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.
These thoughts represent additional musings from previous posts on this subject (Ethical Musings: Educating priests, Ethical Musings: Musing about clergy formation, Ethical Musings: Episcopal seminaries: Consolidate now!).