Thursday, December 15, 2011

More musings about seminaries


The Duke Chronicle recently featured this article about seminary education. The opinions in the Duke Chronicle article were nothing new. Students expressed those same opinions thirty years ago.

Several larger issues concern me:

1.    The ministry no longer attracts the “best and brightest.” Although definitions of “best” vary widely, I know of nobody who thinks that very many of the most talented hear and answer calls to the ministry. I doubt God prefers second best. Consequently, this is a recruitment problem compounded by inadequate compensation (an ordinand’s family should not have to live in poverty because of low stipends). For the most part, these issues are not the responsibility of seminaries.

2.    Seminaries, even the most academic rigorous, are not as academically challenging as other schools (e.g., compare Duke’s law, medical, or business school admission criteria and academic standards to those of Duke Divinity). No vocation needs clear, logical thinking combined with good verbal skills more than the ordained clergy does. After all, the word that became flesh is the word that Christian clergy seek to communicate to their parishioners.

3.    Concurrently, parish expectations of clergy have multiplied. Clergy, in addition to excellent written and oral communication skills, need competence in administration, leadership, education, counseling, liturgics, and several other skill areas in addition to content competency in biblical studies, theology, ethics, liturgics, spirituality, etc. This is too much for a three-year program. Perhaps the Church should adopt a twelve-month curacy as its norm, allowing new clergy to learn and develop the practical skills of ministry that will complement the knowledge and formation acquired during the three years of seminary.

4.    Clergy, in addition to content, spirituality, and professional skills, also need to relate to other people in a healthy, positive manner. More clergy lose their jobs because of an inability to “play well” with others than because of any other reason. Clinical pastoral education is a step toward achieving this. Better screening of candidates for ordination by Church bodies is an essential element of this, something best not entrusted to seminaries. Surprisingly, the Episcopal Church is one of the few denominations to require psychological screening of all potential ordinands. Churches should also complete thorough background checks on all ordinands, attempting to avoid ordaining known sex offenders.

5.    Few denominations directly operate seminaries (the Roman Catholics are the major exception to this). Consequently, seminary faculty members earn their professional standing and rewards from being academics (e.g., publishing or perishing) rather than from forming the best possible next generation of leaders for the Church. This, in conjunction with most seminaries’ operational independence from any sponsoring denomination, gives seminaries the wrong focus. This is not an argument for reducing academic rigor (more, not less rigor would be beneficial) but for reconnecting seminaries and their mission to the life of the Church such that seminaries (many for the first time, sadly) and their faculties derive their mission, rewards, etc., from the primary task of forming the next generation of Church leaders. Indicative of the strong feelings (animosity!) that reconnecting seminaries with the Church will arouse is the anger that erupted when the Southern Baptists took control of their seminaries in the late twentieth century. The reform forced out moderate faculty members, replacing them with appropriately conservative individuals. Protests about violations of academic freedom and the demise of quality Southern Baptist theological education notwithstanding, the reform reconnected the schools with their denomination. Unfortunately, the Southern Baptists, having got that move, are wrong about almost everything else.

6.    No agreement exists regarding the definition of “spirituality.” Thus, people often conflate two debates into one: (1) a three-way tension between academics, spiritual formation, and field education and (2) competing definitions of spirituality with their associated differences in expectations about practices, spiritual maturity, etc. Not until the Church becomes clear about its definition of spirituality can the Church specify design standards for substantive, qualitative spiritual formation programs. Current programs are more a smorgasbord of methods and approaches that appeal to local designers/leaders.

4 comments:

Jay Croft said...

A lot to think about here. Thank you for posting this.

"The best and the brightest" often translates to "the most privileged and wealthiest." And as bishops get older they tend to ordain older persons.

I was gobsmacked recently when a priest in another diocese told me that her bishop expects every seminarian to pay, I think, two-thirds of their seminary costs.

I went straight from college to seminary (with a year's break after my first seminary year). Today, bishops require some years of work experience before seminary. This slows down the pipeline somewhat and pretty much guarantees that the person ultimately ordained will be second-career, no or grown children, financially very comfortable, and most likely to be drawn to upper middle class or "better" parishes.

Jay Croft said...

Second point--I don't know about the other schools, but Union Theological Seminary in NYC certainly was academically rigorous during the late 60s when I was a student there. Samuel Terrien, Reginald Fuller, John Macquarrie and other theological heavyweights were teaching at that time..

in Old Testament, I witnessed a student hand in a blank test paper a few minutes into the period and walk out of the classroom. We never saw him again.

j said...

3. We already have curacies, and the diaconate is supposed to be a time of training and growth. Many stagnate as curates for years.

George Clifford said...

An effective diaconal period/curacy must place the person in a situation with a good priest who will intentionally mentor the person. Sadly, this seems to happen infrequently – if anecdotal evidence is any indicator. Union in the 1960s was in the forefront of seminary education; its quality has diminished since then. When I went to seminary in the early 70s, I noticed a huge difference in the level of expectations between college and seminary, with college being more demanding in terms of both quantity and quality of work required.