Can We Afford Educated Clergy?

Tony SigThis is the question that Pastor Carol Howard Merritt (PC(USA)) asks in one of her recent posts (you can see it here, and a follow up here) As a side note, if I were in the PC(USA) and I was in a Presbytery or a place of influence, I would listen to (almost) everything she says.  There are few in PC(USA) that has the pastoral sensitivity to critique both of the extreme sides of her denomination and to critically engage the “Presbymergents” (probably the largest wing of the “hyphen”-mergents) without simply buying into some of the more impatient youthfulness inherent in “Emergent” movements.

Anyway.  Pastor Carol says point blank that they*  cannot. *(I’m going to speak of “they” here because she knows the PC(USA) intimately, and it is difficult to speak honestly of the whole “Mainline” since there is more diversity than we think to make broad strokes, and I do not know even the educational problems in TEC and others)  She says:

“The cost of undergraduate and seminary education has gone up too high, and our churches have gotten too small”

She goes on to say that there are pastors on food stamps, so how could we consider making pastors go to seminary and pay $30,000+ for an education?  She asks the denomination to question honestly about the current trajectories in money and congregational size.

First I want to applaud her for speaking with such honesty.  It has been said that the Mainline is still suffering from a power hangover (and Evangelicals are suffering from a power buzz-but that is changing as well).  Some of us do not want to admit that we do not have the afluence to keep some schools open.  I do not know the issues intimately in TEC, but I do know that we are selling buildings at some established schools and that Seabury/Western is no longer taking students.

(As another side note, this cannot be said to be a problem only of the Mainline which if often naively thought to suffer from God’s wrath on their being too “liberal.”  Readers know that I believe classical liberal Protestantism is a dead end, but its influence is continuing to wain because 1) our younger crowd is not as dogmatically liberal as our forbearers and 2) Liberals are no longer on the cutting edge of theology and biblical studies as their worldview is still tied into the supposed assurity of a “modernist” epistomology.  But without the work of “liberals,” we would not have the work of Wright, Dunn, Brueggemann et. al. So let’s all cut the liberals a break.)

So on one front I absolutely agree with her.  According to the current modes-of-operation in the education of the Mainline, it seems that we truly cannot afford to continue to send clergy to their indebted death.

BUT . . .

Having come from a fellowship which historically (I know that this is not universally the case – I did study with the NCU uber-trio of scholars after all) scorns education and revels in anti-intellectualism I know first hand that when clergy are not educated, we can slip into strange heresies and errors (not as if education solves this problem, we have our own to be sure).  Now more than ever we need people in the church (not necessarily clergy, but why not? and how otherwise?) who are able to dig into our collective history for wisdom and clarity.  We NEED clergy who know the basics of Church History, the development of doctrine, the foundations of biblical criticism, theology that takes from Gregory of Nyssa and (gulp) Calvin more so that Jung and anthropologists.  We need to know what we believe and why.  And we cannot expect lay people to know all these things (though we should educate).

And where will our clergy be spiritually formed?

So, this for me is a starting point to begin to speak of some of my proposals for new models of education and formation which could aid in solving some of the problems developiong in the systems as we have them.  My fellow Theophiliacs can tell you that I think about what a seminary can and should look like ALL THE TIME.  So I want to pitch some ideas around, ideas that I don’t suppose are well developed, but ones that I hope will contribute to an ongoing conversation on the way that we can shepherd the Body.


  1. Surely denominations which have educated clergy or require M.Div.s from all ordinands never slip into the “strange heresies” which you malign in your native Pentecostalism.

    Surely institutions which borrow their evaluative criteria from secular universities are still built to form their students spiritually; as a corollary, students at these institutions never focus more on the objective, measurable standard (“getting a grade”) than on their own spiritual formation. Do they?

    William H. Willimon’s essay “Between Two Worlds” in From Midterms to Ministry: Practical Theologians on Pastoral Beginnings (edited by Allan H. Cole, Jr. and published by Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008) ought to be required reading on this topic.


  2. Dave, I did note that education does not solve this problem. I suppose it was a bit too ad hominem, but I was meant rather neutrally. I have edited it to be more even handed

    I will look into the book though, thanks.


  3. Sure. It’s an excellent book.

    I agree with your main point, in that congregations and clergy need to be educated, but that the traditional models of seminary are not really adequate (or, if they are, they may not continue to be adequate for the long-term).

    I think there’s a couple of serious problems with seminary education, and even with the “rethinking” of seminary education which need to be addressed.

    First, seminary education should not be viewed in the same way that one views a professional or technical school education – it should not teach one “how to do ministry” in the same way a technical school teaches one “how to fix a car.” So, the complaint of some seminary students and/or alumni that seminary “wasn’t practical enough” is probably one which ought be dispensed with – In my view, seminary at its best gives students a good grasp of the classical disciplines and teaches them HOW to make connections from those disciplines to praxis, rather than teaching them WHAT those connections ought to be.

    However, second, and paradoxically, I think a significant problem with seminary education is that it, at its worst, does not help students with the “how to make connections” issue. It often pursues questions which are frankly of little interest or value to the Church or God’s Kingdom. I think biblical scholars are particularly at fault here. In the essay I mentioned above, Bishop Willimon cites Marcus Borg as saying that pastors should not hide the results of historical-critical scholarship from their congregation, and that one ought to proclaim the “new insights” we have learned about Jesus from historical-critical scholarship. Willimon writes that this naively assumes that the questions that historical critical biblical scholars ask of the text are the same ones which are asked by Christians who read the text as Scripture. In Willimon’s view, the “limited thought” which reigns in the academy means that scholars ask the wrong questions of the text.

    All of this is to say that seminarians ought to be prepared for the fact that Western, enlightenment-based epistemologies still reign in seminaries and divinity schools, and these epistemologies aren’t necessarily interested in questions which matter in ministerial settings.


  4. This is a really thought-provoking post, Tony, as well as a thought-provoking set of replies, Dave! I’m interested in seeing where you (Tony) take this series. And BTW, the guy in the first row second from the right kinda looks like my dad when he was in college. Same glasses.


  5. Anthony,

    I’m sorry that I’m just now responding to this. I read it when you first posted it, but I didn’t have the chance to comment adequately.

    First, thank you so much for your kind words.

    Also, I agree about the necessity of education wholeheartedly. I think almost everyone in our denomination would say that we need it. It’s just not what we are doing in practice. As a larger church (as in our society), we have not fully wrestled with the cost of education.

    Bruce Reyes-Chow and I are taking up this issue further on Monday on the radio show ( It should be interesting…

    I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series.


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