I am not a seminary student. I have friends entering seminary...currently in seminary...and long since completed seminary. I have poked and prodded around Lutheran seminaries literally since birth. I recall thinking in my early teen years that I would eventually spent significant time at a seminary. As I've gotten older, I'm finding it to be less of a viable option for me.
I think education is important. I think it's important for would-be-pastors to be part of a thorough vetting process prior to ordination. I value the holistic learning that comes from living in community. I just don't think the way we're doing seminary makes any sense in the 21st century.
In addition to an ongoing wrestling with an internal sense of call to ordained ministry, I have five major issues with the current ordination-track seminary system:
- All of the required education happens before a person ever becomes a pastor. This is mind-boggling to me. The way we Lutherans do it, a pastor has three years of course work and one year of internship before they are ordained into word & sacrament ministry. Once they have their Masters of Divinity, we impose no additional educational requirements. Has a pastor learned everything they ever needed to know from seminary? How does a seminary education in the 1960s serve, equip, and empower an aging pastor in 2010?
- A Masters in Divinity is equated with pastoral preparedness. From what I understand, a Masters degree is an educational acknowledgment - a piece of paper which certifies that a person passed the course work required by academia. A Masters degree means a person is, for lack of a better term, book-smart. I've never seen a letter of call or a pastor's job description that lists "book-smarts" as one of the requirements. Of course, theological training is essential for any pastor...but why a Master's level? Why not a Bachelors...or a Doctorate, for that matter? Receiving a degree doesn't ensure a person has gifts for ministry; nor does the absence of a degree mean a person is void of those gifts.
- Potential pastors are learning from scholars, not fellow pastors. Why does a seminarian spend three years in a community that doesn't resemble congregational community? Why are students only spending 15 months (CPE + internship) in the field of ministry and 3 years taking tests, writing papers, and learning from people that haven't served a congregation as pastor for years (if ever)?
- A Bachelor's degree is a formality that is void of value. If I would have attended a Lutheran college, double-majored in Religion and Church History, and went on to seminary to be an ordination-track M-Div student...do you know how much of an advantage I would have over someone who majored in basket weaving? None! At best, I might be able to test out of my Greek requirement, but I wouldn't spend less time in seminary or have a smaller tuition bill when it's all said and done. The current system invalidates a Bachelor's field of study and boils it down to nothing more than a generic prerequisite.
- Move, Move, Move, Move, Move, Move. I've said it before in this space, but I really think this is a big, BIG problem. A pastor-in-training moves to seminary...moves to do 3 months CPE...moves back to seminary...moves to internship...moves back to seminary...moves to their first call. 6 moves in 4 years. Why does it work this way? I'd love an explanation. Please enlighten me! What is gained by intentionally creating such an unsettling four years? What if someone is a second-career person with a spouse and children? Does the spouse's vocational identity not matter? Do the kids need to sacrifice "normalcy" because their parent feels called to be a pastor? What about the primary call to be a parent and spouse? Luther was big on the "domestic call" stuff, so why doesn't our Lutheran educational model reflect that?
As with any human institution, there are some other flaws and inconsistencies with the current seminary model. The aforementioned five items are what I consider to be the biggies.
So how do we fix it? If I may be so bold, here is one idea of how to change the ordination / seminary landscape:
- Bachelors of Divinity. This would be offered exclusively at a seminary for anyone that is at least 18-years old. A student could transfer some applicable credits from another non-seminary institution, but would still need to complete a significant amount of 300 and 400 level classes through an accredited, ELCA seminary. A highly-motivated person could complete this degree in three years...most would take four.
- Three-year residency / apprenticeship. This would include one year of internship upon completion of the Bachelor's degree. The candidate would then be ordained and called to the same congregation for an additional two years. During these two years of ordained ministry, the candidate would participate in required "First Call Theological Training", which is reflected in the current practice. Above all, residency provides stability for the congregation, supervising pastor, and the resident pastor.
- Ongoing, required, masters-level continuing education. A pastor would need to be working toward a Masters of Divinity during their first 10 years of ordination. This ensures that a pastor continues learning new things about ministry - different preaching techniques, how to evaluate cultural trends, changing worship styles, youth ministry models, counseling refreshers, etc. It also requires congregations to regularly provide for a pastor's continuing education and sabbatical...and requires the pastor to use that time and money in an intentional way (not just to buy books that collect dust or skip out on seminars and workshops at conferences).
- A similar pursuit of a Doctorate by the 25th ordination anniversary. Why not? Don't we want pastors who continue to evolve as leaders? I would think that the best time for a pastor to take seminary courses is while they're serving a congregation. The pastor can make a contextual application of what they've learned. The local church has fresh, new, relevant ideas being brought in from time to time. The pastor gets to work toward a degree that the congregation pays for. What's not to like?
I think this model could work for all concerned parties.
Seminaries would have many more outlets for education because EVERY pastor would be required to take classes through the seminary throughout their ministry, not just at the beginning.
Candidates don't have to move around as much. They would spend equal time - 3 years - learning in seminary classrooms and in a residency congregation.
Congregations would have pastors who are regularly improving themselves and, by extension, the churches they are serving.
Bishops would not have to deal with pastors who refuse to take continuing education and, therefore, find their skills eroding. If a pastor doesn't have a Masters in 10 years or a Doctorate in 25, they're off the roster.
I know it seems a tad naive, but I really think this could work. Of course, nothing will change until a core group of people within the seminary sub-culture considers this to be a viable option. The whole church will also have to embrace the notion that some of the most valuable educational training for pastors happens through experiences that can't be graded by a professor.