I have often said to friends and in classes that I am thankful for my time in public policy before entering seminary. It has helped me to gain a deeper appreciation for consensus building in the church, and for articulating a clear message to get your point across.
Even more, working in higher education public policy has given me a perspective of what takes place at a normal seminary institution. From that point, I recognize there are things that needs to be addressed – and, I’m not speaking of the normal student complaints of more food options in the cafeteria, or more time for assignments. There are serious issues in how we train the next generation of leaders in the church, and simple solutions are not going to fix the problems. Here are five issues that, I believe, should be addressed by institutions seeking to train and equip the leaders of the church.
1. Tuition costs place a burden on students and their ministries: One of the more difficult truths of seminary education is the high cost of tuition at many institutions. We forget, at times, that these are private institutions, and because of that tuition is going to be higher than your average four-year college. That being said, tuition can be reduced by cutting costs and streamlining programs that are not working. It is easier to raise tuition and place the cost of a new professor or, even, updates to the school upon a student, but the real challenge is for institutions to be willing to make cuts and offer the lowest possible rate. As it is now, the high cost of seminary I believe will place a burden on churches – pastors struggling to make loan payments may need to find a second revenue stream – and may prevent second-career individuals who feel a call from leaving their jobs to enter seminary.
2. Students do not have “Real World” life experiences: As the country’s economic situation continues to falter, younger students will continue to stay in school and pursue graduate degrees that, in better economic times, might have been pushed off for a year or two. The result is that seminaries are filled with younger students. This has a positive in that we are building a desperately needed younger crop of leaders for the church. But, it also has the negative in that these new leaders do not have life experiences outside of college to fall back upon. The danger, here, is that a new leader coming out of seminary may not be able to relate to the farmer who has to close the farm, the single mother who struggles to make ends meet, or the husband who works two jobs to put food on the table. Younger leaders who go straight from college to graduate school do not have the experiences of finding a steady job, being out in the world on their own, or, for that matter, an understanding of how to interact with the world. A mandatory one-or two-year break between college and seminary will help in providing those life experiences. Those who fill a call would be wise, in that time, to seek a job that is outside the church that will help them to experience what the world is like from outside the “church bubble.” God’s calling will still be there after the two years.
(A personal experience, I was given some great advice to wait a year before entering seminary. Even as a second-career student, that one year helped me to grow in my faith, experience the world differently, and prepare for the four-year wilderness experience.)
3. Reduce the amount of hours for the Masters of Divinity: Currently, at least at my seminary, a Masters of Divinity degree requires 96 hours. To put this into perspective, my undergraduate degree required something around 128. We are requiring students to get a second bachelors by filling the required course listings with classes that, at times, repeat themselves, or, even worse, have no educational value at all. An intense review is needed of the course offerings and what is required for graduation. This will require the work of seminaries, accreditation agencies, and denominational leaders to come up with a solution that is practical and properly trains our future leaders.
4. Courses should be added to the required listing: While it may seem contradictory to in one point suggest to reduce the amount of hours and then, in the next, to suggest a reduction, I am arguing here for courses that will better help train pastors to be stronger leaders in the church. Specifically, I believe schools should require a finance/accounting course and/or an economics course. We will be responsible not just for the souls of our congregations, but also the financial stewardship of the church. It would be wise for students to learn basic accounting and economic principles that will help guide them in their leadership in financial matters. Right now, a financial course for church leaders is an elective, at my seminary, and was offered at a time that may be difficult for some to take.
5. Redesign Mentored Ministry: This one is specific to my institution, but can be applied generally as well. First, the concept of mentored ministry is great. Students are required to get practical leadership, both inside and outside the church, before graduating. This is needed. We do not want leaders coming into churches without having experienced what it means to plan and shape the life of the church. That being said, the problem with mentored ministry is that there is only so many opportunities to go around for students. The danger becomes if students use churches to get this requirement checked off, and then lose connection to that church or organization. I don’t think mentored ministry should be done away with, but I think we should encourage students to take an active role in their churches, outside of the mentored ministry program. Instead of taking on a role for a semester, we should encourage students to be active at all times. This may be difficult to build in to the program, but it needs to be encouraged more from school leadership.