Two reports came out in the past week that I think are related and point to a critical moment in theological education and church/state relations for the United Methodist Church.
Why Go To Seminary? Can’t I just preach?
First, it was reported by the General Board of Higher Education in Ministry of the United Methodist Church that the average debt of a seminary graduate was pretty bad:
New findings from the General Board of Higher Education & Ministry’s Seminary Indebtedness Task Force reveal that the average educational debt for United Methodist seminary graduates has reached $49,303.
“Based on median annual conference compensation for new clergy, we now know that many of our clergy are well beyond the nationally recognized critical level (10% of income) for manageable debt,” said Allyson Collinsworth, executive director of GBHEM’s Office of Loans and Scholarships.
Related: three years ago we examined a proposal in the Oklahoma Annual Conference that would replace a bunch of seminary-educated Elders with 3x as many local church pastors (who do not need a seminary degree but they do need regular training). Since its publication, many other sectors of United Methodism have also embraced more part-time/bivocational clergy and offered fewer opportunities to seminary-trained Elders.
When you couple the past post with this recent report, if I were a young person discerning a call to ordained ministry, here’s what I would say to myself: “Why Go To Seminary?”
- 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 and can handle the debt load.
- Instead, why not just be a local pastor? Local pastors don’t need seminary and get health insurance, everything sacramental authority-wise that Elders get…and are in demand. They don’t have pension or job security (but the latter will likely go away in 2016 anyway).
So there’s a lot going against young people going into ordained ministry with a seminary degree.
But 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 had 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–not to mention cheaper for people who want to be ministers.
A Second Chance…
But there’s a second report that I think is related. A report came out that the people want more religion in politics. “nearly half of all Americans said churches and other religious institutions should openly express their views on social and political issues, an increase of 6% since 2010.”
While I know many people polled probably just want churches to be able to endorse politicians and not lose their tax-exempt status, my reaction was still “GREAT!” After a few decades of reactionary religious voices on TV who burned up most of religious capital and relevancy, people are starting to recognize the existence of constructive religious voices. We have a second chance!
But if people want more church in politics and engaged in the world around us, then we need educated clergy who can talk about the nuances in theological difference and political application. Professionalism, for all its problems, does come with a certain authority to speak about topics in our field.
While there’s clearly non-ecclesiastically-trained persons who have gifts and skills in this area, I don’t think there’s enough dedicated folks to be the resident theologians in every mission field and for every local newspaper. We don’t need gaffes and reactionary voices now: we need steady, representative voices that speak with clarity to the nuances and for the orphan and the widow.
I recognize that not every preacher or pastor is called to engage political topics. But we all do. We all get those questions, and preach language and images that shape how people make sense of political issues. You can preach about politics without getting political, but it does get better with training to learn how to do that–training that is now prohibitively expensive.
…that might be squandered.
To fail to grab ahold of this opportunity is to squander it, I believe. But to do so is also to repeat a time in our history when uneducated clergy exacerbated problems between Methodists and Baptists.
John Beeson writes in his book, John Wesley and the American Frontier, that 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 churches who have squandered our opportunities to be engaged in politics want a second chance, then an educated, nuanced approach is crucial this time. In our time of church conflict and decline, now more than ever being able to understand and reconcile differences and speak clearly to political issues is an important aspect of ministry. Being able to piece together novel theological approaches requires not just passion but education. As I’ve written before, theological education is more than doctrine, and seminary graduates are often better equipped to deal with difference and with speaking to church/state nuances–indeed, the entire ministry of reconciliation to which all are called.
- In the age where local pastors are more desirable and marketable, why should people go to seminary?
- In an age where people want constructive religious voices, do we need seminary degrees to best accomplish that role?
Thanks for your comments!