Our society is bloated with unrealistic, unattainable images and standards—whether it’s the voluptuous swimsuit model, the ripped, athletic male, or the ever-stylish and trendy young adult (preferably a male 18-29). Despite the fact that these people don’t really exist (the swimsuit babe is an airbrushed digital creation and the buff guy spends hours upon hours in the gym working out, taking endless supplements, and not eating for days before modeling) our culture still believes these people actually do exist—and further—are the standard we should shape our society around. Movies, TV, style magazines and even clothing all revolve around these ideal people, these mythical human beings that only exist on the digital screens of a computer. There are yet more mythical standards—even within the Christian community, consider for example the white, affluent, young, heterosexual, male, ministerial student. Ah, let us examine the ways…
Young: Being that the most sought after demographic in churches today are young adults. Every church dreams of landing a fresh, energetic, young minister—youth is an ideal character trait. Twenty-somethings don’t have all the entanglements such as family or houses or debt that can weigh down someone twice their age. And when one considers the marathon-like effort one must put out to complete seminary, only the younger generation seem to posses the stamina it requires.
White: I don’t exactly have to worry about overzealous neighborhood watchmen chasing me down, thinking I’m up to no good. Nor am I looked at with suspicion (like one from a middle eastern descent), or with condescension (like one from south of the border)—the opposite is true. My skin color is the majority and the norm—especially in mainline religious bodies! Mainline Christianity is predominantly a white middle-class religion. Those of other ethnicities often have their work cut out for them.
Affluent: Education is crazy, ridiculously expensive to begin with. Then if we factor in that trying to go to school full-time is nearly impossible while maintaining a job, the task is even more arduous. Yet, if that weren't enough, Divinity schools aren't exactly popping up in everyone’s back yards. Nope, the opposite is true; seminaries are long and far apart. So attending one requires a significant financial commitment—moving cross country isn’t cheap. Basically, if you want to get a degree, you better have a truck-load of cash or be willing to go deeply into debt for the rest of your life.
Single: Partners/Spouses and families are great—unless one is training for ministry. Moving across country doesn’t work is well when you have kids. Studying all night doesn’t lend itself to maintaining a good relationships with a loved one. And it’s really hard these days to sustain a family on only one income. Single is the ideal.
Heterosexual: Do I really even explain this? Somehow it should seem obvious that since a huge portion of America believes homosexuality is immoral and that many Christian denominations refuse to even ordain gays, those with a sexual orientation differing from the “ideal” have quite an uphill slog.
Male: Yes, good ole’ patriarchalism, ministry is a man’s job—always has been and always will be. A man is independent, less vulnerable, more likely to be gain respect. Society is still incredibly structured to favor men, especially when leading our institutions—a woman just won’t do.
If you think these are completely ridiculous standards for ministry, then you’re getting my drift. But the educational system for ministry is set up exactly for this ideal candidate—the candidate that doesn’t exist, the candidate that is only a myth. There was a time when this was the standard for divinity students, but that was 50 years ago! Now in divinity school women outnumber men, and the young adults are a minority in comparison to the second career folks.
I’m actually doing pretty well myself. I’m still fairly young. I’m white. I’m heterosexual. And I’m a male. But on the other hand, I also have a family and I’m not exactly rolling in cash—far from it actually. I think this whole process is challenging. Yet I can’t imagine the struggle it is for someone who has 3,4,5, or even 6 of these “ideal” traits working against them!
This is real life. This is the way it is—the Young, White, Single, Heterosexual, Male ministerial candidate no longer exists, and probably never will again. Yet our religious seminaries and institutions continue to operate on this old, outdated, dying (dead?) model. It’s the 21st century! Get with it, seriously. Our churches are closing up shop. Our congregations are drying up. And our pulpits are sitting empty. Yet despite all these problems our institutions continue to make ministerial education seemingly impossible for the non-young, white, affluent, single, heterosexual males.
And we wonder why our religious institutions are dying off…