Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Seminary Dilemma

So, when are you going to seminary?

Isn't it time you became a pastor?

When are you going to stop playing around in youth ministry and go to seminary?

You're 30 now...don't people your age usually phase out of youth ministry?

Don't you realize how much it helps to have letters behind your name?

Ever since the NBA playoffs started, I've been getting the full-court press about seminary. First of all, let me say that it's humbling to know that people think I could be a pastor. I don't take that affirmation lightly. But here's the deal...

I'm not going to seminary. At least not any time in the near future.

Why not?

Here's what Luther Seminary student Matt Cleaver came up with last week
. The list is both thorough and provocative...not to mention very well-constructed. His insights reveal part of my hesitancy to take the seminary plunge.

On a more personal level, here's why seminary isn't a good fit for me:

I Don't Need It If you were to ask me what I would like to do as a pastor, I would give you the job description of a youth and family minister. Why enter into a lengthy process that wouldn't necessarily result in me being able to do what I want to do?

My Family The traditional seminary track requires no fewer than four moves in four years. Current town - seminary. Seminary - internship. Internship - seminary. Seminary - 1st call. What kid wouldn't hold that kind of inconsistancy against their parent? Even if I wanted to move that often (which I don't), how does that kind of constant movement help me honor my call to being a father and husband?

The Whole Church This is the kicker for me. The call to ordained ministry is a call to serve the entire church. It drives me nuts when seminary students use their senior year to rig the system to get a sexy first call. If a person takes seriously their call to serve the whole church, then they will go where the Spirit is leading and not serve their self-centered motives. The problem is...I would be one of those people. At this point in my life, I'm simply not willing to move to rural Wyoming or downtown Baltimore to serve the church. I just know I'd end up using my connections to find a plumb job at an established, suburban congregation. I'm not necessarily proud of this, but I am 99% certain this is what I would do. Call me selfish, but this is why I prefer free agency as a youth minister instead.

Respect I have an enormous respect for the vocation of pastor. Perhaps this is a byproduct of having a father, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and great-uncle who are all pastors. Maybe this is just because I know how much time and effort goes into the call of a pastor. I also know that my tendency is to over-function when expectations are high. This is a recipe for short-term success and long-term failure. I have to get better at boundaries before I'd take a gig that requires so much out of me.

Collar I wear a tie 3-4 days a year. Every time I do, I'm tugging at the collar. The top button is usually unfastened by mid-morning. I don't think I could rock the clerical collar without making a mockery of myself or the institution of the collar.

Now if I could just figure out a way for my church to pay for my housing without being ordained...


  1. Hey Erik. I cruised on over here from the link in your facebook status. While I agree with much of what you've said (and have even thought about a lot of that during and after my seminary experience) there is just one tiny thing I have to contend with.

    During my time at seminary I met a lot of mothers and fathers who were students. This required them to move their families four times in four years. It wasn't easy for them, and it definitely wasn't easy for their families. But I think they were honoring their calls to be spouses and parents by honoring their call to be a pastor. They couldn't be who God was calling them to be, unless they honored that calling in their life.

    I understand you were speaking on a purely personal level, and weren't calling into question the parenting skills of those who choose to go to seminary with their families. But I just thought I'd speak up for those of my friends who decided to do that!

    Now I'm going to have to check out the rest of your blog!!

  2. Thanks for your feedback, Mark. I didn't do a good job of offering sufficient context on that particular point. I would never imply that people (my new friend, Paul Amlin comes to mind) who do enter into the seminary process are being unfaithful to their calling as spouse & parent. Simply a poorly constructed articulation...nothing more was implied.

    In my particular situation, my wife has just started a new career with the city where we live, and my children are in the early years of schooling, where I believe continuity is increasingly important.

    I guess I just have a negative bias towards uprooting my family multiple times for the sake of one person's job. God bless those who go that route...it's just a difficult one for me to envision.

    Sorry for offering such a blanket statement without the proper clarifying statements.

    Thanks again for participating in koinonia!

  3. Reason number 6: People in seminary have to read books. Long ones. Sometimes in different languages.

  4. This post sums up a lot of what I've been thinking myself lately - thank you!

  5. Erik -
    Seminary isn't for everyone to be sure, and for a variety of reasons. I embrace your notion of lay professionals in ministry (having been one of those for a number of years prior to coming to seminary). If we really believe in a priesthood of all believers then we really need to empower lay professionals and lay volunteers to DO ministry in their context. I very dear friend of mine (Faye Belskey) was recently awarded the Tom Hunstead Award by the ELCAYM Network, honoring her LIFETIME of ministry with youth and families, we do need more faithful youth and family ministers to dedicate their lives to her kind of service.

    Sense of call is an ongoing experience of discernment. When your internal call matches the external call, maybe you'll be able to see a future as a lay rostered or ordained minister, until then, keep doing what you're doing, making a difference in the lives of LOTS of people.


  6. Erik, good thoughts here. One of the things you spoke to isn't even seminary proper, but the approach to and requirements for ordination in the ELCA. I did not grow up in the ELCA. I have a non-denominational congregationalist background, so that has likely shaped by ecclesiology. On the other hand, I have significantly reshaped other parts of my theology from my childhood, so this isn't just an argument based on "that's cuz I was raised that way."

    In the ELCA the seminary discussion is impossible to have apart from ordination and rostering requirements. In fact, I've got a post series brewing in my head about that very topic, but I'm not sure if I'm ready to put the work into right now.

    I would say to Mark, absolutely, you should never forsake your call to be a pastor. On the other hand, the maybe the ELCA doesn't need to put roadblocks in people’s way by making it a requirement to uproot and move your family four times just to be ordained (You also left out a 5th move: the inevitable move after you've served out your first call requirements). Luther's DL program is moving the in the right direction to allow people to get their M.Div. while not uprooting their family. Now the discussion should move a step further and start asking about the nature of ordination in the ELCA.

    On your "I Don't Need It" comment, I feel the same way. If I were in a congregationalist church, I would be ordained, no question. But because the ELCA defines ordained as primarily a ministry of "Word and Sacrament," I really am not drawn to it very much. Other churches don't draw such narrow lines of ordination.

    And, I'm right with you on serving the whole church. I didn't grow up in the ELCA and while I would gladly serve in ELCA churches the rest of my life if the right opportunities presented themselves I'm not ready to tie myself to the denomination.

    Great post, and I'm glad we're having this discussion. I think it's a discussion that needs to be widespread.

  7. I just read your reasons for not going to seminary. Did you post it b/c you are so annoyed people are asking you about it? It's funny, I have never really pictured you as a pastor. But whatever, it doesn't really matter. Well are articulated points.

  8. Dave - you, of all people, know well my distaste for reading long books!

    Crystal - nice to know we're on a similar journey

    Paul - thanks for the kind words. When are we going to get you in SE Iowa? :-)

    Matt - interesting thought about ordination being tied to Word & Sacrament...I never considered that as an oddity...this is why it's nice to have the perspective of someone who didn't grow up Lutheran.

    Anon - Not so much "annoyed"...just reflecting on a recent wave of questioning / nudging, and how that had very little to do with any internal sense of call.

  9. Erik - I totally resonate with your sense of not being willing to go wherever. I know that's why I ditched 2.5 years of M.Div to become a diaconal.

    Mark - I've got to say I wondered at times about the parents who decided to have babies at seminary. Older kids did much better, but having kids knowing the kind of insurance we had scared us into waiting until we were established in ministry settings before reproducing. But I understand what those who did have kids felt. I loved having the babies around.

    I'm wondering about people with particular learning disabilities. I just advised a young man who wants to be a theology minor last night (it's registration time here), but his language disability restricts his ability to study languages like Greek and Hebrew. What if he felt called to be a pastor? Would he be able to in the current ELCA expectation of pastoral education?


Thank you for taking the time to be a part of "koinonia"