Rethinking Ministry and Training

It’s nothing new, this concern over the shrinking job opportunities for full-time, stipended ordained ministry, and the growing problem of student debt accumulated by those studying for it. People were yakking about this when I started seminary over 20 years ago. Strangely, although the problem was recognized, nothing was actually done about it, except to try to raise money to defray some of the cost of going to seminary.

Obviously, it hasn’t addressed the bigger problem, and neither really does this article from the Atlantic.

It barely even acknowledges that there is a bigger problem–or maybe more than one problem that is bigger than fewer clergy jobs and more student debt for would-be clergy. And there are.

The first “bigger problem” is that the church refuses to acknowledge that society (at least in the US) has changed so much that there may not be a need for full-time paid ordained leadership in congregations. Indeed, sometimes it seems to me that the whole “congregational development” movement (well underway in the early 90s when I started theological study) has been an effort to deny that possibility. And a failed effort it has been, from where I sit. Looking at the numbers, churches of all denominations and at all points of the theological spectrum have been losing members for about 50 years, and “congregational development” has primarily slowed the bloodletting–not reversed it. There has been no major rethinking about what “church membership” might look like in the light of the social changes in books like Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, or the rise of social media, or even new patterns of working. Mostly, what I’ve seen is not an appropriate adaptation of congregational life to new cultural patterns, but a desperate attempt at keeping church in the 1950s, and a series of complaints about how sports, shopping, television are “competing” for people’s time and attention.

That needs to change. The first thing that the church needs to do is to figure out why it can no longer command the allegiance it once did–and not to respond by threats of hellfire in the afterlife (about the only coercive power it has any more, now that there is little social stigma attached to non-participation). Instead, it needs to figure out what it has to offer that might be compellingly attractive as the leisure activity it has (for good or ill) become.

Once it has done a careful analysis of what positive value it offers, the church must then think about how to train the available people for a church that really exists. Because it’s been training people for a church that hasn’t perhaps existed in 40 or 50 years, and bullshitting itself into believing that our current, outdated ways of training are preparing the “church leaders of tomorrow.”

Oddly enough, the very hidebound Church of England undertook an experiment in alternative ways of training clergy about 50 years ago. The Diocese of Southwark decided to break the mould of full-time, residential, quasi-monastic (as I’ve called them elsewhere, “fauxnastic”) colleges for training priests. It started its own part-time program of ministry formation, opening up the possibility of ordination to (still, at that time) men whose work and family situations, and educational backgrounds, might have prevented them from serving the church as priests.

The understanding was that they would, during their period of study and afterwards, remain in their full-time jobs, and serve the church on a part-time, mostly unpaid, basis–and they would more often than not serve in the parish where they first discerned the call. The original idea was that there might be as many as thirty men who would offer themselves to prepare for ordination on such an experimental course of study. The first year had 90 applicants.

Over the last five decades, more dioceses developed similar schemes for “ordained local ministry”. As they became popular, dioceses began to combine efforts and pool resources, and although most diocesan programs have been discontinued, regional training partnerships have developed. There is no part of England that is not covered by one of these institutes, many of which are ecumenical. As of 2010, around 60% of people training for ordination do so on a part-time, non-residential basis. They earn accredited university diplomas and degrees through these programs of study, and they perform as well academically (and in their parishes, as pastors, preachers, and teachers) as their college/seminary trained colleagues. The training programs are inspected by the Church of England’s Ministry Division; they are properly validated by a higher education institute (it has gone over to Common Awards through the University of Durham). The aim of fully validated local training is twofold: first, it is indistinguishable from what happens in the colleges (at least from the vantage point of the person sitting in the pew). Second, it gives people something they can build on if they want to earn a more specialist degree, perhaps go on for a doctorate in church history or New Testament or theological ethics.

If it can be done in England, why can it not be done in the United States? Given that for some denominations, brick-and-mortar seminaries are sparsely distributed throughout the country, a regional partnership arrangement (granting proper degrees that can be accepted throughout the church and at a variety of higher education institutions) makes sense. The Episcopal Church, for example, has only 9 fully functioning seminaries: all except two are east of the Mississippi River, and four are east of the Appalachian Trail. This means that credit-bearing study is either residential or entails an exceptionally long commute. There is some exploration of reduced-residency MDiv programs, but it is still far from answering many problems.

Otherwise, you must either forgo the possibility of ordination, or, if your diocese has one, use its “alternative” training, which usually does not grant a degree or the possibility of earning credits which can be put towards doing so. And there is no guarantee that even the regional program in the Midwest will supply a preparation for ministry that a bishop outside the cooperative arrangement will be obliged to accept. If a self-supporting minister has prepared for ordination through a diocesan or regional program moves to another diocese, there is no guarantee that the receiving bishop will consider that priest or deacon’s training adequate–there is no recognized standard of quality to which these “local” programs are currently held.

The English system is far from perfect, but it is a major improvement over the current situation in the Episcopal Church–and I’m sure, in many other denominations as well. The English experiment has been underway for many years, and it has proven its usefulness. Indeed, the first female Church of England priest to become a bishop (albeit in New Zealand) trained for ordination on one of these “alternative” pathways for ministry.

I’ve worked on one of the diocesan programs; I know the strengths and weaknesses of the system. I’ve imagined ways of making it more flexible and responsive to the needs of students as well as to the needs of a rapidly changing church. I would strongly urge that the Episcopal Church look to this model, and develop it, at least in part, as an alternative to uprooting families and acquiring insurmountable student debt as ordinands prepare for ministries which may not develop into full-time, paid work.

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3 thoughts on “Rethinking Ministry and Training

  1. I could not agree more, Wendy. As a postulant for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Church USA, I have been frustrated with the current system and I am not alone in my frustration. In my case, I worked as a lay youth minister for 12 years on staff in Episcopal Churches. During that time, I earned a Master of Christian Education Degree from, gasp, a Presbyterian Seminary. That education was thorough and complete, by the way. When I perceived a call to ordained ministry I went through all the required ECUSA examinations to arrive at acceptance into postulancy two years after the process began. During that time I finished my MDiv (on an advanced standing basis) at the same seminary from which I had received my MACE degree. I had tried to go to an Episcopal Seminary but was not allowed to enter the Episcopal Seminary until after I received a postulant status in the ECUSA process. That meant I would have to receive a committee’s permission AFTER going through a parish discernment committee process (months long) and then a priesthood committee evaluation process (almost a year long) and then be examined by a bishop from the diocese BEFORE applying to an Episcopal Seminary and paying for the very expensive boarding and tuition IF they accepted me. I would also have been required to move away from my family to complete the process. As it is, sense I received my MDiv from a Presbyterian Seminary I was required to apply to the Anglican Studies program at the Episcopal Seminary, interview and be accepted, and pay expensive tuition and travel expenses to hopefully earn a certificate and pass the General Ordination Exams. THEN, if I pass I can be ordained a Deacon and if someone offers me a position I can be fully ordained.

    Now let me speak about the good part of the process. Along the way, I have learned to be patient enough to discern God working in me to grow my faith in ways I could never have expected. I have come to rely more fully on the movement of the Holy Spirit to guide me in my preaching, my teaching and my pastoral care. I have met others who are walking this path with me so that we can support each other now and in our future vocations as priests.

    There are good pieces of the process as it exists and those pieces should be incorporated into the changes that must take place for the good of the church. The system as it exists needs to be adapted to be more flexible so that it can meet the rapidly changing needs of the people being served and the people who need to be served who have left in frustration. I hope to be a part of that change. God willing, I will be.

    1. Thanks for commenting–I’ve been away a couple of days, and attending to face-to-face conversations more than online.

      There’s a LOT that can be done in seminaries other than Episcopal ones–we do, after all, use the same bible, the history of the pre-reformation church is the same, and much general contemporary theology and ethics is ecumenical in its nature. And much can be done independently or via online groups or local learning groups.

      But certainly, most of what is happening with seminary education (not just ECUSA) is a matter of what is good for traditional residential seminaries–not necessarily what is good for those preparing for ordination.

      The church is not the way it was 50 years ago, and training has to change as well. We are training tomorrow’s leaders for yesterday’s church. No other type of institution could even consider that to be a sensible way to proceed.

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