Well, I’m a retired Elder with the full boat of credentials. I spent over forty years laboring in the vineyard, so I kind of know what’s what. But more than that, when I was in seminary long ago, I poked into a lot of odd corners of Church History because of my interests that others sometimes overlook. And then I went off to get a doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction, which gave me yet another way to look at how to educate and train clergy for their positions. So, I thought I’d give a little history-laced riff on clergy education and credentials – maybe inform the dialog going on, so to speak.
Let’s start with the Dark Ages: how were clergy prepared in Western Europe between, say, AD 500 and 1200? To answer that question, we have to ask the question that no one ever seems to answer, the basic curricular question: What knowledge (and skills and experiences) is of most worth? An aspiring clergyperson in the Early Middle Ages – in those days when the nations of Europe were just getting converted, when there were few church buildings and no educational institutions to speak of: what did he need to be given in order to fulfill his role?
Well, first, he had to be a functioning Christian. Christians learned their faith in church, from the liturgy, and they learned it from their local priests, monks, and bishops. A Christian of the day would know the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, several other set prayers, the Ten Commandments, the order of the liturgy and some of its prayers and seasonal changes. He or she would know at least some facts and stories about Jesus and the saints. He or she would be taught to practice daily prayer, the giving of alms, the meaning of the sacraments, how and when to cross oneself, etc. This was basic stuff. The aspiring clergyman also needed to be mature in his own person and in his ability to relate to other persons, which is why the minimum age for ordination as a deacon was 19, and the minimum age for ordination to the priesthood was 25.
But specifically, what did clergy education look like? What was he taught and where did he learn it? Well, first and foremost, there was Latin. He had to be able to read and write to do his work, and reading and writing was mostly done in Latin in those days. Latin was still a living language, used across Western and Southern Europe, especially by the Church, which was an international body. Correspondence and record-keeping (what we call today “church administration”) was all done in Latin. So the first thing was to acquire fluency – or at least, the ability to recite in and sort of know the meaning of – Latin.
Children could “pick up” quite a bit of Latin by just participating in the liturgy. They could be formally taught Latin by their parish priest. They could also be dedicated to a monastery for a time, testing a vocation, and there be taught Latin. The Bible (whatever Bibles were available) was in Latin. Theological texts were in Latin. The liturgy was mostly in Latin, and while that could be memorized, the Sacramentaries which had all the directions (rubrics) and variable prayers in them were in – yep – Latin. Whatever books were available – lives of saints, church histories, even the classics of the ancient world – were in Latin. And as I said, correspondence and record-keeping would be done in Latin.
Books were few, though, even fewer than teachers. And where would one learn the people skills necessary to the clergy? Where would one be inspired to holiness? Where would one find models for preaching? Beyond mastery of Latin, where did one acquire the essentials of a clergy education? There were three possibilities.
First, your father might be a priest. Married clergy had been frowned on by the higher-ups for a long time, but between 500 and 1200, a lot of parish clergy were married. “Clarkson” is a surname that means “priest’s son,” and there are other such names in other languages. For several centuries, it was not uncommon for the priesthood to be considered a kind of family trade, and you would learn what you needed to know through the teaching and model of your father, the priest. It was often a limited sort of education, but in the days when the needs were great and the personnel thin (and there were Vikings and whatnot to make it dangerous), the Church employed whoever it could find that would do the job.
Second, you might be accepted into a bishop’s household. The bishop, particularly as time went on, became an increasingly important person, a magnate of the kingdom. Like a noble, he had many servants, whom he employed in many ways. Some were sent to preach and pastor, others were sent on missions to other places and offices, some were being prepared for jobs in secular administration, etc. A bright young person with good connections (and if both weren’t evident, either bright or connected) could bring a boy or young man into a clergy household, just as other boys were fostered in noble households to be squires and knights. You not only learned or polished up your Latin, you were taught theology and the other things you needed to know. You learned how to serve at the altar and take care of the holy furnishings. You learned how to talk to people and make yourself welcome in all kinds of company. And, as a member of the household, you would take part in the spiritual life of the household. You learned to pray and counsel others from those who modeled the life of prayer and counseled you. Eventually, you would be sent out on errands, and finally placed somewhere to do your ministry.
Third, you might join a monastery. At the beginning of this period (the early 500s) The Rule of St. Benedict re-organized Western monasticism and the contemplative life was greatly attractive to people. Taking the vows led to a lifetime of prayer and spiritual exploration. It could lead to ordination. It could also make you a specialist in music, since memorizing all the offices and the music for them took years of effort, particularly in the days before musical notation had been invented. Monks were not only available for monastic duties, but also loaned out as teachers, chaplains and confessors, parish priests, cathedral precentors (the original “Minister of Music”), and so on.
It took a thousand years to put a church in every village of Europe. The last pagan peoples accepted Christ officially about 1200 or so (the Lithuanians). Church-building and the founding of monasteries had been going on and intensifying throughout the period. And with the arrival of the High Middle Ages (c. 1200-1500), we have the invention of the University. Monasteries still provided clergy education, but celibacy was now required for the clergy, so learning your trade from Dad wasn’t as possible (not that it didn’t happen). Bishops still had households, but they were more focused on administration and politics (secular and ecclesiastical); few bishops undertook the teaching of apprentice clergy anymore. More and more, the way to follow a call to ministry was to go to the University for education.
The medieval university was a collection of several smaller houses, called colleges or halls. Each college has a few Masters of Arts (teachers) and accepted pupils in residence. A student learned from his own Masters, but was free to attend lectures given by other colleges’ Masters. At the end of his studies, he took a set of examinations and was granted a degree. Theology was taught in all the colleges – it was one of the primary subjects – and most of the Masters were clergy; however, the halls were a type of college which had been spun off from the old bishop’s households. These were primarily attuned to preparing clergy. In time the distinction between colleges and halls faded away, although certain colleges have always been associated with certain spiritual trends.
The university curriculum centered on the trivium (Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric – basically, the mastery of Latin and how to think and express yourself in it), followed by the quadrivium (Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy). This formed what we would call the “general education” course which all educated persons were expected to master. Additional, specialty subjects were few; Theology/Divinity was one. The basic course took three years or so.
A university education then, as now, wasn’t cheap. Many students couldn’t afford it, and many worked and starved for it. But many students came from well-off families, and there were always scholarships for particularly bright up-and-comers. Being taken under a bishop’s wing could mean getting sent to the university basically debt-free (which is where the bishop’s household merges into the university).
Many more books had been and were being produced. There was more to know, and more sources of knowing it. Theology, as said, was primary, and this is the great age of Scholastic Theology. But the Bible wasn’t neglected. And if one was part of a hall, then there was a sort of community living the Christian life to which one was attached. Systems of confession and spiritual guidance had been developed and institutionalized by this time, too, so each Christian would know to seek out a confessor somewhere.
By the time of the Reformation (1500s), a university education was the basic route to the ministry. Martin Luther was a monk, but his monastery had responsibilities for the University of Wittenberg. Luther’s confessor had told him he should study for a doctorate in Bible. Luther responded that the work would kill him. “That’s all right,” his guide told him. “God has plenty of work in heaven for clever monks.” So even though he was a monk and priest, his primary work became that of college professor, teaching the Bible to secular as well as divinity students. John Calvin was not a priest at all, but an academic. Many of the leaders of the English Reformation were professors and scholars, even the bishops. This is why for many Protestants, the black gown became the new vestment, replacing the white alb and chasuble: it was the uniform of the university, worn by students and teachers alike.
The Reformation rediscovered the Bible, and awakened a thirst in many ordinary people for reading not only the Bible but other religious literature. The new technology of the printing press meant that producing books and pamphlets was a lot easier and cheaper than before. Protestantism became a very bookish movement, and ordinary Protestant Christians embraced literacy, especially in their own languages. Latin remained an essential subject even for Protestant clergy, since much older and all international literature was still published in it; besides, it was the mark of an educated person to be conversant with the language. Yet Protestantism also embraced the vernacular and the task of translating the Bible and other religious works into all the common languages of the day was eagerly pushed forward. Throughout the Early Modern Period (1500-1750 or so), writing, publishing, and translating was a major focus of church leaders. John Wesley used the power of publishing to both reinforce his teaching to the masses and also to educate his preachers.
Wesley, along with the German Pietists, reinvented – or rather, rediscovered – many of the techniques of the earlier, missionary ages. Wesley himself was an academic, and proud of it. But he wasn’t a snob, and he didn’t underestimate the intelligence of people who hadn’t been to university. Methodism has been called “monasticism for the masses” for its use of small groups for accountability and spiritual formation. The United Societies, in effect, did what the old monasteries and bishop’s households had done.
As for his lay preachers, Wesley began to develop a sort of curriculum. His Notes Upon the New Testament, his standard Sermons, the Methodist Hymnal (“a handbook of practical divinity”), all helped educate and form his preachers in Methodist theology and spirituality. His additional pamphlets and books and the Arminian Magazine reinforced and explored the knowledge base a Methodist should know. Preachers were expected to be part of the Societies and submit to the same spiritual development in community with the other Methodists.
By the time American Methodism got up a head of steam (1766-1850s), this system was in full flower. Methodists founded many colleges as part of their general mission of uplift on the frontier, and the training of ministers was an important part of that work. Still, apprenticing under a Supervising Elder and following the Course of Study was still the accepted way to prepare for a clergy career.
In the second half of the Nineteenth Century and the early Twentieth Century (1850-1940), the new colleges and universities came into their own. More and more clergy were opting to take academic courses to prepare for their clergy career, and the old COS and preaching on trial were more and more formalities. The desire for an educated clergy was not only part of the spirit of the age, a time when American society as a whole was maturing and institutions were flowering, but was also – on the part of the clergy – subject to some snob appeal. The Methodists desired to imitate the Presbyterians and Lutherans and Episcopalians, besides liking the idea of academic credentials in a society where few still had them.
But even as the colleges and universities came into their own, they were changing, too. New ideas from Germany and Switzerland were changing education. A new interest in making distinctions between secondary education and higher education was part of it. But so was the idea of the advanced degree. By the time of World War II and beyond (1940-the present), our clergy system favored the higher education route over the COS in an increasingly prejudicial way. A Bachelor of Divinity was soon considered essential. This was then upgraded to a Master of Divinity (requiring a bachelor’s degree in something else before you even got to learning your craft and acquiring its knowledge base). By the 1980s, seminaries were offering lots of DMin programs to “professionalize” your degree. Many new seminary graduates today are already “Doctor So-and-so,” when they have yet to accomplish anything in their field. Credential inflation has invaded the clergy as it has so many other fields of endeavor.
As seminaries became the entry-point for the clergy, academic interests (and fads) also came to predominate over practical skills and experiences. Taking courses, passing tests, and writing papers can be a world away from personal growth in grace, holy lifestyles, and a passion for souls. Not everything that needs to be taught can be taught well in a classroom. Counseling courses, CPE, and other subjects began to crowd out the basic curriculum. The essential curricular question – What knowledge is of most worth? – was becoming increasingly difficult to answer. Nobody knew; all they knew is that they needed to do more of – something.
At the same time, Modernism and its ideological descendants took over the classroom. Seminary was less about spiritual formation and more about higher criticism. Much of what was taught and eagerly learned was stuff of dubious value that ministers didn’t feel comfortable sharing with their congregations, who would have called it apostasy and foolishness. “Demythologization” led to debunking, which led to spiritual emptiness, which was filled with political ideologies.
Meanwhile, you can still take the COS, but the path to full membership and ordination that way has been made increasingly difficult. It is now all but impossible, unless you also have a bachelor’s degree and do the Advanced COS. At the same time, our membership has shrunk and many congregations that once employed one or more fully-ordained ministers now have only one LLP. Sometimes that LLP is only part-time. We need ever more LLPs to staff our pulpits. The elder with all the fancy credentials is increasingly a dinosaur in our denomination, but a highly privileged dinosaur: only elders can be elected to General Conference; only elders can be Superintendents or be elected bishops; only elders get to be senior pastors of the big churches; only elders have lifetime sacramental privileges; etc.
There’s a justice issue here. Are the elders with all their credentials really that much more qualified than some of our LLPs? Why then, are we elders so privileged and the LLPs so handicapped as regards opportunities for advancement?
Beyond the justice issue, the thrust of this article has been to show that you don’t need a fancy degree to prepare you to do the ministry of an elder or deacon. Being in a spiritually productive and accountable set of relationships can be done in many ways – and is one of the desperate needs of our time (and not well served by academia). Teaching essential knowledge and skills can also be done in many ways, including peer instruction. Sure, if we think mastering NT Greek is an essential skill, then learning that outside a seminary is hard – but if it’s that essential, why don’t we insist that some clergy be able to keep it up and teach it to others? All too often, we treat our seminary degrees as a hurdle we had to clear – and too many of us forget everything we had to learn as soon as we have the sheepskin in hand and the bishop’s hand laid upon our heads.
Whether we are talking about designing a clergy education and credentialing system for a new denomination or re-tooling our present one for a continuing UMC, we need to step outside our chronological snobbery and look at this problem in the long sweep of history. Demanding commitment, even sacrifices, from our candidates is fine; flaunting our credentials and hazing those who haven’t had our opportunities to acquire them is stupid and unworthy of Christians. And it doesn’t re-invigorate our dying denomination.