I have always been grateful for the classes I took in seminary; indeed, I feel I got one of the best educations available in the world of seminaries. That said, there are a lot of people who struggle to complete their candidacy. Some of them are starting out in middle age; some haven’t completed a Baccalaureate degree yet. They wonder if seminary is worth it, when they can be Licensed Local Pastors (LLPs) right now.
Ask somebody who went to a mediocre seminary, or one given over to hot-button issues in place of teaching the faith to teachers of the faith. Seminary will stick with you for the rest of your life. Even assuming you survive a bad seminary match, seminary will do what seminaries do: put its stamp on your thought processes for your whole ministerial career. So, besides the job requirement for ordination to the presbyterate, seminary matters. You will be given certain tools there that aren’t much available anywhere else. But are these tools really essential? And why should they be the gateway to the elder track, where dwells not only the satisfaction of being ordained, but also job security and advancement prospects?
Let’s look at the seminary route and see what could be done as well elsewhere.
First, let’s look creatively at the need for an undergraduate degree before going to seminary. That’s about 120 credit hours (4 years, or more, depending on your circumstances). The M.Div. (the gold standard for ministerial candidacy) is 90 hours more (at least 3 years). Then, we require 3 years of probationary membership and regular participation in the Residents in Ministry (RIM) program before we will consider you for elder’s orders. That’s a really steep hill to climb, and it’s expensive. If you’re starting late (say 40+ years old), you may not feel like attempting the ascent. But what is the actual value of the various pieces and parts?
Why is seminary an M.Div.? They used to grant B.D.s (Bachelor of Divinity). The need to keep up with the Joneses of our society made us model seminary education on other professional schools, like law and medicine. Except we didn’t give you a doctorate; though seminaries have discovered that returning graduates seeking D.Min.s constitute an increasing share of their teaching load. Some even bundle a doctorate into an extended M.Div. program. Well, let’s not worry too much about accreditation boards and so on. Let’s just ask, Why should we have to get a Bachelor’s degree before commencing seminary education?
Keep in mind that there is no standard major required to enter seminary. So long as you have a B.S. or B.A. (mine was an A.B. – we like to be different), you’re okay. One of my best friends in ministry has a B.S. in Forestry. My wife, who went to seminary to seek a Master of Arts in Counseling (M.A.C. degree), has a B.S. in Technology. It doesn’t matter. You don’t have to major in Bible or Religion or what have you; seminary will take you as you are and lead you through the clergy knowledge base and the acquisition of clergy skills (some of them, anyway).
What this means is that the requirement to have a Bachelor’s degree first is not about your major, but about your having studied what we called in the Middle Ages the trivium and quadrivium. Today, colleges call it “general education.” This is what makes you an educated person, fit to pursue scholarly endeavors, not your major in Sports Science. So, let’s just say, you need about 45-60 hours (a third to a half of a Bachelor’s degree). This should ground you in the basic skills of oral and written composition and (please, God!) grammar. And it should acquaint you with our society and its history, and with the other humanities. We could wave our magic wand and say, “two years of college or an Associate’s degree in the Humanities” is all that is required to enter seminary. And why not, other than credential inflation? So, let’s diagram that formula this way:
2 yrs college OR Assoc degree in Humanities > 90 hrs Seminary courses > 3 yrs RIM > Approval for ordination
Seminary teaches timeless truths, but it also has to keep up with the times. Today, many seminaries offer as much as a third of their courses online. You can take them in the convenience of your home. How they reconcile that with the idea that there is value in being part of the seminary community – to pursuing a degree in residence, is another thing. But let’s also stipulate that no matter how well taught these courses are, if you can take them online, these do not form the essential core that only seminary can provide you. We could easily substitute Course of Study (COS) courses for these online courses, giving a leg up to late-matriculating students who have been taking COS as part of their current ministries as LLPs. So, amend the diagram to read this way:
2 yrs college OR assoc degree > 30 hrs online courses OR COS equivalents > 60 hrs seminary courses in residence > 3 yrs RIM > Approval for ordination
Why do we have RIM? Because students weren’t getting the essential supervised practice in ministry in seminaries. Seminary education left a practical gap, even though seminaries offer courses in Supervised Ministry and place students in intern-like positions. So, if this is something that seminary doesn’t do well, why require it as part of the degree? We could drop perhaps as much as 15 hours of coursework and let the BOOM do the heavy lifting after you graduate. That would diagram this way:
2 yrs college OR assoc degree > 30 hrs online or COS equiv > 45 hrs seminary courses in residence > 3 yrs RIM > Approval for ordination
But do we really need three years for RIM? I mean, I only had to do one year. A friend a few years older than me told me he was ordained elder right out of seminary. Of course, we all were ordained deacon while in seminary, and that started our probationary period. In any case, I would allow student pastors and LLPs on the elder track to be made probationers while still in seminary, so long as they held a pastoral appointment. Up to two years of RIM while a student would be followed with at least one year of RIM after graduation. CPE, if it’s considered essential, could be taken either while in seminary or in that first, full-time year afterwards. So now, the formula reads:
2 yrs college OR assoc degree > 30 hrs online or COS equiv > 45 hrs seminary courses in residence > 2 yrs under supervision while in school + 1 yr RIM OR 3 yrs RIM post-grad > Approval for ordination
You wanted to know what difference seminary makes? Those forty-five hours of classes are what makes seminary different from anything else. These courses are things like 1) Biblical languages (Greek or Greek and Hebrew), including exegesis; 2) NT and OT Criticism; 3) Interpretation of the English Bible; 4) advanced theology courses. At their best, these require scholar-teachers who have mastered some very difficult subjects and who can teach you how to be a scholar as well as a pastor. These courses are not immediately useful in ministry, but what you learn in them will stay with you for your whole life. They will change your approach to, and guide your explorations into, the Bible and Theology. Seminary is the primary place these are taught. This is what you came for. Of course, there are undergraduate institutions who could teach these just as well. They could form a very good Major for a B.D. degree. And some 4-year colleges teach them, or would, if there were a demand. So now, the route goes:
2 yrs college OR assoc degree > 30 hrs online or COS equiv > 45 hrs seminary courses in residence OR a Divinity major > 2 years under supervision while in school + 1 year RIM OR 3 yrs RIM post-grad > Approval for ordination
If you put it that way, then those modules could be pursued in various ways. A person over 40 who lacks even a Bachelor’s degree can see multiple paths to assemble the components of a clergy education which can lead to ordination. Meanwhile, younger candidates can still finish their Bachelor’s, go off to seminary, etc. Instead of requiring credentials, we would require content, and we would empower those who are intending to give their whole lives and remaining career to this call to be ordained some time before retirement.
I value seminary education. I value scholarship. But I also think that using this as a status-marker to separate clergy into promotable and not-promotable, into Full Membership and courtesy membership, is a misuse of the education. I don't have a problem challenging candidates to reach for the goal of being fully educated and fully credentialed. But I also believe that we owe people who are giving their lives (not just their spare time) to the Church a chance to qualify for the presbyterate. Reducing scholarship to the acquisition of a union card is a debasement of scholarship.