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The Seminary Bubble: The Great Relearning

Imagine an institution that requires its leaders to attend not only college, but graduate school. Imagine that the graduate school in question is constitutionally forbidden from receiving any form of government aid, that it typically requires three years of full-time schooling for the diploma, that the nature of the schooling bears almost no resemblance to the job in question, and that the pay for graduates is far lower than other professions. You have just imagined the relationship between the Christian Church and her seminaries.

Mainline churches are nearly universal in their requirement that their Priests/Pastors/Ministers/Reverends be seminary graduates, and since seminary is a graduate school, this means the students must first be successful undergraduates. So take all of the arguments about a college bubble and add at least three years of tuition cost and forgone income.

But you’re not quite done: My friend Father Jay Geisler counsels seminary students. He tells me that in his experience roughly half of matriculated  students do not graduate within three years. In addition, he tells me that the living costs tend to be higher for seminary students than for undergrads because undergrads are almost never married with children, but seminary students often are. As such,  dorm room type accommodations for grads  will not do.

In addition, incomes for late 20- and early 30-somethings with wife and child tend to be higher than the traditional undergraduate-age student, so the opportunity costs — meaning  the lost earnings — are considerably higher. Father Geisler tells me that he commonly sees young men graduate from seminary $60,000 or $70,000 in debt with few employment options other than very low-pay youth minister positions. It’s often even worse for women in conservative denominational traditions in which female ordination is still controversial.

And the prospects are worse clergy than for other forms of professional education, because there is no legal seminary requirement which stifles professional competition. If you go to medical school, you know you’ll have challenges in the job market, but at least you know you won’t be competing with non-medical school graduate physicians. Ditto for law school; it’s illegal to practice law or medicine without the requisite graduate schooling. Other professions, such as CPA and engineer, require at least the four-year diploma.

If you graduate from seminary and become an Episcopal priest, the church almost certainly required that you get the degree, but there’s no guarantee that increasingly indifferent churchgoers won’t, at the drop of a hat, leave your church and  move a few blocks down the street to attend a Pentecostal, charismatic or fundamentalist church led by a high school dropout with generous dollops of the gift of gab, no school loans and probably less overhead. Interestingly enough, statistics indicate that these less “professional” churches are growing and the top-heavy cousins are rapidly shrinking.

Historian and sociologist Rodney Stark finds that the historical pattern fits the current one. Decentralized church systems with a history of less formal schooling historically outperform top-heavy ones with heavy academic requirements.

Part of this is politics. Mainline churches have largely become local versions of the Green Party at prayer. Leftie fads long ago captured the commanding heights of the established denominations. In fact, they did it through the seminaries. So, clergy moved left, members moved out, and mainline churches became mixtures of union halls, encounter groups and mausoleums.

Non-’professional’ church traditions didn’t have the luxury of indulging in ideological tourism. The ministers there live by the weekly collection plate.

Those who rise to the top are those who actually have a talent for preaching. Those who don’t, don’t last. After all, what matters more to the customer, the member: the ability to discuss the relationship between Paul Tillich’s theory of ultimate concern and Karl Barth’s version of neo-orthodoxy in light of the demythologizing textual hermeneutic of Bultman, or the ability to keep the congregation/audience’s attention for twenty minutes with a relevant sermon about family life? Seminary tends to give you loads of the former and little of the latter.

Seminary training has almost nothing to do with the talent for public speaking, and often leaves any evaluation of that talent later in the student’s training. For example, I know a man who went to a Bible College, worked hard, got good grades, got into a prestigious seminary, got good grades in seminary and shortly before graduation was invited, for the first time, into the pulpit. He found that he was paralyzed with fear and realized that he would be unable to be a preacher. He never became a pastor and has spent his life drifting from low wage job to low wage job and in recent years is chronically unemployed. Eight years of hard work and expensive tuition, wasted.

I’ve known scores of seminary students. Many have the natural leadership gifts to be pastors, but many do not. I’ve seen the ones who do not jumping through the bureaucratic hoops with a wife and children in tether, sacrifices made, poverty borne with grace, and then heartbreak. No pulpit, no job, except maybe a church planting opportunity with no start-up grant. The wives seem to suffer the most in these cases.

There must be a better way, and in fact there is a better way – the original one. Technology is the pin which is beginning to burst the seminary bubble. More on that next week.

Read the entire article on the Forbes Magazine website (new window will open).

Published: April 27, 2011

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