Are we in the right business?

Because of the work I did for my last two years in England with non-traditional forms of training for ordination (and my stints guest-lecturing on a few other than the one I ran), I’ve been thinking a lot about how really useful preparation for parish ministry would look.  This morning, two related items crossed my Facebook news feed.  The first, which I received early in the day, was about knowing what business you are in. I mused on this as I drank a cup of very strong tea, reflected on my time at the now-deservedly defunct Seabury-Western Theological Seminary (since risen from the ashes as the less-interesting portion of the Bexley-Seabury Federation), and my belief that most (Episcopal, at least) seminaries are really rather foggy about what their purpose is.  As if I needed further confirmation, a few hours later an “everythig is great here, don’t look beneath the surface” item from the news page of the General Theological Seminary came to my attention. I had written a few posts on the mess at GTS last year, just before I broke my wrist and lost interest (but it only got worse, with most of the faculty deciding not to stay, and an almost non-existent new intake of students for 2015).

As I said last year, I don’t have a stake in the particular outcomes at GTS.  I’m not an alumna, I don’t work there or have any real connection except knowing a few clerical types who were attached to the self-styled flagship seminary of the Episcopal Church in some way.  I don’t know Stephanie Spellers personally, and so I can’t confirm or deny whether she is a great or lousy professor, priest, human being.

 What I can say with some certainty is, if this is what seminaries believe they are about, they are in the wrong business, and don’t even know it. This is worse than individual churches with an inward focus (which sometimes they need, if done the right way). It is about an institution meant to prepare people for public ministry, but whose express concern is to have a wonderful experience together of praying, worshipping, community.  Sure, there’s the “Wisdom Year” at the end, but the main focus is what happens in the seminary itself.  Sure, there’s the “Wisdom Year” at the end (I’m still not convinced how wise it is, but that’s another story).  My real qualm is about an institution claiming to prepare people for what everyone knows is a very tough job, and being a hothouse for a kind of fake monastic (fauxnastic?) experience.

Seminary itself is a word I’d like to see fall into disuse.  A seminary, at its root, is a place where seedlings are carefully protected and nurtured until they are strong enough to be planted as viable trees (or something else hardy).  Are the people who offer themselves for the process toward discernment of vocations to ordained ministry so fragile as to require isolation in a hothouse environment for several years?  More importantly, are people who are supposed to be adults but need to be coddled this way the kinds of people who will be tough enough to lead the churches in changing circumstances? 

There may well be a place for residential, full-time institutions in the changing landscape of education for church ministry.  But they should not be considered the only, or best, way to prepare for a life serving God through the Church.  If the churches ever “get good” at the thing they are ploughing the most money into– attempts to reach youth and young adults–the seminaries will go back to their original design of educating young-ish (usually straight out of an undergraduate program) people who have not yet exercised leadership as adults in one or more congregations.  They will be places where those younger vocations learn the disciplines of daily prayer, taking responsibility to make sure things happen in a  protected church-like setting, and practice many of the tasks and skills of public ministry under the supervision of experienced instructors.

But we need modes of training for people who aren’t so young and inexperienced, and the current “gold standard” of the seminary serves them poorly.  More than half of my seminary cohort was over 35 (many over 50), were called to ministry as second (or more) careers, and had exercised significant lay responsibilities in church–often in multiple congregations and localities.  These were the people who had been on every committee, chaired several, been the continuing presence during interim periods between paid ordained leadership, and could perform every liturgical function allowed to a lay person.  They did not need a protected environment to learn the disciplines of daily prayer or pastoral listening.  What they needed–and a significant number still need–are to learn the theory behind what they were doing, to work with mentors to steer their changing identity from active lay volunteer to liturgical and pastoral leader of a congregation.

They didn’t need a great “community life” behind the walls of the seminary, or happy memories of their “student experience”.  I cannot think of another occupation requiring a post-graduate degree to begin work where the training institution’s great claim is to give the student a “great student experience.”  A medical or law school does not do so–they prepare people for the exigencies of being a doctor or an attorney.  They put them in tough situations from the start:  internships, residencies, clerkships.  They work tough hours, and deal with frustration, heartbreak, failure.  And only those who prove they are up to the tasks finish and go on to practice.

Seminaries are designed to avoid the tough long hours, the frustration, the heartbreak.  And therein lies the explanation for the dozen or so “burnout” blog posts I see from clergy every single week, and the ones about “what I didn’t learn in seminary”.

Our seminaries do not prepare people for what lies ahead. And the piece today from GTS illustrates a big part of the reason why–it is focused on what happens in the seminary, rather than how that relates to and prepares for what follows seminary.  It’s too geared toward the “student experience”, and not geared enough to what is likely to happen once that experience is over.

And it needs to change, sooner rather than later.

My first suggested remedy is that every assignment, class, module, activity must have an ecclesiological focusEvery essay and presentation needs to have a section reflecting on how this prepares the student for the ministry for which s/he is preparing:  how does this relate to the declarations to be made at ordination or licensing, how it helps them understand the ecclesial authority structures within which s/he will work. A student’s personal spiritual development is secondary.  That has to be in place before one is approved to study for ordination.  If not, it is fully appropriate to require someone to wait until subsequent evidence of spiritual maturity is available.

I was a total pain in the ass to a number of my fellow seminarians–partly because, as a (vocationally) lay person, they didn’t think I had a “vocation”.  But more than that, when eyes would piously roll heavenward and the words “I am called to serve God through the Church”, I would ask “What do you mean by ‘church’?”  And I’d either be met by exasperation as though I was too dimwitted to know, or by nosepickingly stupid silence.

But it’s a question that deserves an answer, and a thoughtful and intelligent one.  Because, you need to know what you mean by “church” if anyone is supposed to respect your “service” to it.


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