Seminary might just be next to useless as preparation for ministry. I went to seminary. At Harvard. For three years. I got top grades and graduated from the three-year Master of Divinity degree program in three years. I have been in ordained ministry both in a parish and in a community setting since 2007 and I am convinced that if I didn’t need the degree as a requirement for ordination, I could have and should have just skipped it entirely.
I learned more about the practice of ministry, pastoral care, and outreach elsewhere. I feel that I learned more about ministry and ministering from the three years I spent training to be a spiritual director. I read a lot, I reflected a lot, I practiced deep discernment and deep listening, I practiced and taught many and varied styles of prayer and praying. I even wrote a major academic style thesis. I wish I had done this training before I ever set foot in a church or faith based organization of any kind. I now believe that everyone who genuinely feels they are called to ministry should do this type of training, and do it BEFORE they ever set foot in or even apply to a seminary. Recently I have begun a process run by Mission Houston called Faithwalking that is steeped in the spirituality of mission. It seems like an extension of my spiritual direction training.
I do not believe Clinical Pastoral Education or an internship in a congregation provides the same depth of experience as deep training in discernment and spirituality. The bottom line reason just about everyone shows up at a church, especially a Unitarian Universalist church is that they have felt a “God-shaped hole” in their life. Folks who believe in God in any way shape or form look for God to fill this hole. Folks who do not believe in God in any way shape or form, look for something that fills that space that is filled by God for others. Either way, it’s a God-shaped hole. The hole shaped like ultimate meaning. So little that I learned in seminary has helped me ever fill this hole for myself or anyone else that if I were to say nothing I learned there has ever helped I would not feel like I was exaggerating much at all.
I learned to teach by actually practicing the art of teaching for 8 years in urban Catholic high schools in Massachusetts. I did not learn to teach in seminary. I learned to do service and outreach and social justice by working as a volunteer (and for a brief time) paid staff person for Amnesty International and by getting heavily involved in electoral politics, even running for Lt. Governor in Massachusetts on the Green Party ticket. I did not learn service and outreach in seminary.
I learned about how churches work by working in them. No, my ministerial internship was not of much help. The church I served in for this internship generally sheltered me from the hard, gritty stuff of church life, it’s politics, and systemic dynamics. It wasn’t that the congregation was negligent in any way in their “teaching congregation” duties, but that it’s the nature of the ministerial internship to generally keep the real church and it’s inner (dys)functions away from the “student minister.”
I learned about how churches really work by taking part in district trainings. One was a church growth initiative called Here We Grow and the other was a church district leadership training program called The Dwight Brown Leadership Experience. Both covered more or less the same ground such as family systems dynamics in congregations, basics of theology and ecclesiology relevant to church life, healthy models of governance, and healthy church growth strategies.
Things I learned in seminary (an only half-snarky list):
- How to research and write seriously academic papers and essays. The only use I have had for this in ministry is that I feel I’ve written better papers for a study group to which I belonged than I otherwise might have done.
- Koine Greek – I’ll give seminary this one. I never would have had the discipline to learn an ancient language if it were not required for graduation. This would have proved more useful had I gone into the specifically Christian ministry where my preaching might have been more directly linked to a sacred text written in this language.
- Public speaking. Note that I do not claim to have learned how to preach in seminary. I learned to preach by actually preaching over the years. Over the years my preaching has evolved from basically reading from a text to delivering a text (a 2000 word essay) to speaking from notes, to speaking entirely extemporaneously. Preaching without a text is a completely different thing than delivering a text. The preparation is different. Delivering a text first requires writing a text and thus the sermon is more dependent on writing than speaking skills. Speaking without a text is a composition of ideas and an internalization of outlines and structure. Then it becomes preaching when it connects to the heart and moves others to reflect and act. What I learned in seminary was how to write and how to deliver my writing in public. Preaching requires the development of a personal theology so that any topic one preaches on can be connected to the core reasons of “why?” Why do we do what we do? Why do we have and belong to a church community? Why do we care in the first place?
- How to navigate bureaucracy – The greatest application of this skill has been with all the paperwork required to get and keep in good standing my ordination as a minister.
In the current issue of The Christian Century, Will Willimon proclaims “Seminaries have changed less in the past 100 years than vibrant congregations have changed in the last two decades.” In his article Making Ministry Difficult (available only to The Christian Century subscribers) he says that the most effective clergy are finding ways to start new communities of faith, but seminaries are not teaching them how to do it. Today’s ministry requires a level of entrepreneurship more easily learned in a business school than a seminary. Today’s ministry also requires a digital literacy that seminary ignores. Facebook, Twitter, live streaming, web design, and email marketing are not the topic seminary courses. They should be.
My experience is not uncommon. I can’t think of one colleague who has said or will say that seminary really prepared them well for the realities of 21st century ministry. You may be out there, but I haven’t heard you rave about how well your seminary prepared for ministry. I have colleagues who agree that training in spiritual direction has been more important to their ministry than seminary. I have colleagues that credit their theater and acting background as great training and preparation for ministry. I know colleagues who credit their marketing background as germaine to their church growth and church planting work.
What can we do to better train people for ministry?
Rethink ministerial internships. Are they necessary? I wonder. They are certainly expensive – for the seminarian. They’re too short. They are either done part-time and/or in addition to seminary study. Any internship worth doing should, I think, be more like an apprenticeship. A couple of years of full time ministry in a congregational or community setting where there is financial support for the apprentice (and his/her family). Because of the cost of doing something like an apprenticeship, there will be relatively few congregations or organizations that can afford to offer it. Maybe congregations could group together – each congregation contributing to funding the apprentice by taking turns having the apprentice actually serve their congregation.
Deep Spiritual Training. As I said earlier, I think everyone who goes into the ministry would benefit from the training done by spiritual directors. A class in prayer in seminary can’t touch the training spiritual directors go through.
Do more leadership development. Two of the most useful things I have ever done in terms of preparation for ministry were taking part in intensive church leadership programs. Like many ministers, I attended these trainings after I was ordained and after I went to seminary. My attendance was professional development. And each program was outstanding professional development. So good in fact that I wish I’d had the trainings before I went to seminary. Maybe a return to the days when religious communities called their pastors out of the congregation would help. I don’t know. What I do know is that there are a lot of very pastoral and prophetic religious educators and lay leaders out there who have done intense leadership development and seem to me to be at least as good if not better than some ministers I know at the art and practice of ministry.
There have to be other things as well. Will Willimon, in The Christian Century articles I quoted earlier, argues that seminary education should move online. I’m not sure that’s quite the answer. Rather, I think the academic parts such as the reading and writing and discussing could certainly move online. An online seminary should also provide training in digital media, social media, online marketing, and web design and development.
What do you think? If you are clergy, did your seminary education prepare you for your ministry? How would you improve ministerial training and education?