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Choosing the Impossible: Seminary Students Speak Out

by A Roundtable

A discussion among students from ten seminaries in the Chicago area gathered at the invitation of the Century. The students were asked what they thought about their experiences and the future. This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 4-11, 1987, p. 131. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The seminaries that train future clergy, and the churches that employ them, dominate most discussions about theological education. Too often missing from the analysis of postgraduate preparation for ministry are the students themselves. What do they think about their experiences and their future?

To find some answers, The Christian Century invited students from ten Chicago-area seminaries to our offices for an intensive three-hour roundtable discussion. We asked them to engage in informal conversation, prodded by a few questions, to provide our readers with insight on how today’s students view theological education. The students, nine men and eight women suggested by the deans of their respective schools, represented not only denominational diversity but a variety of backgrounds and work experiences -- reflecting the general increase in the number of older and second-career students currently attending seminary. Most of these students had returned to school after some significant work experience -- in such diverse fields as teaching, politics, law, securities, real estate and graphic design.

Several students confided that money was the main question for them in deciding whether or not they could indeed attend seminary. In some cases, the student’s home church has helped foot the tuition bill; in others, the seminaries have offered financial aid. But almost all the students agreed that they still had serious difficulties making ends meet, and that they were amassing sizable debts. One student pointed out that a minister’s debts become, in effect, a burden on churches, which must try to pay pastors a salary that will allow them eventually to retire those debts. Another woman remarked that as a female she could expect no financial support from her district, whose hierarchy does not support female ordination (though this certainly would not be the case in all of her denomination’s districts, nor was it true for all females present)

The Catholic representatives noted that their church has its own version of this problem. For members of religious orders, seminary training is entirely paid for by the order. The church does not, however, provide similar support for laypeople, especially women. This "two-track" system discourages the participation of many talented individuals. Not only must laypeople finance their own education, but their service to the church is often questioned and challenged, despite the dramatic decline in numbers of men entering the Catholic priesthood.

Other students placed the issue of expenses in a larger framework. According to one, the cost of seminary generally discourages the emergence of religious leaders from the lower economic levels of society, thus enforcing a kind of caste system in church leadership. "I don’t find people emerging from relatively impoverished backgrounds to pursue seminary training," he noted.

One student who reported that on graduating he will be $10,000 in debt suggested that the responsibility for educating pastors should rest with the churches, not with individual students. He regarded his own training as the property of the church, he said, and therefore thought it appropriate that the church finance that education.

Some denominations are attempting to find ways to convince local churches to support theological education. However, several students pointed out that the prospect of churches playing a greater role in finances is problematic: it would mean that churches would also be able to define more specifically the nature of seminary education. The freedom for intellectual and spiritual exploration -- and the makeup of seminary communities -- might well be limited if the seminaries were more closely controlled by the churches. One student remarked that if it had been up to her local congregation to choose and support seminary candidates, they probably "wouldn’t have sent me."

A student from one of the more conservative evangelical schools objected to distinguishing so firmly between the person and the church, saying that one attends seminary in order to serve the church. A mainline student added that he thought it entirely appropriate that he be held responsible to the church for his education, since in a way his career would be a gift to the church.

These points brought the conversation around to that perennial concern of theological education mentioned earlier: the gap between church and seminary and how to bridge it. "One of my biggest fears," admitted one seminarian, is that of "getting lost" in the parish; i.e., not knowing how to apply the theoretical knowledge he has accumulated in school. Another observed that amid all the requirements of the curriculum, there is only a minimal opportunity to take "practical" courses. "Our education is so segmented," commented a third. "Where is the integration" necessary to a career in the parish?

Though most of the students agreed that integration is a problem, one advanced student mentioned that she was discovering it through field education work; "I just wish I could have more of it," she lamented. Reflecting on his experience of attending seminary after first gaining considerable experience in the parish, one older participant wondered if maybe we’re doing it backwards"; in other words, perhaps schools ought somehow to require practical experience before -- or at the beginning of -- formal education (such an arrangement would, of course, run counter to essentially all currently respected educational theories) For himself, he said, the practical application of what was being taught in seminary was plain in light of his experience of parish ministry.

However, another participant pointed out, there isn’t time "in any program" to learn all the things that need to be learned; many skills can -- indeed, must -- be learned later. Others agreed that the goals of a seminary education were "impossible." In the face of this challenge, remarked a member of the group, it is actually "consoling to realize that we can’t know everything." One student called attention to the fact that in the Soviet Union seminary students attend school for eight years; but even then it is doubtful whether there is enough time truly to "complete" a course of study. Most educational programs are organized on the principle that schooling is an introduction to a topic; graduate education is an opportunity to delve more deeply into a specialty, but one is expected to continue learning after that as well. (Commentators such as theologian and culture critic Joseph A. Sittler have complained that pastors often cease their education with the completion of seminary.)

Seminarians -- and seminary graduates -- must "be aware of how much we don’t know," emphasized one discussant. For example, he said, it is absurd for a young celibate Catholic priest to conduct marriage counseling for a middle-aged couple with children. The priest at least needs to know when he has to turn to other professionals for help.

The demand for seminaries to integrate theological education with practical skills for parish ministry is to some extent misconceived, demurred one speaker. To begin with, he said, seminaries generally prepare people for a broad range of ministries in the public and private sectors, not just for parish ministry. Furthermore, he argued, the point of theological education is not necessarily to acquire practical skills. He noted that his own training in law school had not been designed to teach him how to file a brief or deal with a client, but rather to teach him to think like a lawyer. Similarly, the point of theological education should be to learn how to think theologically. Having learned that, one is prepared for a variety of ministries.

In agreement, another participant suggested that "we put too high an expectation on the seminary if we expect it to provide the integration" between theological study and parish ministry. That integration comes from one’s own effort as the end result of years of study and practice. However, this view did not negate the importance of outside support and guidance for seminarians attempting to find the synthesis. For example, one woman reported that she had been aided in integrating academic study with ministry through the support of a sponsor in her church who regularly monitors her progress. Similarly, another of those present related that he has been pressed -- to his benefit -- by his seminary community and the parish he works in to account for the relations among the various activities in which he is engaged.

Responding further to the theme of integration, a participant acknowledged that he was surprised by the "lack of passion for the gospel in seminary." If people have that passion, he suggested, then they will be stimulated to achieve the integration of knowledge and action that seems so elusive. While virtually all present agreed with this general point, they applied it to a variety of specific issues. For example, complained one mainline seminarian, his school does not require its graduates to learn Greek and Hebrew. "That shows a lack of passion for the gospel from an academic standpoint."

This claim generated a lively discussion, with a number of disagreements being expressed. A representative of a particularly socially active denomination postulated that Spanish is probably a more important language to know today than Greek; how can one propose to do ministry in the U.S. currently without a knowledge of Spanish? The practical demands of ministry require such changes in the required curriculum, he maintained. In opposition, speaking as a student of Greek and Hebrew, a participant insisted that these languages are a foundational study for all theological education, and seminary is, for her, an opportunity to gain a solid grounding in God’s Word.

Several students, though acknowledging that there should be a core seminary curriculum, argued that the content of that core should change as society changes. For example, feminist theology’s an important part of theological education now, though it wasn’t 15 years ago and perhaps will not need to be 15 years from now.

In general, discussants put all of the above issues into the context of one overall question: What is the purpose of a seminary education? Some students emphasized again that they are attending seminary not primarily to gain skills for parish ministry, but for personal enrichment (and some do not necessarily plan careers in religious ministry)

There seems today to be an increasing diversity of motives bringing people to seminary, which is one reason it is difficult -- perhaps more so than ever -- to define the goal of a seminary degree. The diversity of individual pursuits also calls into question the issue that opened the conversation: What is the churches’ financial responsibility to provide seminary training for its leaders? Churches could hardly be expected, one participant maintained, to fund those students who are in seminary more as part of a personal search than in training to become its future leaders.

The multipurpose nature of theological education, and the pluralism of the seminary community itself, clearly make the task of such training a difficult one, indeed an "impossible" one, as suggested earlier. But the liveliness of the seminary students’ discussion, and the urgency which characterized their grappling with the dilemmas of diversity -- theological, practical and personal -- indicate that seminaries are nevertheless training people who are, despite all obstacles, eager to achieve the impossible.


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