Support the Café

Search our Site

Seminary: waste of time and money?

Seminary: waste of time and money?

Is seminary a waste of time and money? Jerry Bowyer, writing in Forbes discusses the economics and reality of seminary and obtaining a position – as he sees it:

Imagine an institution that requires its leaders to attend not only college, but graduate school. Imagine that the graduate school in question is constitutionally forbidden from receiving any form of government aid, that it typically requires three years of full-time schooling for the diploma, that the nature of the schooling bears almost no resemblance to the job in question, and that the pay for graduates is far lower than other professions. You have just imagined the relationship between the Christian Church and her seminaries.


If you graduate from seminary and become an Episcopal priest, the church almost certainly required that you get the degree, but there’s no guarantee that increasingly indifferent churchgoers won’t, at the drop of a hat, leave your church and move a few blocks down the street to attend a Pentecostal, charismatic or fundamentalist church led by a high school dropout with generous dollops of the gift of gab, no school loans and probably less overhead. Interestingly enough, statistics indicate that these less “professional” churches are growing and the top-heavy cousins are rapidly shrinking.


Those who rise to the top are those who actually have a talent for preaching. Those who don’t, don’t last. After all, what matters more to the customer, the member: the ability to discuss the relationship between Paul Tillich’s theory of ultimate concern and Karl Barth’s version of neo-orthodoxy in light of the demythologizing textual hermeneutic of Bultman, or the ability to keep the congregation/audience’s attention for twenty minutes with a relevant sermon about family life? Seminary tends to give you loads of the former and little of the latter.

Seminary training has almost nothing to do with the talent for public speaking, and often leaves any evaluation of that talent later in the student’s training.


I’ve known scores of seminary students. Many have the natural leadership gifts to be pastors, but many do not. I’ve seen the ones who do not jumping through the bureaucratic hoops with a wife and children in tether, sacrifices made, poverty borne with grace, and then heartbreak. No pulpit, no job, except maybe a church planting opportunity with no start-up grant. The wives seem to suffer the most in these cases.

Too harsh? Right on? Is there a better way?


Café Comments?

Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
tobias haller

@Jon White, I was aware the ELCA used an approach something like that. The cost is a major factor, as I note; which is why I think a stipendiary field placement is a help. But my initial concern, up above, was about the extent to which the church at large fails to support the seminaries and the seminarians financially. Many parishes are stretched to the limit and can barely support their current clergy, let alone the next generation. It is time for a radical reexamination of the whole question of clergy training and formation.


To Tobias’ wish for theological education, the model you propose is the one used by the ELCA. Bexley Hall, my own school, exists in partnership with Trinity Lutheran Seminary (ELCA) so I’ve seen this up close. I don’t know that the Lutheran students are really that much more prepared as compared to our doing time in a good Field Ed site.

The drawback to this model is that it exacerbates the problems of debt and can be very disruptive to family lives of seminarians.

The Lilly Foundation’s efforts to create a model of post-seminary mentorship is an effort in the direction suggested by Paul Woodrum and I believe many bishops are aware and looking for such solutions.

But as several commentors have noted, if we are a church that holds training and education of the ordained to be important, than we as a church should do more willing to support the cost of doing so. Thirty years ago, General Convention passed a motion direction all parishes to put 1% of their giving towards theological education. How many actually do so, or even know they are expected to?


Paul Woodrum

I’ve long wondered why bishops don’t provide for and require post seminary, post ordination mentoring for at least three years to help the newly priested understand the pastoral side of their ministry. Some who find curacies in large parishes may get some of this but those who find themselves in the typical small to medium size parish are usually left to struggle on their own.

Juan Oliver

There are several problems with this article, as Tobias and many others have already pointed out above:

1. The Church is not a business.

2. Its members are not customers. 3. Most people who leave the Episcopal Church do NOT go to pentecostal or charismatic churches 4. A Church whose criteria for authority includes REASON might be forgiven for taking intellectual training seriously.

5. In short this article is just another low-brow, anti-intellectual rant by someone who:

6. Doesn´t know jack about the church, its nature or its mission.

7. Probably uses the term “intellectual” pejoratively.

That said, our seminaries ARE in crisis, and not only financially (that´s easily solved by closing most, centering on two or three, developing on-line ways of transmitting content, etc etc).

The real source of our crisis, IMO, is rather our confused ecclessiology: We really don´t agree on:

What´s the Church called to be?

How shoule it organize itself?

To what end?

What kind of training are needed for which kinds of leadership?

What is the role of serious intellectual development in all of this?

Only after answering these questions might we begin to craft a new life for our seminaries –assuming that the Church (through General Convention) takes up the challenge of supporting them financially.

tobias haller

While I applaud the work of SIM, and hope it will continue, I do think a reexamination of the seminary model is in order, as well as exploring other forms of clergy training and formation.

“If I were king” I would likely move to a four year curriculum, years 1-2 being groundwork in Scripture, Theology, History, Liturgy and Homiletics; followed by CPE in the summer and then a full year parish internship — with a small stipend — under an intensive mentorship program; and a final year of in depth study in electives and a focus on pastoral issues, growing out of the actual parish experience.

I don’t think this is the only answer, but it is one I think would address some of the real needs of the church and the world.

Support the Café
Past Posts

The Episcopal Café seeks to be an independent voice, reporting and reflecting on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.  The Café is not a platform of advocacy, but it does aim to tell the story of the church from the perspective of Progressive Christianity.  Our collective sympathy, as the Café, lies with the project of widening the circle of inclusion within the church and empowering all the baptized for the role to which they have been called as followers of Christ.

The opinions expressed at the Café are those of individual contributors, and, unless otherwise noted, should not be interpreted as official statements of a parish, diocese or other organization. The art and articles that appear here remain the property of their creators.

All Content  © 2017 Episcopal Café