No Jobs to Go to: Reflections on Seminary Education

By Jeff Gill

Seminary in general among Protestant clergy, and Christian Theological Seminary in particular for me, has been a place for residential formation in learning, reflection, and worship together, usually in tandem with field placement as a leavening agent, though increasingly field placement has been the necessary financial keystone of the process. Seminary students needed the job, and indirectly, the seminary needed those congregational dollars to flow through those students back to the balance sheet of the institution.

As field placement became more important alongside of student loans, the seminaries could shape less and less of the time and experience of students -- the priority was finding where a student placement could be made, and the student looking at what they were doing to themselves in terms of indebtedness, and anticipating how that would push them in certain directions on graduation. And even in the late 1980s, the number of students who were in my position, where I could choose to stay at Centenary Christian Church because of the quality of the learning experience, and not need to find a better paying position, and then could go to Newark Central Christian Church as a choice, not because it was the only option in front of me that would cover my loan payments, was very low.

Since then, the continued decline of student church positions has followed the declines in attendance and relative decline in ability to cover comparable pay & benefits. There are fewer, and pay has necessarily overwhelmed the issue of placement, Hobson's choice. Some regions have maintained a regular, every semester (or more!) process of formation with seminary students - yes, Indiana, I'm praising you! - but most have had annual (at best) meetings with most "formation" focused on the suite of final ordination requirements, which themselves tend to be academic in nature (papers, sermons), accenting what's already going on in classes, not taking up unaddressed areas of student life. Financial support from regions has almost entirely gone to nothing, even to helping them come to the CoM appointments.

So where we are is, in retrospect, no surprise, even though there's a great deal of shock and dismay that's been rattling through the "order of ministry" these last few years in the Disciples, as Lexington Theological Seminary has become a virtual shadow of itself (love what you're doing, but from 200 to 40 is more what I mean than even selling your campus), Phillips Theological Seminary ditto, CTS/Indy made their announcement this week, and my perception is that Brite Divinity School is pursuing creative options to maintain student counts somewhat better than its peers, but that still means that the number of M.Div. students enrolled and going through to graduation & ordination for service in the local church is shrinking there as well.

And why shouldn't it? The number of full time, benefits bearing positions is drastically lower today that it was in 1989 when I was ordained. Hard numbers continue to be difficult to obtain, but along with fewer congregations and fewer total worshipers, I know as a full time associate pastor in 1989 I had a peer group in Ohio, some 20-40 of us not all of whom had health insurance, and pay was a mixed bag with housing mixed in (always hard to find apples-apples comparisons), but we existed as a "class." Today, that number is . . . ? Most of the so-called full time associates are non-benefited, barely into five-digit pay positions. I don't want to get into numbers, but there are almost zero positions I think really are fairly paid as a "full time" post, even if the title is maintained.

If there's no jobs to go to, why would you encourage people to incur crushing debt to qualify themselves for them? No jobs is an exaggeration, but if there are 3 openings for every 10 M.Div.s looking, then for 7, "none" is the answer. Meanwhile, the resistance to commissioned ministry as a full partner in the wider church to ordained, seminary-trained clergy, and a certain amount of outright hostility to apprentice-track processes for ordination continues. The perception among those who went to seminary "back inna day" and are formally ordained is that those two expressions of ministry are taking jobs away from seminary graduates. At street level, I have to say I don't see that being true. Won't say it didn't ever happen anywhere, but in general, no. Full time jobs in ministry are being taken away by changes in the church, and only a flexible, adaptive response (including biovocationality as an option, even for M.Div. ordained pastors) is going to sustain the church.

Which means whatever seminaries, including my alma mater, are going to be in ten years, they will be different. Radically different. A brief mourning period will be allowed, and then the caravan has to keep moving. We are a pilgrim people, and there's no one earthly institution (or art collection, or degree program) that's necessary. Stuff has to be left by the road before the rough patches. Even the heirloom manger scene becomes excess baggage on some uphill pulls -- so set it aside, pick up the little baby Jesus from the box and put him in your pocket, and walk on.