Saturday, June 13, 2009

Solving Seminary

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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)?
  4. 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 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.
  5. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.


  1. Wow! I love your questions. Your solutions are intriguing. Who starts the conversation? :-)

  2. With three pastors in the family (as of last count)I know how hard it is to be bouncing around from one place to another when starting out. Fortunately for my two brothers-in-law and my uncle, they went to the seminary before they were married. That means they do not have a lot to think about when being moving from one place to another.

    The trouble with most things like this is that people tend to consider them as the "tradition". This blinds people to the flaws and the presence of a viable solution to these flaws. Hopefully, more people can see how the current system can be made more efficient.

  3. Michael - maybe if I forward this to the seminary presidents it would get the conversation started. Ha!

    Terry - thanks for sharing your perspective. Like with all things in the church, we need to hang on to the traditions that serve a purpose and discard the old that NEW traditions can be made.

  4. Erik – Great questions, wonderful outside the box thinking. It's a good start to conversation and I hope seminary presidents, bishops, and so forth will read and contribute.

    I see two issues, though—one lesser, one greater—that you have not dealt with:

    First the lesser: cost. I provide continuing education. If it costs $5 I hear about it. Pardon my overstatement (the $5 remark), but cost is a huge factor, especially in smaller churches. How will the education be paid for?

    Second the greater: Nothing here deals with the issue of the clergy-centric churches that we are. Some authors have gone as far as saying that ordained pastors, as we know the office, are the problem—the reason why the church is in the place it is. It doesn't appear to me that a graduated-step process does anything to overcome the pastor-as-the-minister problem that so promotes the 'church as institution' mentality and keeps us from being God's 'people sent on a mission.'

  5. Hi there! Your link was sent to me by a friend. Are you aware of Luther's Distributed Learning program? Potential pastors, youth workers and others work in context, serving congregations the whole time they are in seminary and never move. They study online and come to campus three times a year for intensives. This allows them to practice what they are learning as they learn it. Definitely doesn't deal with all of your points, but addresses a few.

  6. Dwight - I agree that we need to do a better job of lifting up non-ordained folks for offices of ministry. I also think that we will (and should) always have ordained pastors. The things I propose are designed to beef up the ongoing education and training of ordained folks and to apprentice them into their vocation through residency.

    Dawn - I think the DL program at Luther is a huge step in the right direction. I wish more seminaries offered this as an the point that more students would go the DL route instead of the "traditional" one. Thanks for reading and commenting on "koinonia"!

  7. Erik,
    Great ideas! As someone who did the seminary route, and now 10 years later is involved in a D.Min. program, I heartily agree - my four years of seminary training would have been more effective if I would have been serving as a pastor-in-training the whole time, rather than living on seminary campuses as a full time grad student.
    Also, starting my second year in a D.Min. program, I wonder why we pastors aren't required to do this level of part time, collegial, practical study all the time. It is making a world of difference in my growth as a pastor.


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