My take on “the cost of ministerial formation”

I’m glad minister and blogger Christine Robinson (iMinister) has stirred the financing-ministerial-education pot here and here and here.

Her thoughts include a reform of the Unitarian Universalist ministerial internship system, in which it is not uncommon for a family to be divided for a year. I’d add the bottleneck — there’s more demand than supply, and there’s little incentive for congregations to add internships — which keeps promising candidates for ministry outside of fellowship. She proposed an extended, alternative internship.

But let me take this one step further. Is a seminary education an essential qualification for ordained ministry? Or rather, is it a one formation opportunity among others?

I have met — perhaps you have, too — skilled professionals, epecially in the literary, design and technology world who are either self-trained or who developed their skills while working. And I’ve known persons of spiritual depth and skill but lacking a seminary education (or ordination, or both) who I would gladly have as a pastor.

I’ve seen people of differing ages hobbled by the debt they took to afford a seminary education, and have met others who came to the end of their M. Div. to discover they had no continuing calling for the ministry. But do have the bills.

And — this is the rub — there are gaps in the seminary experience you could drive a semi through.

But back to the Unitarian Universalist experience for a moment. Apart from small district-led programs and local custom, there’s little opportunity to develop as a something-other-than-an-ordained-and-fellowshiped-minister, like, say the Universalist lay preachers or Congregational commissioned ministers. So let me start there. I would welcome as a minister someone who learned the ropes of ministry on-the-job for three or four years part-time, in a medium-sized or large church, under a minister’s supervision, with evening and weekend training to round out. Call this person a “parish assistant” or what have you. This experience might even run concurrently with a college education, should that opportunity present itself.

Throughout, and certainly at the end, let a committee of local ministers interview the parish assistant, and if he or she is found qualified, let them issue a letter of license for a year.  Perhaps now’s the time to take on a sole pastorate. Review and renew, if worthy, the next year. And then a then again. And if at the end of three years — seven in all — the licensed minister has grown into a peer, let her or him be ordained.  (It’s not hard to imagine a parallel process for institutional ministries.)

There are a couple of problems of course. I’ve known a training college in Another Denomination that prepared and supported ministers like this. It was well-loved by lay persons, too. But people with seminary ties saw it as a rival and it has been bled into a shadow of its former self. Such a plan, too, would attract enemies. It also assumes a geographic density that Unitarian Universalists have in only a few areas, but in which I suspect most of the membership lives.

And then there’s inertia. It’s plain there are enough people who are willing to suffer the current system. Suffer, perhaps, but can they thrive within it. And perhaps less than thrive — can we survive with a generation or two of endebted ministers, buffetted by a largely opaque and unaccountable system?

7 Replies to “My take on “the cost of ministerial formation””

  1. This makes more sense to me than what’s going on now… But Scott, when would we do our homework? And still we end up in debt no? Can the salary of the parish assistant cover the cost of the weekend training? I’m working on figuring out how to make real the fantasy I have of becoming a minister. Costs are definitely on my mind. I am appalled at the situation that some seminarians end up in, when at the end of their studies they find they have loans to pay but still are not qualified to serve. The leap of faith to go to seminary now is huge. Who will ever pay the bill?

  2. Scott — I suggested that we should look at the multiple-level credentialing system that we use for our religious educator credentialing:

    Ministerial Formation – why do we have a “one size fits all” approach?

    The UUA’s “Religious Education Credentialing” program has three levels of religious educator credentialing with varying amounts of education, study, and on-the-job training. This multi-tier approach could be used for ministerial formation.

    What do you think?

  3. At the age of eighteen I was awarded one semester tuition scholarship at Tennessee Temple College in Chattanooga. There were probably two reasons I won the scholarship. I had graduated in the top ten percent of my class and had a strong letter of recommendation from the Bible Memory Association of Saint Louis. I had my heroes in ministry and became disenchanted with the college and Highland Park Baptist Church. At the age of nineteen I gave all my possessions to the Children of God. It was the price of admission to the organization that TIME MAGAZINE called the Storm Troopers of the Jesus Revolution.They handed me an ordination certificate. In the summer of my wife and I had two people living with us that we considered our Christian disciples. The next year I took a part time job as lay minister of a non-denominational church. I printed literature for a Shintoist organization in the late 1980s. Memorial Day 2004 I had a dream I co-founded a UU Church with my credentials listed as my life experiences. I do not have the required health to pursue parish ministry and I spent several years obtaining a bachelor’s degree and not particularly fond of higher education. Recently I have been posting on a blog on the subject of abortion.

    We all are involved in ministry as we nourish one another. Change will inevitably come to the Unitarian Universalist denomination simply because survival depends upon it.

  4. I woke up this morning rather down on the whole church concept in general. It happens from time to time when I wonder if there is a purpose to the (duly designated and licensed) parish ministry other than institutional maintenance. What if we bulldozed all our buildings and called our new churches “ministries” instead? Would we then be able to get back to the work of building communities rather than istitutions? Would we then be able to recognize the gifts of those who do not run through all the denomnational hoops? Would size matter less?

    I for one would love a congregation of 12 adults and perhaps 12 kids that met in the back of a brew pub on Sunday afternoons around brunch time. Of course, now in my tenth year of this profession, I have no idea how I would get paid…

    When I am not on my high horse, however, I like Steve’s RE credentialing model. Also Scott,
    I think your truck metaphor is apt when considering current seminary training. It helps certainly, but not as much as seminaries (and seminarians) think…

  5. Coming back to this a bit late, but I am also a fan of the DRE model. What bothers me, though, is the lack of equality and flexibility bestowed. The MFC rejected the three tracks of ministry because they found that most community-based ministers also served or could anticipate serving in parish settings. Likewise, I was DRE in a small part-time setting when I was hired for the LREDA-Large setting up here in Burlington, Vermont. Congregations grow, shrink and wiggle. Ministries need to do the same. No credentialling process can anticipate which relationships will respond to change in a healthy way — any more than an officiant can contemplate the strength of a potential marital couple by interviewing one of the intending spouses.

    THAT is why I insist on relationship and situations credentialling, rather than Platonic comparisons of an individual against an ideal type. Gradations in types would help, but not much.

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