Do We Want Seminaries or Clergy Trade Schools?

We just finished our annual clergy conference with a somewhat contentious conversation about whether seminaries are doing the right job of preparing persons for ordained ministry.  Do seminaries exist to train persons in the skills necessary to perform as clergy?  Do they exist to educate persons as theologians capable of assuming church leadership?  Or do they exist for something else?
It reminded me of conversations I often had with Episcopalian students at the top ranked liberal arts college in our community that went something like this:  

You are among the intellectual elite in the nation.  I know it’s not politically correct to admit that, but that’s the way it is so get used to it.  You are here to become educated persons and to learn the skills needed for life long learning as educated persons.  You are not here to get a job ticket.  If a job ticket is what you want or need, you can do that later in graduate school or at the local community college. 

I have pretty much the same reaction to our clergy conference discussion.  If we are most interested in raising up persons with the skills necessary to perform as ordained clergy, we can do that easily enough through local training, distance education, and a variety short course and seminars offered by some institution.  On the other hand, if we are most interested in raising up persons who are educated as theologians capable of providing leadership and competent in forming knowledgeable disciples for the Church, we need comprehensive seminary based graduate education at a high level of academic standards.  This obviously begs the question of whether that function could be accomplished just as well through university graduate schools of religion or theology, and that’s for another day. 
It seems to me that the real issue is something else altogether, and that is money.  Graduate education is expensive, period.  On the one hand, the leadership of the Church laments that seminary graduates leave with huge debt loads that are all but impossible to pay off on a clergy salary.  On the other hand, and for the most part, they do very little or nothing to invest in that education, and seem disinclined to make any moves in that direction.  It seems to me that that is their problem as much or more than it is a problem of the seminaries.
I’ll close with this.  Any move to convert seminaries, or university graduate schools of theology, into clergy trade schools is likely to result in the destruction of graduate level education while failing to live up to the expectations for a decent trade school.

7 thoughts on “Do We Want Seminaries or Clergy Trade Schools?”

  1. Is the notion here, Steve, that theology is not relevant for maintaining, much less expanding, a congregation? That that kind of inquiry and conversation is only relevant for those who live in their head rather than in their heart, and faith is of the heart, not the head?And I'm especially curious about the notion that a leader of the Church does not need a theological education. Is that because the only thing that really counts for such leadership is administrative skill plus, well, fund-raising abilities, and then whatever sense of vision it is that will enlighten clergy on how to get more young people to go to church?But if it is sheer fear of relentlessly declining numbers among the young that is driving all this, could that be because the young don't find themselves spoken to by the Church? The words they hear don't resonate, don't connect much less inspire. Does the Church understand why not? What kind of reflection would help here? What renewal of just what sense of theology?Did you all talk about that?

  2. Tom,As with many of these conversations, we tacked it on to the end of our time together which meant that we did not have the time to explore it in detail. The \”leadership of the Church\” in question is mainly the house of bishops, and, no doubt, they are in extended conversation with seminary deans, but we are not privy to that. In a rural diocese such as ours, the majority of our clergy are locally trained. They are very dedicated to their calling, all the more so because the make their living doing something else. They have been taught what is needed to fulfill the role of ordained clergy, and they have demonstrated sufficient competency in the basics of church history, doctrine, etc. It would be dishonorable to demean their sense of calling, intellectual abilities or success at leading their small flocks. From a purely mechanical point of view, the Church could get along just fine with all clergy so trained, and we could get along without any graduate level seminaries. A few peripatetic theologian/teachers could roam the country providing whatever elementary and secondary education was deemed necessary. For a multitude of reasons I find that vision appalling. As for your final question, I suspect, as one of my colleagues said, that many younger people hear the teaching of the Church and it all sounds like \”flat earth\” talking to them. We Episcopalians speak first century Greek using English words accented with the High Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment. That is not a contemporary language.CP

  3. The question you raise was at issue in 1953, when Bishop of Texas John Hines had a vision to found a new school of theology in Austin, which started in a two-story private home which had been given to the diocese of Texas near the University of Texas. Bishop Hines wanted a theological seminary which would be intellectually challenging, in the top rank with the General Seminary in New York and with the Harvard and Chicago Divinity Schools. Almost from the first, the bishops who sent their candidates to that new seminary complained that the emphasis was too academic, that what they needed was more of a \”school of ministry\”, i.e., a trade school (without using those words!). Finally, years later, the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest adopted that approach, or so I have read, since too many of their students, mostly men and women leaving other careers to study for ministry, were dropping out. I think that this tension beteen goals of seminary education will be ongoing and hard to resolve. (And the debt load from the cost of any graduate education, as you mention, is a real deterrent to anything but a local, on-the-job, part-time theological training.) Dr B

  4. A couple of thoughts,What is the purpose of a Seminary? Does it serve only a particular denomination, is it designed to foster life long learning, investigation and discovery? or is it designed to indoctrinate to a particular orthodoxy or philosophy? is it designed to foster obedience or catholicity? Should the goal of a seminary be to spit out degrees to those who know how to answer in the expected, or to engender into it's charges the ability to constantly chew on new information and experiences creating an openness to the spirit working in the world. (there is that catholicity thing again)Should a Seminary be a machine to turn out end results (diploma, title, job qualification, etc) or a never ending life experience with right and expectation of return and continuing involvement, discussion, and exploration.I think that the answer to your question poised in the title of this post is dependent on the answer to the question \”How do you define your religion, Who is your God? What does your God require of you, your church?\”

  5. Another issue which is barely every spoken aloud is the authority to \”think for the Church\”. in our tradition we give it officially to the Bishops, but ask the seminaries to engage in the task as well, then we elect Bishops who are not scholars and dismiss seminaries as irrelevant. For a Church which says we are for thinking people, we seem to dismiss serious theological reflection as something all of us can do, educated and trained or not. The move away from seminaries is a move away from any authority of the Academy. Perhaps it never had it. Perhaps if we were willing to actually honor academic work we would not be in such a mess now. But then again, I actually think education is critical to formation.

  6. Dr. B and Bru,Thanks for wading in. The questions you raised, Bru, are precisely the ones that created some of the contention in our clergy conference. I cannot offer a definitive answer to any of them because there isn't one. I can speak for myself; I come down on the side of graduate level seminary education. Although it does not have to occur in a denominational seminary setting, I do think that it is important for formation in denominational traditions and practices. They are not irrelevant to how your other questions get answered.CP

  7. Perhaps this a distinction Luke introduces into Jesus' Galilean ministry would be useful. When Jesus spoke he spoke \”with authority\” where this way of speaking is contrasted with that of the \”scribes,\” literally, the grammarians. Grammarians read by way of the letter of the Law, Jesus spoke by way of the authority of its Spirit. Those listening could literally hear the difference.Now: Is the every declining respect for theology a matter of its heard as the work of scribes, grammarians? Does it sound that way? Or is the Church ever increasingly deaf to the sound of the authority of the Spirit? Who speaks with such authority today?

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