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Hard times for seminaries and those who attend them

Hard times for seminaries and those who attend them

The rocky road facing seminaries and those seeking ordination in the mainline Protestant churches is illustrated by two recent articles.

The first, in the Christian Century lays out the problem from an institutional point of view:

With declining student enrollment, diminishing revenue and often deferred maintenance on aging buildings, many seminaries are trying hard to cast a viable vision of the future and to figure out what programs are crucial, which should be revised and which should be buried. ….

Fortunately, the Association of Theological Schools and some of its member schools are thinking in new ways about theological education. Several seminaries are experimenting with a multifaith approach to education, which has the prospect of bringing in new revenue and students and is a bold strategy for engaging people of other faiths. It also raises the question of whether it is possible to form Christian students for ministry in such a setting—especially when many seminarians are not very grounded in their own faith upon arrival.

The crisis in seminary education is also prompting some to rethink the curriculum. Should the three-year master of divinity degree continue to be the standard for pastoral preparation or should different models be offered? The question is especially pressing given that the future is likely to see a rising demand for bivocational pastors who are called to serve in small churches.

The second from the Association of Religious Data Archives paints a bleak picture of the financial situation of many candidates for the priesthood:

More than a quarter of students graduating in 2011 with a Master of Divinity degree had more than $40,000 in theological debt and 5 percent were more than $80,000 in the red, a new study found.

Many of these students discovered that not only they or their spouses had to moonlight to make ends meet, but some had to choose another job besides the ministry to pay the bills, according to the study by the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary.

Several seminaries already realize the days of balancing budgets by raising tuition may be coming to an end. Those schools are implementing or exploring more affordable models of theological education. Their models include more online learning, fewer required course hours and greater emphasis on paid internships.

Perhaps as important, however, more theological schools also are asking themselves hard questions about their responsibility to offer financial guidance to students so inspired by what they believe to be God’s call that they pay little attention to the economic costs.

Where do you think theological education is heading? How can we best resolve some of the problems that seminaries and their students now face?


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David O'Rourke

Considering that a person in the discernment process typically comes to the attention of their diocese one or two or more years before they would go to seminary, I would like to think that the national church could track the number of people “in the pipeline” and be able to do some sort of forecasting of the number of new priests who will be coming out of seminary each year. Parallel to this, the church could start forecasting the number of calls that will be available, taking into account expected retirements of currently serving clergy, and compare that to the number of projected seminary graduates for each of the coming several years.

While I would never want to discourage someone from responding to a sense of call to full time ministry as a priest, such forecasting could help future clergy in their own discernment about what the prospects for such ministry will be as they make decisions about investing time and money in pursuing a seminary education.

John Shirley

Clearly this is debatable; however, I know many seminarians who are not necessarily called to bi-vocational work. What would you say to those folks? Don’t live into your vocation?

I see vocational-wholeness as more than debt or income.

-John Shirleu

Chris H.

Mark, most of the parishes in this diocese simply cannot afford to pay a priest a living wage. There are half as many clergy as parishes and little chance of that improving as long as the expectation is that clergy don’t do anything else. The parishes that are close enough to share clergy already do(up to 7 parishes in a cluster share), but when the next parish is 100 miles away?

As for debt, you don’t think Christians should be responsible, honest people, and pay for what they buy? We should all declare bankruptcy every few years as soon as we’re able? How about make TEC pay for the seminary education of it’s priests? Oh yeah, it can’t afford that. The seminaries would actually expect to get paid. And the parishes still wouldn’t be able to pay a living wage.

Like it or not, future priests are going to have to be bi-vocational, or TEC dissolves entire dioceses/joins ELCA maybe, and ceases to exist here.

Chris Harwood

So, the answer isn’t to acknowledge the same slavery to Mammon in seminary as in the secular society, but to tell overworked, over-stretched clergy to take on another job?!!

What is un-Christian is the idea that debts should not be forgiven. Year of Jubilee familiar to anyone? Jesus’ parable on the servant who was forgiven his debts, yet refused to do so for others? Is that really only about sin, given the religious tradition Jesus, the human, came out of?


-Mark Brunson

David O'Rourke

Interesting idea Chris. I wonder if some sort of combo undergrad and graduate program, or a “pre-MDiv” program could be developed for those who discern a call to priestly ministry at a younger age, so that candidates could work on some of the requirements for ordination as part of an undergrad degree.

Returning to the financial piece, I just finished the discernment process in my diocese, and as part of that I had to submit a detailed financial plan that we went over at the BACOM weekend and that my Bishop took into consideration in his own discernment about whether to make me a postulant. It was a good exercise that made me and my wife really think through what school would cost and how we could afford it.

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