The essentials of seminary education

I have a friend who’s in her late thirties, going to seminary. She has a job that she loves, but she sensed a calling into ordained ministry nonetheless. She started the long route through grad school. She owned her home and didn’t want to move, so she picked up classes here and there, went part-time, commuted. Studied in between her shifts at her full-time job. 

Soon she became very tired and frustrated that her seminary wasn’t working around her schedule more. They failed to keep her needs in mind and didn’t seem to understand that many students commute. 

I struggle with this. As a person who welcomes change, I rarely find myself in the old-model, traditionalist camp, but somehow I am having difficulty embracing new models of seminary education.

I was a full-time student. Young. Without any children. No house. I have a very skewed perspective. But my fondest memories of seminary education were the classes, the library, and the community. There was something about moving to a place and living with other called people that helped me to become a religious person.

I’m sure the experience would not have been the same if I had not been studying Greek at all hours of the night, lamenting, celebrating, and praying. It wasn’t all good. Living among other students, I watched as my brilliant friends rarely picked up a book, and seemed to always get straight A’s. And some of the most unlikely students got the best positions at the end of it.

As I juggled four jobs in an attempt to keep my loans low, I often felt like I was working twice as hard to accomplish half as much (and I’m sure many of my classmates had the same complaints about me).

But, even in the messy stuff of community–especially in the messy stuff–I learned something about being a pastor. As I got annoyed with my neighbors and figured out how to deal with competition in a healthy manner, I was being formed.

Also, being a pastor is a life-altering job. So it might as well start changing our lives three years earlier.

But then, I go back to this article. They are talking about reconfiguring religious education. As the piece says, people can’t keep leaving seminary with student loan payments of more than $12,000 — with an average starting salary of just $45,500 (the 2005 student loan debt for PCUSA students was actually $32,959). The model of leaving everything to go to seminary, being in community, is breaking down. I just hope we don’t give up to much in the formation of our spiritual vocations as we rethink our models.

So what do you think? Does seminary work the same way for commuting students? Should seminaries start thinking of commuters as the norm and residents as the exception? Is it even possible for schools as small as our seminaries to tailor their schedules to people who are working a nine-to-five somewhere else? Is community an essential for seminary education?

the photo’s by darling.clandestine

18 thoughts on “The essentials of seminary education

  1. This is something I think about often. My personal experience was like yours and it took a long while to pay off my seminary loans. But I had a long while since I started in my early 20s.

    I have a friend who started seminary with the expectation that “everyone” (her home church, family, friends) would accomodate her call to ministry. She started in her late 60s and is now frustrated that she can’t find a call and has $14,000 in seminary debt as she is almost 70 years old. But she was counseled about this and told how hard it would be to 1) find a call and 2) work long enough to pay off that debt.

    I struggle with the entitlement piece, and yet, I do believe in call. Should we make is as easy as possible when/if someone is called, to accomodate them? Your point about professional ministry forcing a different kind of life is very true.

  2. With the cost of seminary going up obscenely we are making going into ministry a class issue on many levels. We are creating even more rigid class structures amongst our clergy and amongst those who would even consider going into ministry. Maybe that has always been with us in the mainline, but I think that it is getting more pronounced.

  3. When I started seminary in Ireland it was paid for by the denomination, tuition, room and board. As long as you served a minimum of five years following ordination you didn’t have to concern yourself about having any debt. Of course you had to attend a denominational theological college.

    Perhaps the PC(USA) should invest more financial resources into the lives of their seminary students. I know the process is different here, but perhaps we should agree to pay off tuition loans over a five year period for newly ordained pastors.

    I should also add that, unless you were a married student, it was required that you lived on campus as part of the community. Seminary is about a lot more than merely gaining an M.Div.

  4. I have second career pastor friends who have done it both ways–commuting while working, and moving onto campus to study full time. The community aspect of residential study is invaluable, but especially if someone is a second career seminarian with family, it can be difficult. There should be some accommodation to help these students fulfill God’s call.

    I am fortunate because my children are grown, my husband is retiring, and we don’t have a house to sell. We can just pack up and move to seminary in Aug. For others however, that is not the case. Many work hard to be involved in the seminary community as much as possible by eating with others in the refectory etc.

    Great post. Thanks.

  5. My wife works for Luther Seminary’s distributive learning MDiv program (it’s officially a pilot at the moment, sort of an online MDiv with intensives on campus) which addresses just such issues that you raise. In a quick sentence: I think the ideal form of seminary education probably is fulltime and campus-based, but that’s not to say there’s not other ways to educate very well. Many of her students would love to have your traditional experience, but their life situation just doesn’t allow it.

    To muddy the waters, another huge issue with seminary education and the MDiv is that it takes 3 years to earn one. That’s a long time for a masters–and in many denominations it’s 4 years due to a yearlong internship. So a partime program can take 6+ years, which in our fast-paced must-have-now world is so difficult to contemplate.


  6. I had an incredible seminary experience. It was easily the best and most formative years of my life. If people can do it, that’s great! But I think it’s past time to see this as the norm or even the best option, and here several reasons:

    1) What’s the Biblical model for this? Where does Jesus tell someone to hole up in a seminary bubble for a few years and then they’ll be ready for ministry?

    2) How many people called by God do we lose because we are focusing on the “normal” student coming the “normal” way?

    3) I think it could be very helpful to be in “the real world” and taking seminary classes. Seminary can be very insular and theoretical, especially if a person is geographically and residentially centered around the institution.

  7. Underneath this question is a deeper question (IMHO): what is call? What is call to ministry? What is call to ministry of the Word and Sacrament?

    Is this something that only happens to twenty-somethings or is God doing a new thing by calling all these non-traditional people? Rather than wringing our hands over the lack of nice young pastors should we be reconsidering how we do church? God does appear to be in the habit of selecting and sending out the unexpected messenger. Moses was a mid-life call. He was out tending sheep or goats or something when he encountered the talking/burning bush…. Paul was another mid-life call and certainly not someone that the council in Jerusalem was expecting to enter into ministry nor did they ever actually figured out what to do with him. He found his own way through their human understanding that limited who could be a Christian let alone who could be a disciple…

    So please be open to us mid-life M.Div.s We’re actually nearly as bewildered about this situation as any of the rest of the church. There we were, for the most part, having a perfectly decent life and then this irresistible force comes over us and we leave everything – or try hard to balance it all. We try to fit our lives into a system that was designed in the ’50’s where students were single and easily portable (leave the campus during the summer, go out and do internships anywhere, and so on)

    What is call? What is spiritual formation? I took a very powerful class in Process Theology through what I call a community college* model of seminary before I left for seminary. There was community in that classroom – as rich as any I experienced on the campus of SFTS. Sure it was taking some of the students a very long time to complete their two year’s worth of classes before completing their degree on campus but they were trying to be faithful to their families as well as God.

    What is call? Why does God call in Mid-life? Or are we all just making this up?

    I wish I knew. A friend once described his encounters with mid-life M.Div.’s as seeing people who are driven, hounded onto campus. Like the people in the movie, Encounters of the Third Kind. There are no alternatives to being in the process toward ordination.

    But now that I’m out – now what? How do I deal with a PIF that has no space for the part of my life that wasn’t direct ministry? How do I deal with search committees who do not read past the line: # of years in ministry?

    In last Sunday’s lectionary, Sarah, already old, sits behind a tent wall and laughs out loud (bitterly I think) when the promise of her future is proclaimed again by the Stranger/God.

    God’s answer? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?


    (*Northwest House of Theological Studies – in partnership with Claremont Seminary at the time)

  8. I did seminary in seven years, most of it juggling work and child-rearing responsibilities. It was, on the one hand, fascinating, enriching, and I came out on the far side debt free. On the other, it was socially isolating. With everything on my plate, I couldn’t develop sustained relationships with any particular cohort at seminary. You’d get to know someone…and then the semester would pass, and the schedule would shift, and you wouldn’t see them for a year. Ah well. So it goes.

    Honestly, it’s what I anticipated. Of *course* being a part-timer doesn’t have the same social dynamics as being full-time and on-site. If you want to go full time and experience the benefits of seminary community, quit your job and do it. Can’t do that? Well, then make do. Be at peace with the reality of what must be done to respond to God’s call.

    Expecting things to always be optimally suited to your needs and desires is a recipe for unhappiness. The pastoral life is no exception to that rule.

  9. Anitra,

    I never assume that God’s call is for 35 years of one’s life. It changes during a person’s life. One could be called into ministry at an early age and into something else later on as well.

  10. I think it’s time for most of the major denominations to just face up to the fact that we have too many seminaries. We can’t support any of them well enough because there are too many of them–with too few students in them to cover the bills. They were built back in a day when student loans weren’t an option–when churches and denominations supported a few good men (yes, I mean men) to go and spend 3 years learning and living together. Well, that money has dried up, and now each seminary is hiring a lot of people to raise the money to keep the seminaries (and their aging buildings) afloat. For the PCUSA, we really need to close 2 or 3–and focus our resources to really, truly fund the remainders—making it possible for students to graduate without inordinate debt. For me, it isn’t the question of making the seminary match the students’ lives–it’s a matter of making seminary affordable—and we really can’t do that right now.

    I realize I’m saying this as a Yale graduate–one who chose to go outside the Presbyterian system, and that might make my words a little hollow (and yes,we have plenty of students), but I still feel a responsibility to the denominational seminaries as the primary form of theological education, and my heart sinks when I look at them. Maybe it’s because I’m an outsider that I can look and see that we’re spinning wheels here–and not just us–most of the denominations are.

    I believe in residential theological education. I believe in it because I think pastors live in communities and find themselves re-living community dramas that they first experienced in seminary. I think we learn best when we are in community–when we eat and worship and learn with people that are, well, weird and irritating and theologically different from us.

    I realize that many people don’t have the option of full time residential education—but I would argue that we think carefully about other options—not the patchwork a course here, a course there method. A lot of creative writing programs are run by a month of on campus intensives (taking 3 classes at a time) followed by 6 months to get your work turned in. From what I hear, this technique has built writers communities—all living, eating, and learning together. Throw in some worship and it might work for seminaries.

  11. now this is an interesting one…having just graduated a few weeks ago from yale divinity school, I suppose I can put in some “hot off the press” comments forward here.

    I think, there is first of all a substantial difference to be made between seminary and divinity school. that might hurt those who would want the two to be the same, but that remains a distinction to be made, implicitly at most times, explicitly far less often (and usually as an excuse in the form of: “we can’t do that, you have to go to (fill in the blank with the opposite of where you are) for that”).

    I am tempted to ask the fundamental question “what is community?”, but this is coming from a perspective where a divinity school is kind of part of a huge university, yet kind of separate, where there is an episcopal divnity school part of the divinity school, yet kind of separate, where a community is kind of a community as a whole, yet actually made up of a lot of different groups…you get the idea. There were a number of “community conversations” going on during my time at divinity school, and, big, big disagreements evolved around a) different understandings of the term community and b) whether a divinity school should actually “be” a community (again, we are back to the question of: “isn’t that what seminaries are for?”)?

    Regarding the question of second career students / commuting students – I would slightly reframe the question by asking for the other extreme (and I am maybe playing the devil’s advocate here a bit): is somebody who just got out of college, went straight to seminary and graduates with his / her MDiv at the age of 23 really “ready” to be pastor of a church? I am not implying that this automatically “not” the case, but it certainly means that one important feature is missing in this group: life experience. I think one of the criticisms of the book “unChristian” fits quite nicely here, naming the adjective “sheltered” as one of the common perceptions of Christians.

    what is, then, “community”? I suppose everyone can be part of a community. Yale here had (and has) a good number of commuting students, and whether they form part of the “school community is entirely up to them – whether they spend the extra hour to stay for a community dinner. and if they do not, well, then they do have very often a different community to be part of – very often that is a family, and that comes with its very own challenges from which you can learn. As for me, I can honestly say that I have learned just as much inside the classroom as outside of it, inside the immediate community as well as “outside” of it – it is up to the individual Christian to which extend he or she allows himself or herself to be challenged within a particular context. Simultaneously, though, and this is something that can very easily be forgotten, particularly but not exclusively within a denominational seminary context, the community itself on the big scale is a community of brothers and sisters in Christ, a body of believers where everyone is playing his or her particular role. That even goes as far as “distance learning” students (and I worked on a project that showed some very good examples of how even that can be done…). Community, is a part, then, not only of theological education, but, of the Christian life. The question, however, is: are you willing to take up the challenges of your communities that you are a part of?

  12. Sven,

    I hope things are going well with you, post-graduation!

    You said:

    Is somebody who just got out of college, went straight to seminary and graduates with his / her MDiv at the age of 23 really “ready” to be pastor of a church? I am not implying that this automatically “not” the case, but it certainly means that one important feature is missing in this group: life experience. I think one of the criticisms of the book “unChristian” fits quite nicely here, naming the adjective “sheltered” as one of the common perceptions of Christians.

    I certainly wasn’t ready. But I don’t think many people are…at whatever age. And as Martin Marty says, “the maturation in office” is extremely valuable.

    I guess it depends on what kind of ministry that you have, but being a pastor has certainly not kept me sheltered!

    I have seen some of the greatest poverty in the world as well as the greatest wealth. I have sat alongside some of the most powerful families in the world. I’ve had tea with a first-lady, a wife of an African president. I’ve eaten breakfast with our president (in a very big room… with lots of other people…). One week, I teach classes to the homeless, the next week, I’m preaching to professors from Harvard or Brown.

    Not to mention all of the varied aspects of one’s family life that I’m intimately involved in: birth, marriage, death, and everything in between. I know about the affairs, the addictions, the bankruptcies, and the diagnoses.

    There are the interfaith connections I’ve made, and the writing opportunities… and it’s all been as a small-time pastor of small churches. Somehow, I’ve had inroads into all of these areas of the globe, in politics, in academics, in publishing, into personal lives. I’m beginning to sound obnoxious, but talk to many pastors, and they’ll tell you the same thing. The job opens up the world. It’s very humbling.

    I’ve had a lot of jobs. I’ve sat in cubicles, stood behind cash registers, and pushed brooms. I’ve been a business manager. But being in the ministry is by far the least sheltered job that I’ve had.

    All my best to you in the months ahead!

  13. This has been a very interesting discussion for me, from my point of view as one of those non-traditional part-timers. If I did not have the option to attend a seminary of another denomination, part-time, as a commuter, then I would never have been able to go. Even the model that someone here mentioned of going for one month intensively would not have worked for me (and for many of my fellow students) because we have young children. I’m the stay-at-home parent and that’s not easily replaced for an entire month.

    At my seminary we do have two fairly distinct communities — the full-time people who live in the dorm and are usually young, and the part-time people who live off-campus (and are usually second-career but not always) and have lives outside of seminary. We all eat together, and worship together, and have classes together. But we don’t always have a lot in common.

    Personally I would not want to be a full-time dorm student. I feel like I’ve done my time living in a dorm when I was an undergrad and would not want to repeat it. I see the advantages of the intentional community, but on the other hand it can be very isolating. For those of us with lives outside the seminary we are learning to juggle family and jobs and PTA and grocery shopping and school field trips and spouses work events — all that along with learning to be a pastor. Seems to me that this is a good thing to learn BEFORE I go out and be a pastor — when I’ll have to juggle family and PTA and grocery shopping and school field trips and my spouse’s work events, along with the church I serve.

    As for the time it takes. Well — back when I started I remember thinking “five years?! that’s a long time!” — and now that I’ll be heading into my fifth year I’m thinking “five years? how did it pass so quickly?” lol…

  14. I am a part-time seminary student, with widely varying credit loads from quarter to quarter.

    Would I rather go full-time? Yes. But then, my ideal life after seminary would look something like full-time study, so I don’t put a whole lot of stock in ideals.

    Would I rather have more community with my fellow students? Honestly, no. I did that with my first master’s (library science), and what I found is that everybody dispersed after graduation, and while a few friends might stay in one’s life, the community is gone. And what kind of community is that, especially in the Christian context? My faith community is my church. Actually, I am a member of one congregation–and also a full participant in another, a new church plant whose founding group has a large number of my current and former classmates. So I guess I am forming community with (some of) my classmates, just not so much within the academic program.

  15. You bring up a great point, Mark. What happens after seminary? It’s not like a monastery where the commitment is life-long. Or a church where the body will be worshiping after your gone. The community is dispersed.

    But, the people I always call when I’m up a creek in my congregation are almost always former seminary classmates. They have always been the ones I rely on the most for counsel, guidance, and when I need a friends who understand the job.

    I say all this about community… but as I look at different doctoral programs, I would love to get a PhD, but the residential bit keeps holding me back. I have a great job, my husband has a great job, I can’t uproot my family…. and it’s probably because I have a good family, a great church, and a little bit of a neighborhood/parent community that the academic community is not as important.

  16. I attended seminary as a commuter, off and on for eight years.
    It was my only option given my family circumstances, although at one point I did consider moving to campus with my children. But keeping them near their dad and moving ME back and forth turned out to be the better situation for them. I sacrificed living in the community, and this meant I looked around at graduation and knew only a few people. But in the meantime, I had been active in my local church and Association, and frankly that was my experience of community. When it came time to plan my ordination, I wasn’t thinking of seminary classmates or professors, but of local pastors who had been mentors in the long process of my theological education.
    I share the concern raised above about the cost of the education. I had family resources to use (help from my dad in the beginning and then his estate toward the end), so I came out of seminary debt-free and was able to respond to a small church call. If there had been loans to repay, that would not have been feasible. And I know it’s not the answer to say ministry should be a job either for trust fund babies or lay pastors.
    But I also wonder about our capacity for insisting on more centralized, denominational seminaries with requirements for residency, etc, as we continue to move through an era in which older women, in particular, continue to discern a call which might not have seemed possible in their youth.
    On the other hand, and there is one, part of the problem may not be the loans an older student took out but our inability to think of anything else to do with people who feel a spiritual yearning other than packing them off to seminary.

  17. I’ve talked and blogged about this at length, but in my opinion, having just finished my coursework and internship for seminary, seminary education is pretty broken. We don’t have to look far past the 50% burnout rate to learn that we are not preparing people for pastoral calls.

    I think that seminary fails for a lot of reasons. It is based around an academic model but is preparing you for a job that is not in academia, but is rather based in skills and competencies. An MDiv has at least three times the requirement of almost any other master’s degree in any other field (89 credit hours minimum for me, 36 for my wife’s Masters Degree), and the field it is ‘preparing’ you for is going to be high hours and low pay.

    It is also a long-standing fact, for a decade or more now, that the average seminary student is a 40 year old woman in her second or third career. Very little about most seminary programs takes this into account in meaningful ways.

    I think the main barrier to changing seminary so that it actually serves the needs of seminarians successfully, the main barrier that I’ve encountered at least, is elitism. We should stop pretending that the academic model of education and preparation has much to do with what ministry actually is. Ministry is a job that, I think, would be much better served if it was treated like a technical school, with a focus on specific skill development and apprenticeship.

    The MDiv is a dabbler degree at best. You learn a tiny amount of a huge variety of things, not enough to be truly competent in any of them, just enough to feel like you’re inadequate when you’re not an expert exegete-biblical scholar-public speaker-psychological counselor-entertainer-teacher-administrator and so on.

    Instead of teaching seminarians to do ten things poorly, we should teach them to do one thing – the kind of ministry they are preparing for – well.

  18. I have my MDiv. I keep hearing about “the excessive number of MDiv credits” – part of it is that the MDiv is considered a terminal degree.

    I went full time and lived on campus for 3 semesters and off campus for 3 semesters. I much prefered living OFF campus. I moved cross country to attend theological school (so where that fits into the seminary/divinity school debate i’m not sure. . . ). I agree with whomever said we need to look at closing some of the smaller schools. They are too small to offer effective financial aid which increases student debt. I made the personal decision to get in and out of school. I couldn’t stand the fish bowl/rumor mill mentality of a tiny campus with big classes (caused by shrinking faculty) so I wound up with 12K in student loans for education and an additional 12K in loans for real health insurance (a picky habit of mine). technically, the health insurance i bought was “excessive” and a “choice” – i viewed it as “responsible”.

    because of how the federal financial aid system works, you are penalized for your last 2 years of income, so if you worked private sector and then went back to school, you can wind up with a ton of debt.

    theological education is in need of an overhaul. still, if i had to do it again, i would do it in 3 years. i think it does give the sense of urgency. my biggest pet peeve is the extension syndrome – i mean, sermons are delivered on sunday. congregations don’t give extensions.

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