, and then heartbreak. No pulpit, no job, except maybe a church planting opportunity with no start-up grant. The wives seem to suffer the most in these cases.

There must be a better way, and in fact there is a better way – the original one.  Technology is the pin which is beginning to burst the seminary bubble. More on that next week.

My previous article, The Seminary Bubble, certainly hit a nerve—remarkably so, given that it appeared here at Forbes.com at the center of financial journalism and not one of the usual church discussion watering holes. Critics fell into one of three camps.

First is the gender cop camp. Self-described seminary instructor Sarah Morice-Brubaker writes, “Pssst. There are female seminarians. A lot of them. The fact that you fail to acknowledge this – and make it very clear that you have in mind hetero men when you think “seminarian” – simply makes everything else you say sound less informed and therefore less persuasive.”

Believe it or not, this was the most frequent criticism of my article, which tells me that things are worse than I thought. Liberal mainline seminaries appear to have turned into little gender police states whose denizens quietly tally your pronouns as you talk, calculating gender ratios.

Pssst, for the record, I did acknowledge female seminarians in paragraph four of the original article.  Evangelical women who attend conservative seminaries which feed into denominations which are hostile to women’s ordination are among the worst victims of the seminary bubble. It’s tough to see everything in an article when one’s line of sight is blocked by a chip on one’s shoulder.

Does the fact that seminaries have succumbed to X chromosome/Y chromosome wars make them more attractive? It’s one thing to send me to a re-education camp; it’s something else entirely to try to charge me tuition for the experience.

Another common criticism is that enduring the financial privations of a seminary education is somehow a spiritual obligation. Some argue that pastoral service is a calling and that the called must ‘take up the cross’ and follow Him.

But every calling is a calling and I don’t see anyone arguing that career training in other areas ought to be rendered more expensive and burdensome than it needs to be. We don’t tell farmers not to use tractors because back breaking physical labor is spiritually beneficial.  Sufficient unto the day is the trouble thereof: being a pastor is hard enough on its own; there is no need to tie heavy loads of debt onto the aspirants back and not lift a finger to help, all in the name of spirituality.

Besides, where precisely did Christ call His disciples to seminary?

Christ was not, Himself, a seminary graduate, nor did He establish an institution of higher learning. He certainly knew about such establishments. He grew up near a cultural center, the Hellenized city of Sepphoris. And almost certainly spent some of His formative years near an even greater center of Greek learning, the great library city of Alexandria (where else would one hide a little Hebrew boy in Egypt if not in the massive throngs of diaspora Jews?) He appears to have been not only a Hebrew and Aramaic speaker but a Greek and perhaps a Latin speaker as well. He quoted Aesop and Aeschylus. He knew about the Greek model of the Academy.

But he chose the Hebrew rabbinical model of teaching: apprenticeship.

Rabbi (and that is a title he answered to) Jesus walked around Galilee and Judea with followers in tow and partied with sinners, healed their ailments (material and otherwise), told stories, gave alms to the poor and answered his apprentices’ questions. He did, on occasion, engage in theological debates with the religious establishment, but typically only when they picked a fight with Him. Otherwise it was parties, stories, healings and alms. He built like no one had ever built before, through the hands of successive generations of the apprentices of His apprentices.

Seminary came much later, when church life became much more about one kind of Christian (Catholic) fighting against another kind of Christian (Protestant.) Reformation and Counter-reformation formed theological armories from which the soldiers of the Protestant/Catholic Christian Cold War were armed. Eventually those wars calmed to the point of truce, or at least containment, but the armories remained.

In our day many of those armories have been captured by neo-Marxian liberation theologians, racial identity demagogues, deconstructionists and Gaia worshipers on the ‘left’, and on the right by a new breed of denominational fanatics who seem to adhere to the inerrancy of their own particular ecclesiastical founding documents, from the Catholic Council of Trent to the anti-Catholic Westminster Standards and everything in between. My own denomination is in the midst of a massive schism, theologically fomented in one of our more conservative seminaries.  And the graduates of those institutions have not liberated their churches with their trendy theologies, but rather deconstructed them.

It’s time to go back to the original model: apprenticeship. I’ve been in seminary both as a student and as a teacher, but I’ve also followed my parish priest into hospitals and homes for visitations to the sick and the dying and assisted in the funerals.

I would say that time spent in tow to an actual working pastor is vastly more valuable than time spent at school. Leading a grieving family through the 23rd Psalm while at the death bed of their loved one is worth more than a hundred hours of class time. Why, then, do we put classrooms in the middle of pastoral formation and apprenticeship at the edge? Habit.

Some critics seemed to be under the impression that I thought that theology is not important. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I think theology is so important that I’d like to see it taught efficiently, at low cost, to far larger numbers of people. There’s nothing particularly theological about a load of debt which is excessive relative to income prospects. I’m a supply-sider, who believes that a better system of theological instruction will produce more, not fewer theologians.

Theological education does matter a great deal, so get some – for free. Here’s a good course on systematic theology on I-Tunes. Here’s  doctrine of God. You want church history? You got Church history right here. Those courses are from the Calvinistic tradition. The Lutherans have some great material for learning Biblical Hebrew here, and Biblical Greek here. The Baptists also have some great courses on Greek. Here’s a tutorial on Aramaic, the language that Jesus would have grown up with.

Apart from the pulpit, the work of a pastor is largely a matter of weddings, funerals and visitation of the sick. I’m a little biased, but the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer has all that stuff laid out in detail: what to say and what to do. Here’s a free on-line version. For study of the Scriptures, the Net Bible is a great, free search tool.

My daughter has been working her way through a course on the theology of C.S. Lewis, who is probably the most popular Christian writer of the 20th Century; enjoy it here. For cutting edge (but not trendy) insights in New Testament studies, here’s the web page for N.T. Wright with loads of text, audio and video. Want to run a meeting? Seminary doesn’t teach it, but Robert’s Rules does here.

In the battle to renew and rebuild the wobbling edifice of the Church in the 21st century, I’d put my money on the 30-something apprentice with an iPod, some business experience and a day job over the 20-something with a piece of paper and a huge load of debt every time.

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