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a radical solution re: theological education

I hear a lot of complaining about seminary education. But it's worth noting that the complaints come mostly from a particular place. I also hear a lot of questions -- from the same place -- about what creative solution will solve the financial and other problems the church faces around theological education. I've got a radical solution, but I think it's worth reflecting more generally for a bit first.

I get an average of 800 - 1000 emails per day Monday - Saturday (so much is from clergy that Sunday the volume goes down considerably). I've heard from hundreds, if not thousands of clergy in countries in the Two-Thirds World who were not able to go to a residential seminary and who would give anything to be able to go, even if it required them to be away from their families. Their families would support their going, even though the absence of the person who might be the strongest male in house makes them more vulnerable to crime and makes them work much harder in their daily lives.

The only nations in which I hear a significant number of complaints about seminary education as unnecessary and not worth funding are from the richest nations in the world, and most especially the U.S. The only nation in which I have heard anyone suggest that experience in commerce teaches anything that seminaries ought to teach is the U.S.

In much of the world (I would suspect most of it), Christians see the opportunity to engage in intensive theological education as a great honor and a wonderful opportunity. These Christians see pouring over the scriptures and reflecting on their meaning in community all day and into the night as an exciting and immeasurably rewarding experience, and their communities are willing to do serious belt-tightening so they can have a pastor who's done that every day and not just Sunday (the whole community engaging in all-day worship and bible study on Sunday isn't unusual in a lot of places).

In the U.S., from the playground to presidential campaigns, there's a lot of suspicion and sometimes persecution of achievement in education. In the Episcopal Church, I hear that expressed often as suspicion of the need for any full-time theological education, the need for serious funding for it, or both. And those who still want some forms of community formation for clergy-to-be involving minds and words, if not the physical presence of, people beyond local are hoping that someone (usually someone else) will come up with a distance learning or other program that will get it all done cheaply, without real sacrifice.

The bad news is that distance education is not, on the whole, cheaper for institutions to provide or students to get. The good news is that if: a) we did our job in theological education for ALL such that we didn't rely on seminary to teach what the seminarian could have been learning from her parents from kindergarten on, and every Episcopalian had personally experienced the value of theological education; and b) we were willing as a whole church to tighten our belts by a minute fraction of what my friends who live on annual budgets of under $1000 do to get formal theological education for their clergy, I think our hard-working theological educators working with people from kindergarten through Ph.D. students would get more than enough resources to do their jobs via distance learning and/or residential seminary.

But if Directors of Christian Education/Formation are paid less, hired more reluctantly, and fired soonest when the budget contracts, and if thought is widespread that running a bank is better preparation for ordained ministry than intensive and extended study of scripture and tradition in community, then I think it's a given that seminaries' resources will dwindle. In that case, not only will we see fewer clergy getting seminary training, but we'll also see shrink even further the proportion of Episcopalians studying theology enough to teach it and to work with highly trained theologians from elsewhere in the Anglican Communion.

The bottom line? Maybe seminaries are no longer the best way to provide theological education for leadership. But if seminaries are no longer the solution, whatever else we do is still going to require that the whole church give sacrificially. Why?

1) Time is money. If we want people to have time to study and time to teach and mentor, they need hours in which they're not expected to be eating, sleeping, worshipping, engaging in private and/or family prayer, or earning money.

2) Learning takes time. The kind of learning we currently depend on seminaries to provide takes even more time than merely factual learning. We need our clergy not only to know the words of scripture and a bunch of factoids about church history and what various theologians have said, but also serious experience wrestling with how to interpret our scriptures and tradition, ways to tackle ethical problems and where different approaches' blind spots tend to be, for example; we also need our clergy to have some experience in providing pastoral care and the chance to process with solid mentors what they learn from those experiences. So we have to come up with enough money to give both students and mentors the time to do this. We could distribute the process of theological learning over more time (say, starting from preschool) and over more mentors (say, making sure that those who ask for their children to be Baptized are willing to commit time to their formation and that the parents and godparents know this will require spending time on their own formation too), but I would say the net time and effort needed isn't less, and the whole church doing this would be a MASSIVE cultural shift, if statistics around this are anywhere near right.

3) Books and journals -- including electronic ones -- cost money. When I lived in Frederick, Maryland, the local libraries didn't have much in the way of theological works, and what they had was woefully out of date (and that can be a BIG problem, for reasons I can blog about separately if people want explanation of it). I was lucky enough to be within an hour's drive of two seminaries that, because I was employed in a parish, were willing to give me limited borrowing privileges. That meant at least two hours of driving within library hours every time I needed a book. If I hadn't been employed by a parish, though -- and volunteering didn't count -- I wouldn't have had access to those libraries, let alone a weekday when I could drive there. A good biblical commentary generally costs about $30. Reference books generally cost $100 or more per volume. Something like the Anchor Bible Dictionary will set you back at least $500. If I didn't have access to a library with these kinds of resources, writing a single exegesis paper would set me back about $100 in commentaries alone. If I wrote three papers per biblical studies class and took four classes (which is the minimum accredited seminaries require), that would be about $1700 in books alone for biblical studies alone. Add in the cost of books for church history, theology, and so on, and subtract access to a local library and textbooks on reserve, and you get thousands of dollars students have to find.

Furthermore, solid online resources that are usually "free" to students are often "free" to them only because their seminary or university pays a big annual fee to subscribe. Take the seminary out of the equation and your diocese (or parish, or EFM group, or someone else) gets to look for that money.

4) You need a lot of time and a lot of books and journals to get to and stay at a point at which you can teach things such as biblical studies and theology to clergy-to-be and DCFs-to-be, for example, who have already learned well what every parish should be teaching every member. Not only does it take years of study (and rooms full of books) before you're ready to teach your first class; you also have to have time and books and conversation with other well-informed people to be able to stay well-informed. Again, let me know in the comments if you think I should explain why this is important. And in TEC we provide even less support for people who want to pursue a Ph.D. or Th.D. than we do for M.Div. students on the ordination track.

5) Who will teach those Ph.D. and Th.D. students? That's something you really can't do unless you've got 40 hours per week (likely you'll need more) to keep up with the field, to teach classes, and to provide good feedback on students' work. If we eliminated seminary education, we'd probably end up just relocating this work in an incredibly wasteful shuffle of books, people, and buildings (these people can't sleep, teach, and keep their books on park benches). And if you think that non-TEC seminaries will do this for us: a) many of them are no better off financially than TEC seminaries; and b) if you think there's anything distinctive about Anglican approaches to scripture, theology, liturgy, or anything else, we'll be stuck hoping that our top theologians manage to stumble onto it mostly on their own.

Do I think that both seminaries and the church need to get creative and make changes to provide theological education for all and sufficient training for our leaders? Definitely!

But do I think that we can get our leadership the theological education they need, let alone get the whole church the theological education they deserve,  without substantial expenditures of time and money? Nope. Nothing -- not the Internet, not a program or curriculum, and definitely not shouting at the seminaries -- short of serious gifts of time and treasure as well as talent will do the job.

That's my radical solution: sacrificial giving. It might not sound all that creative, but I don't really hear anyone else suggesting it; a lot of the public wailing about the doom of seminaries seems to come from a theology of scarcity rather than abundance. And then the generous resources we have as the church can go to theological education through a variety of means. Maybe those means won't include traditional seminaries, or they'll involve seminaries less often. But all of those means will take ongoing and substantial gifts of time, talent, and treasure from across the church. And offering those will in itself be an important means of Christian formation for the whole church.

April 6, 2010 in Churchiness, Religion | Permalink


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Thanks for the thoughts. As one on the inside of theological education in the seminaries, I concur with a lot you have had to say. I think one of our problems is a tendency to view TEC as the church for "smart people." This in a way leads to assuming people can figure things out on their own and not supporting structures that educate all. And, as you note, there is a deep current of anti-intellectualism in American culture that goes back centuries. Sacrificial giving is a great idea and one way out, but I think a lot of parishes look at what has already been sacrificed and will find ministries to the needy always topping educational ministries. Of course, it is not either / or but that is certainly a dynamic, too.

Posted by: Dan Joslyn-Siemiatkoski | Apr 7, 2010 12:30:07 PM

Thank you for this.

Posted by: Sarah SSM | Apr 24, 2010 4:06:19 PM

I have to say that my 3 years at VTS were some of the best years of my life so far and my wife and the one son I had at the time would agree. Those years were not only spiritually, ecclesiastically, theologically and personally formative for me they were formative and fun for my whole family. I also made some of the best friends I have ever had and still have as well as having a really good time.

I am well aware that not everyone can afford 3 residential years of seminary but instead of taking the opportunity away from those who can, I thick the Church should be doing everything possible to make it available to those who can not.

I would not be the priest I am today (for better or worse) if it were not for my time at VTS.

The Rev. Robert C. Hooper III (Bob)
Rector, St. James's Episcopal Church
West Hartford, CT

Posted by: Bob Hooper | May 12, 2010 11:37:15 AM

Thanks for this. I live in a diocese that practices total or mutual ministry where priests are locally trained and ordained. The lack of education can have many negative consequences. There are some positives too and I've known a few really good locally trained priests. This is vexing issue for rural churches that are so small that they will likely never be able to afford a stipendiary priest (even part time). If your parish has an ASA of 10 and is in a town of a couple hundred people total, there is not a lot of room for growth even with good evangelism.

Posted by: Matthew | Aug 16, 2010 10:25:20 PM

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