The ROI (Return on Investment) of Seminary Education Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story

By Josh Linton

Because of the nature of my work, people often ask me, “How’s the job going, Josh?” And I usually respond with something like, “Well, it’s tough. In fact, it might be one of the hardest jobs I’ve had, but I really enjoy how challenging it is.”

I’m the Director of Recruitment at Phillips Theological Seminary.[^1] And it is difficult. I’m responsible for “getting” people to invest thousands of dollars, give countless hours to rigorous study, and alter their lives in significant ways in order to accrue enough graduate credit hours to earn a Master’s degree in Divinity. That’s not an easy sell.  Let’s be real. Not many people with MDiv after their name make tons of money. It’s a long and expensive degree that doesn’t often translate into a lucrative career. 

[^1]: Phillips Theological Seminary did not ask me to write this response and it is not an official statement from the institution. These are my thoughts and reflections.

So my job would make little sense and scale the heights of absurdity if this really captured all that’s at stake in the world of theological education, religion, and its relationship to society. I’d be a fool if my career was reduced to narrowly assessing seminary education as it relates to the financial pay-off.   In a gloomy reflection on seminary education, Jeff Gill suggests that seminaries, for the most part, are “virtual shadow[s]” of their former selves because professional, full-time paying church positions are in decline leaving seminaries floundering with a vanishing reason to exist—to train the people who will fill those spots. And he goes on to ask, “If there’s no jobs to get to, why would you encourage people to incur crushing debt to qualify themselves for them?” To be fair, Jeff admits to that being an exaggeration. He also indicates that some of the issue regarding this type of “no win” situation for seminary students seeking ordination has to do with “resistance to commissioned ministry” and denominational politics. Still, he doesn’t nuance the conversation any further and reduces the discussion of seminary value to a framework exclusively dependent on ROI (Return on Investment) language.  

I don’t think this tells the whole story. Certainly, Jeff raises some important conversations and challenges seminaries to think through emerging issues; however, there is an assumption that many seminaries have yet to wake up to these questions. That’s just not the case. Sure, there is little doubt that the dust around seminaries is being kicked-up and that the flurry of activity in some institutions indicates something is going on. But instead of interpreting this activity as desperate attempts of seminaries to hold on to what they were, could it not be understood as the creative, energetic, and imaginative processes of seminaries trying to reinvent themselves to address the changes erupting around them? Wouldn’t that be a fairer and more hopeful observation?  

Yes, there are fewer jobs to go to, but at Phillips we believe there are countless yet-to-be “jobs,” ministries, non-profits, and freshly imagined faith communities needing created. Are seminaries not allowed to reimagine themselves as resources for this important work? For me, this gets to the problem of the ROI language. Our mission statement at Phillips isn’t, “We exist to train, certify, and place ministers in well-paid, established church jobs when they graduate.” Law degrees can’t claim the same ROI they once did either, does this mean law schools are to be left in the dust as the world changes and embraces law practice differently? Many of the seminary students I talk with have no illusions of finding a steady full-time church job once they graduate. Many of them come in with eyes wide open because we tell them what’s going on, we inform them of the changing religious landscape, and we make no promises of job placement. And most already know this stuff anyway. At Phillips, we’re very aware of the potential problems in amassing crushing debt, and we fairly and forthrightly approach the topic with incoming students. Yet, prospective students continue to show up and accepted students still enroll—a large portion of them wanting to learn and explore how they can lead faith communities and justice efforts into the unknown. As cliché and naive as it might sound, it rings true for many seminary students that it’s not all about the money and security. 

In large part, I agree with Jeff. Seminary will look much different in coming years. I am bothered, though, when assessing seminary value is reduced to a financial ROI conversation. Yes, that is an important conversation, but it’s not the only one. The work of justice, the work of cultivating leaders who care about working for a world that is fair to everyone, the work at the intersection of religion and society, and the work that seeks to engage what God is doing in the world can’t wait around for a pay raise. Such work is too important. Such work changes the world. And at its best, seminary is a place where such work can emerge and launch into a creative contribution to the public good. And for some discerning whether or not seminary is right for them, that’s enough.

Josh Linton, Director of Recruitment at Phillips Theological Seminary.  You can find him on Twitter at: @jalinton.