The Last Days of Seminary

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?

9 thoughts on “The Last Days of Seminary

  1. Yup. Only I am not in a seminary proper, but an M. Div. program at a large Catholic ubran university; I am not Catholic, though grew up one. No Koine Greek is mandatory as the program is more directed to pastoral ministry. It was founded by a lay person mostly for lay folks, though a few of us are looking at the possibility of ordination.

    I added an MA in Spirituality the focus being Spiritual Direction.

    I am supposed to start CPE this Summer in a community agency. And I agree with you: what the hell is it going to teach me, especially due to the fact that I also have to do an academic year in Field Education. Overkill if you ask me. I have loads of ministry experience…

    Truly surreal…

    1. I took one unit of CPE at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, MO. It was one of the most valuable experiences in my life. You have so many experiences in a program of this nature and also work with people of different faiths, if you do it as part of a hospital program, and serve many people of different faiths. It deepened me and caused me to examine my own beliefs. I sat with a couple, prayed with them and did a ceremony for their stillborn daughter. I was there when ventilators were shut off and prayed with families. I was there when dying patients talked to me about the spirits of loved ones who came to visit them as they prepared to transition. I will never forget these experiences.

  2. I think one of the big gaps for me was being taught to do ministry in seminary and then in the congregation having to shift toward coaching the members to do ministry. I wonder if one possible direction for seminary is to orient itself more toward the formation of the person in the pews rather than just the person in the pulpit.

  3. So I’m confused. Deep spiritual training is not part of ministerial development?
    Public speaking skills are a base requirement but worship arts and preaching are masters level skills right? Agreed that internship needs to be followed by some form of accountable mentoring/residency/apprenticeship.
    Please, let’s not send any brand new minister off to First Parish on the Hill as a lone ranger minister.
    To Dave above–Maybe coaching /faith formation for all ages can only really be learned in the congregational or community setting? But I don’t see how one can minister without these skills.

  4. I am an ordained Unity minister and have served two congregations. My seminary training was very helpful, especially a course called “Family Systems Theory”. We might not look at a church as a family, but the congregants often relate to one another in this way and also the minister. Issues with parents or other authority figures often play out with the minister or board members and cause conflict. Congregants relate to one another as they did with siblings, especially if there is one who actually resembles the one they have issues with. It would be nice if churches were full of people who have healed their emotional issues and are ready to serve, but that is usually not the case. They often come because they are hurting and having challenges. One of the greatest challenges to ministers is seeing beyond appearances and issues and behaviors and beholding the Christ within each person, and not taking things personally. If they get into the dramas themselves they are headed down a dangerous path. I am thankful for this “Family Systems Theory” class that I took as it was the most valuable to me in ministry. Have I been able to always do what I learned? No. But at least I know what I am aiming for and have the knowledge. But regardless what you learn, it is only when you are in a church and doing ministry that you truly learn what ministry is. No seminary can fully prepare you for everything. LOL. That’s another thing–it also helps to keep a sense of humor!

  5. A facebook group of UU seminarians has taken up the discussion of this blogpost, Tony. Here is a version of what I said in that group setting in response to comments there on this post:

    I do not believe that (Christian) church history and (Christian) biblical scholarship are suitable or necessary preparations for the (Post-Christian) Unitarian Universalist ministry. In fact, I would banish both completely from the curriculum. But classes in practical things like preaching and worship (hopefuly broader than just Christian worship) and learning to do theology are important training available at seminary. There is, of course, a difference between seminary and div school. I’m not sure we should pretend that all M.Divs. (not from fundy schools, of course) are necessarily legitimate preparation for UU ministry.

    I will say that the new curriculum at Meadville Lombard integrates the practical and the theoretical very well. More than 1/3 of the required credits for graduation are in signature courses that combine volunteer work and congregational internship with theory about ministry reflected in those experiences and reflection as individuals and as a seminary class on those experiences. And those courses aim intentionally to breach the insulative barrier between the internship experience of the congregation and the congregation as it is. 1/10 of the required credits are given for an internship unit of CPE, which by design integrates action, theory, and reflection in the clinical method. Does this mean that a Meadville graduate will not encounter anything bumfuzzling and will not have to feel her way in her first call? Of course not. What it will mean for me in the parish I have yet to discover. But it sounds to me like it is a very different M.Div. experience that we will bring to ministry than you describe you got from Harvard.

    Note, I never say anything negative about learning to engage in the work of theology. That is something that Meadville Lombard, for one, does admirably. But what I have said over and over again in various fora is that our officially stated sources of UUism, as included in the bylaws of our association of congregations, do not privilege Christianity as a source the way our education requirements do. And for history that we need for UU ministry as opposed to history we need to be citizens in the 21st century? We have UU history. And for scriptures? Every “text” is a holy text, the whole universe is scripture. It is far more important to learn to read sacredness in all texts than it is to learn about a specific-subset-of-a-specific-religion-that-is-not-specifically-us-and-is-specifically-not-us’s canon and interpretive techniques specific to that canon and that specific religion. The MFC Competencies in Church History and Christian scriptures from the Greek and the Hebrew are relics rather than valid areas of preparation for contemporary UU ministry.

  6. Tony, I love you, but I disagree. I have two masters degrees, one in counseling/psych and one in divinity. Both are for careers in which you can’t possibly know how to do the work until you’ve been in the field doing it. But that’s true of most professional masters degrees. It doesn’t mean the training is superfluous. Academics, in my experience, are never superfluous. They are different from real world training, but not better or worse. I have been working for the UUA and in churches for my entire adult life (14 years), but seminary was necessary to deepen me enough to feel as though I could call myself a minister with integrity. I grew up UU without the bible, or theological training. The rigorous Biblical scholarship training in seminary was totally necessary. The training in how to think theologically was necessary. I took two FANTASTIC preaching courses that absolutely made me a better preacher–both from a script AND extemporaneously. Intro to Christian worship taught me more about the power and importance of worship than any experience of worship or worship leadership I have ever had. I knew NOTHING of church history before I went to seminary, and this stuff matters. It really does. My seminary is a seminary and not a div school, and I do think that makes a difference for preparation. I have a very limited and prescribed course of study. I don’t get to take electives much. I can’t “dabble” in things that interest me academically…quite the opposite. This fact has stretched me and taught me things I need to know, but would not have sought out to begin with.

    I agree with you that seminary doesn’t prepare me much for organizational leadership, and you just can’t teach pastoral care in a classroom. People should stop trying. But seminary has been the most invaluable part of my journey toward ministry–particularly in developing confidence of call, deepening theologically, and purely for my knowledge base expanding.

    Further, the first poster suggested that CPE was “overkill”. I beg to differ, but I felt the same way before doing CPE. I have two full year clinical mental health internships under my belt and experience as a clinician, and still felt as though CPE was the most important part of my seminary training that I completed. Before I did it, I scoffed at it similarly. I realize that in 20 years, I may disagree with myself, and that I sound like a righteous seminarian who knows not what she speaks of. But I really think the death of seminary would be the death of ministry–ministry that is taken seriously as a profession the way it ought to be, anyway.

  7. It helps to have some life experience before entering seminary. I first took seminary courses as a young person, then worked for a few decades, and now I am soaking up the information in every course, because it actually MEANS something. I am getting a lot out of my UU internship as well. I cannot imagine giving the kind of inspiring and thought provoking sermons I give, if I had not had great seminary classes that made me go deeper and learn more. I treasure my sense of UU history and polity, as well as the ethics and theology courses. Great stuff that applies directly to my ministry today.

  8. Excellent post. I am a part-time Meadville seminarian with a more than full time day job in business, so I’m not in ministry yet, but beg your indulgence in permitting my reply to your challenge.

    – I can tell you from my perspective that seminary has changed me.
    – I can tell you that I needed to be open to change and Meadville opened me up (not that I was closed before, but that I wasn’t aware of how open I could actually be).
    – I can tell you that much of what I do in my day job translates to the business side ministry (politics, relationships, etc), but it needed to be turned toward ministry’s core, which is different than business’.
    – I can tell you that so far, seminary has given me not only the ability, but the framework to grow myself in a manner that is more suitable to me. (e.g., not a business man at heart.)
    – I can tell you that were it not for seminary, you may not have been ready to embark on the wonderful journey you seem to have undertaken. I am who I am right now in part because of Meadville and I hope that in 3 years or whenever I get around to finishing, I will be then who I am then, too – just like you!

    Now, on the flip side:

    – I can tell you that the path to ordination assumes that everyone on it is the same, and that we all need to display the same knowledge. That’s why seminary “teaches to the test”. Boring.
    – I can tell you that on many occasions, I have felt that the process completely discounts any prior experience that is not directly tied to ministry. “Ministry is the hardest job you’ll ever do” is an interesting comment coming from someone for whom ministry is the only job they’ve ever done. Maybe they should try my day job for a while and get back to me on that. I’ve come to a place where I can hear this slur and chuckle.
    – I can tell you that the notion that every minister brings their own strengths and weaknesses to a call, is not extraordinary. As a matter of fact, if you’ve ever managed anyone, you’d know that its quite common. So, why then, does the path to ordination treat us all the same? Personally, I think history is a waste of time. Why is so much of the path to ordination obsessed by it? Is there a checkbox on a form somewhere that says “Ministry failed due to lack of awareness of UU history.”? Has one single ministry ever failed due to a lack of detailed awareness of history? Will my call as a minster or chaplain fail if I can’t remember the 5th of the 8 fold path? We all know what the answer is. Yet, we shall not criticize the process, lest the process reciprocate.
    – I can tell you that making me sit through more leadership development skills training would be a waste of my time. The path fails to recognize that in my day job, I TEACH leadership development by actually developing future leaders who work under my care. But somehow, that doesn’t count – or worse, needs to be relearned, urgently.
    – I can tell you that at least in some regard, the people in charge of the process feel that they need to combat some perceived notion that some folks think ministry is an easy job. A lot of what I’ve heard from them could easily be considered to be contemptuous of those on then path (well, at least to me). The assumption seems to be that if I leave my job to go into ministry (and spend $50k of my own money in the process and take a 50% pay cut), its because I think ministry is an easy job and that I need to be scared straight and run through some sort of gauntlet to prove the purity of my intent to their satisfaction. What kind of people came through this process before me, anyway? I’ve been doing my current job for 21 years. If you think about it (especially financially), the easy thing would be to NOT go into ministry. But I can’t do that any longer. And the gauntlet run is not exactly a welcoming gesture. But it makes those in charge feel better about themselves, so I run.

    Maybe I’m way of base on all of this. I probably just am taking this too seriously.

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