Seminary Education Tested by Praxis

by Janet F. Fishburn and Neill Q. Hamilton

Dr. Fishburn is associate professor of teaching ministry and Dr. Hamilton is professor of New Testament at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 1-8, 1984, p. 108. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Seminaries and denominations need to take greater care in monitoring what is happening to their candidates in student pastorates.  If pastors are to have a fair chance at learning the profession, seminaries and denominations must begin to accept responsibility for clergy formation.

How well does theological education prepare seminary graduates for the practice of ministry? Curiosity about the answer to that question led us to take a careful look at a Drew University Theological School class three years beyond graduation. The results were arresting. Although we had expected challenges to theological education, there were implications for denomination and profession as well.

We began by interviewing a random cross-section of class members who were pastoring congregations. Those conversations were a marvelous window onto the opening phase of the struggle to become ministers. Graduates were hungry to be heard, and we were anxious to know what good the seminary had done them. It was comforting to see how well they were managing a very difficult profession, how poised they were under pressure and how deeply engaged they were in the attempt to learn the skills that the profession requires.

To move beyond the interview phase, we found it necessary to define the major task of the first years. We had supposed it was to clarify the vision of ministry against the realities of parish life. That certainly was going on, but the emphasis lay elsewhere. The fundamental task seemed to be to acquire the self-image of being a professional capable of providing the services a congregation declares it needs from its minister. Rather than concentrating on satisfying their, own personal sense of calling, the fledgling pastors tried to satisfy the expectations of their congregations. For the time being the sense of calling was overshadowed by the incessant, manifold demands the churches were placing on them. Their foremost question became, what do congregations want of us?

Here was the first place where they felt let down by seminary. Expectations had not been identified for them in advance. One random comment caught the anxiety that tinged almost every interview. “There’s a sort of occupational shock. . . between seminary and the parish.

I felt to a great degree alone. . . . I felt a great deal of anxiety. . . . I felt that I was winging it a good bit of the time.”

In the absence of seminary guidance, we supposed that the supervising denominational body would make clear what was expected of the new clergyperson. But the response of one new pastor caught up the graduates’ whole experience with the denomination: “I don’t know what they expect other than that I do the minimum things that have to be done to keep a church going -- and keep out of people’s hair!”

Does the profession itself have standards of practice from which neophytes can deduce what is expected of them? Among those we interviewed, there was no hint of awareness that any such standards exist. We suddenly found ourselves dealing with a profession with no canons of good practice, and, consequently, no supervision by professional peers to inculcate them. It would be difficult to sue a minister for malpractice, with bona fide practice so ill defined. In the absence of professional standards, we would need to invent some criteria by which to estimate the integrity of practice we were observing.

We found beginning clergypersons almost completely at the mercy of the expectations of their first parish, without counterbalancing claims from denomination or profession. Formation of clerical identity depended on satisfying this first congregation.

One of the major questions our study raises is whether seminary, denomination and profession ought to be satisfied with this much uncontested influence by the first parish over the formation of clergy. The data we gathered gave little evidence that congregations were expecting of fresh seminary graduates what we hoped for them. This was especially true in denominations where the first assignments were routinely in churches at the bottom of the pecking order. These are often so marginal that their struggle to survive leaves little energy or vision for encouraging their pastoral leaders to practice ministry with integrity.

It became clear from the outset that the formation of ministers who not only satisfy the just expectations of congregations but who also satisfy the larger concerns of denomination and profession requires the concerted efforts of all three. As things now stand, the beginning minister has only his or her own convictions about calling to counter the demands of the first congregation. It takes a person with a fairly heroic sense of vocation to counter the pressure to settle for a ministry content to satisfy the needs of parishioners as consumers of ministerial services.

With the advice of colleagues in the university we constructed a questionnaire to gather data related to our graduates’ ease of entry into ministry, their sense of adequacy to the tasks of ministry, and their integrity in ministry. We were gratified at 100 per cent response from those members of the class who were engaged in the parish. These numbered four women and 18 men.

One important test of seminary preparation is the ease with which entrance into the profession is accomplished. Studies suggest it ordinarily takes four years for new clergy to experience themselves as persons who are not somehow impostors in clerical disguise. Fifteen of our 22 respondents had negotiated that turning point in their clerical identity. On this basis seminary had stood them in good stead indeed. But what about the seven who had not yet formed clerical identities?

While we remain uncertain about all the factors that make entry easier for some than others, we believe that one important factor is a warm, outgoing personality. Our data show that new clergy without much concern for the intellectual disciplines of ministry experience satisfaction with their performances if the congregations they serve have a marginal understanding of ministry and the clergypersons have outgoing personalities. Six persons in particular who had had little interest in theological education except as a passport to ordination had won positive support from their congregations on the basis of personality. They described themselves as “nice guys,” “likable,” “good humored” and “good in a group setting.”

Warmth is an obvious, even essential, asset in ministry, but charm can substitute for serious engagement with the root requirements of the calling. Too withdrawn a personality can disable one for ministry despite every other positive qualification; too gregarious a personality can compensate for the absence of the very qualities that make for competence and integrity. Seminaries and denominational committees that care for candidates need to take precautionary account of both types of personalities.

The short-circuiting of much of theological education by too facile an approach to ministry can begin well before graduation. One stunning result of our study was the discovery of the effect of student pastorates on the practice of ministry after graduation, and, by implication, on theological education while in seminary. To our complete surprise, we found almost no evidence that student pastoring for one or more years during seminary had had a positive effect on the competence of new clergy. Those who had been student pastors actually practiced ministry with less integrity than new clergy without such prior experience. Even more startling was the discovery that the experience did not ease entry into ministry upon graduation. The half of the class who had not had student pastorates entered the profession with significantly greater ease than the half who had. We defined student pastors as sole leaders of congregations, thus excluding those who had held student assistantships.

We are certain that seminaries and denominations will need to take greater care in monitoring what is happening to their candidates in student pastorates. We had supposed that such pastorates were laboratories for completing theological education by integrating reflection with praxis in the real world of the church. More likely they are an alternative system of schooling that offers immediate gratification in ministerial practice at the expense of the disciplined study that is a necessary preliminary to a more comfortable and more faithful ministry.

Professional education meets its most direct test in the concrete tasks of the profession. How well did we prepare our graduates to perform the seven roles expected of every parish minister? Our data suggest that the members of the class are performing well enough to satisfy their constituencies, but with very uneven reference to seminary preparation.

(1) Administration. The questionnaires confirmed the impression from the interviews that the class welcomed the task of administration, in some cases wishing to bring greater administrative order to a parish than it had ever had before. There seemed to be a correlation between doing well at administration and doing well in the tasks of ministry as a whole. Surprisingly, we found little correlation between readiness for administration and prior vocational experience.

(2) Preaching. Preaching is the one ministerial task seminaries prepare for intentionally and thoroughly. Drew is no exception. Our graduates preach to the satisfaction of their congregations.

(3) Liturgy. The questionnaires confirmed our hypothesis that liturgical leadership is an area in which new pastors feel they need more preparation. Our graduates wanted to conduct worship, and especially to lead public prayer, well. They wanted to perform marriages, conduct funerals and administer the sacraments well. They felt cheated that explanation of and preparation and coaching for these obvious, recurring pastoral duties had been given so little curricular emphasis. Not having been taught how to lead in prayer or how to construct their own orders of worship, they found themselves copying liturgies from others indiscriminately and wondering what the sacraments meant as they administered them.

(4) Evangelism. Evangelism was most often cited as the area of least preparation at seminary, although neglect of liturgy was more strongly felt. Curiously, this deficiency did not mean that the class’s congregations were not growing. For the most part, their churches were receiving new members, but, with the exception of one person who had taken postgraduate training in evangelism, they did not know why this was happening, or what, if anything, they had to do with it.

(5) Social Action. Although the class stated that training in social action leadership had also been lacking in seminary, they had no strong feelings about that lack. We felt it more strongly than they did, since the seminary had advocated social action as an important facet of ministry. Our guess is that in the first few years new clergy are so preoccupied with learning the profession, they have little energy left to look outside the congregation to its mission in the world. We hope to see more orientation toward mission among the class members five years after graduation.

(6) Pastoral Care and Counseling. This was a skill area addressed in seminary. Most seemed comfortable with their pastoral-care skills. The amount of counseling a minister did seemed unaffected by age, prior work experience, or sex. The counseling was by appointment; it did not come about as a result of visiting people in their homes -- except in cases of emergency, illness or bereavement. We found no evidence that the class members had been taught how, or how often, to make pastoral calls.

(7) Education. Although instruction in education was required in seminary and teaching was modeled at every turn, there was little evidence that the graduates did much direct teaching or were concerned with teaching strategy within the congregation.

In asking about preparation to perform the tasks of ministry, we found that an implicit strategy did underlie each of the above-mentioned discrete roles or tasks. That surfaced when our graduates reported that their peak experiences of ministry came in enabling lay people to engage in their own ministries. The class members found their favorite identities as enablers. Perhaps it would be a fair estimate of the seminary’s success in preparing graduates for the concrete tasks of ministry to say that we have been most effective at the level of strategic consciousness, but with the exceptions of preaching, administration and counseling by appointment, relatively ineffective at teaching the particular skills required to carry out that strategy. Indeed, for the most part we seem not to have attempted to teach the skills of the profession.

Perhaps we could claim benign neglect, caused by our preoccupation with other facets of theological education. Certainly there is more than enough theory to be covered in three years. In addition to the classical biblical, historical and theological disciplines, most seminaries now require nearly an equal amount of attention to the behavioral sciences as they speak to religion. Does theological education’s preoccupation with theological-behavioral reflection on ministry pay off in integrity of practice? That is the question we sought to answer by attempting to gauge the degree to which our graduates practice the profession with integrity.

With the profession so ill defined, there seem to be no commonly accepted canons for integrity in the practice of ministry. Pastoral theology used to identify such integrity, but that theological discipline has been in collapse since the turn of the century. We defined integrity in ministry as the integrating of the knowledge of the theological disciplines needed for performing the profession with personal devotional practices and the everyday tasks of ministry. In the absence of current norms, we invented a set to give content to our Integrity in Ministry Profile. That profile has six components.

(1) A conscious and articulate theological stance that informs the whole practice of ministry, including the ability to do exegesis of Scripture for teaching and preaching. This is the intellectual base for ministry.

The single least encouraging discovery of the study so far is that many of the class members do not seem to possess and are not working to acquire an intellectual base for their practice of ministry. More than one third were unable to name “a major theological resource that helps most to make your practice of ministry authentic.” Did they not understand the question? No one mentioned a single theology course when asked to specify the one course that best integrated theology of ministry with the practice of ministry. Three said no course had helped in this way. Four mentioned New Testament courses. The course most often cited -- by 40 per cent of the class -- was a field-learning seminar that required a 20-page theology-of-ministry paper, written under the combined tutelage of a pastor-adjunct and a resident professor from one of the classical disciplines. Here was the focal point of the whole curriculum for clarifying the students’ theologies of praxis, and yet more than half of them seem to feel none of its effects three years out of school.

The reading habits of the class did not suggest that people without a working theology of ministry were likely to develop one, or to keep an existing one current. Fewer than one fourth of the class members have read five or more theological or biblical books of substance in the past year. One third read no such books of any kind. Half of the class did not seem to engage in serious exegesis in preparation for preaching.

One might suppose that the practice of ministry would of itself drive people to tap biblical-theological resources in order to function acceptably. We judged that this was not happening because the habit of connecting theology and practice was never formed in seminary. Instead, most of the reading done by most of the class was oriented merely to practice. We do not wish to misrepresent the class. Members who do read do so omnivorously. For example, one reads two to four books a week. What we wish to point out is that seminary instruction did little to produce clergy who trace their practice to any intellectual foundation laid by the classical disciplines of theological education. For the most part, professors do not feel responsible for making the connection between theory and practice, and new clergy are not making that connection for themselves. Seminaries long to produce scholar-pastors; our graduates seem to have learned that being a scholar has little in common with being a pastor.

(2) Regular and lively personal use of the means of grace (common worship, sacraments, private prayer and meditation, and support group of peers). This is the experiential base for ministry.

Here the case was almost the reverse of that for the intellectual foundation. The class had not been taught to pray in seminary. Indeed, one of their major reservations about seminary education was its lack of encouragement of and instruction in devotional practices. One student’s comment caught the drift of the common complaint: ‘‘If you hadn’t had a spiritual or devotional life before you came to Drew, forget it. The seminary wasn’t going to give it to you.” Yet many practiced the spiritual disciplines after graduation. We had hypothesized that our graduates would acknowledge a need for daily private meditation and prayer, but would not have altered their schedules to accommodate it. This was true for only a third of the class, a third made up entirely of first-career people. More than half of the class members reported that their daily meditations included reading Scripture and praying. But only one third were making a connection between their prayers and their practice of ministry. These were mostly second-career people.

(3) Acceptance of the institutional context for ministry and willingness to take responsibility for administering the church as institution. Our graduates were surprisingly ready to tackle this area. Typical seminary graduates are supposed to be preoccupied with the prophetic-pastoral side of their calling and alienated from the responsibility for institutional leadership. Not so Drew graduates. The cause for this readiness may be the 12 out of 42 required hours in field education spent on administration. But it was not clear to the graduates how leading the church as an institution differed from leading other institutions.

(4) Concern for and leadership in mission aimed at social justice, including systemic change as well as relief of human need. Although our graduates scored high in their commitment to social mission, no course prepared them for leadership in it. A number of respondents commented that this was the weakest spot in their ministries.

(5) Concern for and leadership in mission as evangelism -- understood as launching people into a lifelong faith journey, and not as just receiving new members into the institution. To the extent that evangelism does include receiving new people, the members of the class have evangelistic skills. Nearly two thirds are bringing in new members. But they are uncomfortable with evangelism defined as church growth, and have not as yet formed any better definition. Meanwhile, there is little evidence that they know what to do with those new to the church.

(6) A theory of the unfolding character of the Christian life for assessing a person ‘s and a congregation ‘s place in the process, with the accompanying skills to guide and support spiritual maturing. There was little indication that the new clergy possessed a framework for assessing the spiritual health of persons or congregations. Some such theory, and the skills to facilitate growth, are necessary for planning a course of nurture and for guiding the overall administration of the church.

Our profile for integrity served as much to outline the course the profession needs to take to recover its identity, as to measure how well seminaries and denominations are doing at forming new clergy who possess a body of knowledge and a set of skills appropriate to their calling.

Factors other than seminary preparation seem to affect integrity. Second-career people without student pastorates scored highest in integrity, as they had in ease of entry. First-career people with no experience as student pastors scored lowest in both areas. The one advantage of student pastorates seemed to lie in the increase of integrity for first-career people over their counterparts who had not had them. Yet, for second-career people student pastorates seem to diminish integrity. Perhaps the seminarian’s attention to a congregation detracted from his or her attention to study, and set patterns of lowered integrity before the resources necessary to establish integrity were in hand. This reinforced our impression that second-career people who avoid student pastorates make the best use of seminary to prepare for ministry.

How can graduates be doing so well at satisfying the expectations of congregations for professional services? Congregations want warm, empathic, sustaining friends whose presence reminds them of God in the joys and traumas of common life. The personality of the minister fills the void in a profession that has lost its soul. Until the day when it finds it again, the most “formative” thing to do in judicatories and seminaries would appear to be to screen candidates carefully by personality type and then hone the considerable interpersonal skills the warm, outgoing, extroverted ones already possess. Such people will be judged to be good ministers until we all learn better what it is that ministers are supposed to be and do.

No doubt there are a multitude of heroic clergy who practice ministry with great integrity. Such people are heroic in that they must be largely self-taught and self-formed. Birth into clerical families or especially fortunate mentoring relationships have probably helped them. Somehow, they reach back through a living tradition to times when the ordained ministry was a better-defined profession. If there were powerful professional societies of clergy, they might reform the profession from within. But, with rare exceptions, Protestant clergy associate by denominational affiliation. Because the profession lacks the consensus and the organizational vehicles necessary for redefinition and renewal, the initiative for redefining its theory and standards of practice falls to the denominations and the seminaries.

The chief responsibility lies with the denomination, since it oversees the whole process by which people become, and continue as, ministers. At present, seminaries have a very constricted role in that process. They do not now certify readiness for ministry, let alone competence in it; they certify only that graduates have completed a particular course of study. Whatever standards there are for the profession are being brought to bear by denominational judicatories and congregations. Consequently, we recommend the following procedure:

Denominations need to convene task forces on the formation of effective clergy who practice ministry with theological integrity. Each task force should include ministers whom the denomination has identified as models of good practice, and seminary professors from classical disciplines who are willing to help define good practice from the vantage point of history and tradition. The task force would issue provisional standards for the practice of ministry that could guide the formation of new clergy in their crucial first seven or eight years in the parish. Denominations could then assign to seminaries and to local judicatories their shares of responsibility for those years.

Each seminary needs to develop a cadre of professors from the classical disciplines willing to make a subspecialty of correlating biblical-historical-theological resources with the current practice of ministry. Denominations need to specify to seminaries which particular professional skills they are charged with introducing and the measure of mastery expected. Concurrently, denominations need to describe to local judicatories the whole set of ministerial skills that they are expected to certify upon each candidate’s final ordination at the end of the four-or five-year postseminary period.

A major lesson of this study has been that the denominations must provide as close and careful supervision of their new clergy in the years immediately following seminary as they expect seminaries to provide beforehand. Above all, we have learned that if pastors are to have a fair chance at learning the profession, seminaries and denominations must begin to accept responsibility for clergy formation, a formation that currently falls by default to first congregations.