Sweeping away the value of theological education
In United Methodist circles, all the rage a few months ago was to talk about the Death Tsunami: the passing on of the Greatest Generation and the retirement of the Baby Boomers and how that will precipitously drop the generosity and involvement of the laity in the United Methodist Church. FEAR.
While I’m realistic about what effect finances has on churches, there’s other problems that are even more distressing to me. I think the real Death Tsunami will be the death of theological education for our clergy and church leadership.
And the plans are already in place and taking shape.
In Oklahoma, one of the Conference boards heard a presentation a few months back on the effect the financial situation of our churches might have on appointments. Since
all most board meetings are open, this is public information and it’s okay that you read this.
Because of the financial situation with health care costs and clergy pensions and the death tsunami, appointments might start to look like this:
- If your church budget is over $160,000, then you will likely be assigned an ordained Elder.
- If your church budget is between $80,000-160,000, then you will likely be assigned a Local Church Pastor
- If your church budget is under $80,000, then you will likely be assigned a Part-Time Local Pastor
In Oklahoma, we have ~550 churches. If this plan takes shape, let’s see where they break down on this spectrum.
- There are about 200 churches whose budgets are over $160k. That means the conference has need only of about 250 full clergy (given associate positions in larger churches…I’m an Associate over Student Ministries, for example). We currently have about 350 clergy, a ‘surplus’ of 100 seminary-trained clergy.
- There are about 100 churches with budgets between $80k-160k. This means the conference has need of about 100 local pastors. We currently have about 60 local church pastors, a need for 40 local pastors.
- Finally, there are 250 churches with budgets under $80k who would be served by part-time local pastors. Currently many of these are served by full-time clergypersons who have multiple-point charges, plus about 50 part-time local pastors. These appointments would be replaced completely by bi-vocational part-time local pastors, of which we need ~200.
Obviously, these are not hard-and-fast rules (the Bishops have full appointment power…and likely after GC will be able to dismiss clergymembers more easily), but they might become the general guidelines of what different-size churches can expect.
Why write about this? If I were a young clergyperson looking at this plan, here’s what I would say to myself: “Why Go To Seminary?” Local Pastors don’t need seminary and get health insurance, everything sacramental authority-wise that Elders get…and are in demand. Full Elders are expensive to local congregations, they have the cost of Seminary behind them…and there’s more Elders than Churches that can sustain them. Add to that the assault on seminary education by the arch-conservatives, and there’s little support to (a) get a seminary education and (b) become a full Elder until later in life when “they can make it, tiger” in the larger churches.
Maybe that’s okay.
Maybe a new focus on citizen-preachers who occupy their pulpits part-time during the week would make us more relevant and more authentic by mobilizing the laity. That’s what politics used to be: citizen-farmers who would serve in elected positions and then go back to the farm. The professionalization of politics and of clergy has an interesting effect on the church and society as a whole, so perhaps this movement back would be more effective and has shown in our history to be great for numerical growth.
John Wesley understood, of course, that education does not equal vitality, as he wrote “We would throw by all the libraries of the world rather than be guilty of the loss of one soul.” I’m totally with him on this point…take my library…as my books are mostly on my Kindle now. /snark
But I’m fearful.
I’m fearful for the UMC because theological education is incredibly important and, at certain points in our history, essential.
In our history, an uneducated clergy exacerbated problems between Methodists and Baptists. As John Beeson writes in his book John Wesley and the American Frontier, anti-intellectualism celebrated by passionate clergy like Peter Cartwright led to tremendous numerical growth but also a breakdown of progress of relations with other denominations.
An uneducated frontier Methodist clergy pretty much lost sight of Wesley’s middle ground between predestination and free grace. Wesley’s understanding of free grace may not have completely reconciled Calvinism and Arminianism, but it knocked off some of the rough edges of the controversy and allowed them to share common goals and work together. This middle ground was lost on the frontier. This author believes that this loss was largely because of an uneducated clergy in both camps and their simplistic approaches…an uneducated clergy was probably the biggest factor in the Americanization of Wesley’s doctrine of grace (page 78)
If we are called to the ministry of reconciliation, then a seminary education is crucial for this ministry. In our time of church conflict and decline, now more than ever being able to understand and reconcile differences and work together is an important ministry. Being able to piece together novel theological approaches requires not just passion but education. As I’ve written before:
- United Methodism is in the unique position amongst all the other denominations of being able to hold together unity in diversity (the last speech/bullet point on that page). If this is one of our calls, then we need to be equipped to handle it.
- This plan reeks of the No Church Left Behind sentiment behind the Call To Action where we are shifting seminary-educated clergy from small appointments to larger appointments (or out of ministry altogether) and removing them from small-church appointments. From that article:
This is what I’ve called “No Church Left Behind” (ala No Child Left Behind) where funds from under-performing areas are taken away and given to successful areas. As the CTA report says multiple times it is good that the church “celebrates success” but the flipside is that “abandons failure.” In other words, while it makes fiscal sense to redeploy assets, it abandons entire mission fields and programs and people instead of securing more funding to make programs more effective.
- Finally, theological education is more than doctrine, and if we narrow our theological education and remove even more young people from seminary, then even the seminary graduates will not be fully equipped to the ministry of reconciliation.
I strongly believe a spirit-filled but less theologically trained clergy may grow our church but will lose sight of one of the defining marks of Methodism, at precisely a time when we need reconciliation most.
Is this a diatribe against local church pastors’ intellectual capabilities? Absolutely not. One of my favorite Methodista bloggers John Meunier is a local church pastor (part-time, I believe) and he knows and reads more John Wesley than this seminary-trained full elder. There are hundreds others like him. Several of the most gifted people I know in my district are local church pastors (although many of them are seminary-trained). These are awesome spirit-filled people. However, I firmly believe each one would tell you that theological education is beneficial to ministry and gives you tools and experiences that you won’t get from self-education.
At the end of the day, a seminary education and being fully a member of a clergy ‘set apart’ group of people is an important calling. Why shouldn’t we be equipping, celebrating, and figuring out what other sacrifices we need to make in order to:
- Keep theologically-educated clergy in the pulpits of our most vulnerable churches and
- Keep Theological Education from being swept away by fears of institutional preservation?