By Most Rev. William Myers, SSM
Theological education has changed a great deal since 1807 when Andover Theological Seminary became the first graduate theology school. Seminaries are now plenteous and come in every theological variety from fundamentalist to interfaith. There are also numerous degrees, programs, and focuses both regionally accredited and unaccredited. In an age where Americans are constantly being encouraged to pursue higher levels of education, it is consistent with our national ideal to have such a wide range of opportunities for ministerial study. There is a steady stream of dissent, however, that is asking if a seminary education is necessary to ministry. Some Congregationalist churches have never required a graduate theological education. These were usually small communities within various religious traditions that could not afford a seminary graduate, could not accommodate a full-time pastor, or simply did not regard a seminary degree as a biblical injunction. That is rapidly changing. Mega churches, non-denominational groups, post-modern ecclesial gatherings, and other ministries are now headed by pastors often with an undergraduate degree and life experience. Denominations are also granting exceptions from the European Model. The United Church of Christ has endorsed “multiple paths of preparation” for ordination. The Presbyterian Church (USA), whose high educational standards caused a split to form the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, has had success with Commissioned Lay Pastors. Several other denominations have certificate programs, distance study courses, and other methods to ordain qualified candidates for the pastorate. Smaller church entities have also recognized separate paths. The Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan has engaged in a meaningful effort to form local church leaders. They recognize that almost all of their priests are non-stipendiary, and have replaced expensive theological training with local, hands-on methods of study. There have been calls within other Episcopal communities to establish schools of ministry at the diocesan cathedral, where the canon theologian and small groups can equip Christian leaders. These changes require clergy and ministry professionals to ask themselves if a seminary degree is or should be required for ordination. This is a controversial topic. On one hand religious leaders and parishioners do not want to put untrained, uneducated persons to have a charge over souls. Conversely, many are finding themselves unable to staff small and ethnic churches or are facing persons with a calling who want to express themselves in a pastoral capacity. With modern technology there seem to be many answers for clergy who cannot pursue seminary yet still need a mature theological education.
Theological education has come a long way in a very short period of time. With the advent of print on demand, new publishing companies and techniques, and the Internet those seeking a theological education have a huge number of resources available. Where historically some have only had access to the Bible and a Strong’s Concordance, there are now numerous Bible commentaries, exegetical works, theological resources, and even biblical language guides. This is particularly effective for small groups, who can use the same texts being used in seminary and receive a level of sharing and fellowship that they would not receive from distance or individual study. The argument is often given that theological education is essential because of the clerical community that is developed and nurtured. This can easily be replicated in a cathedral chapter or small community that meets to discuss theological truths and life challenges. This issue is moot, as well, as many clergy learn from Internet coursework. I agree, however, that this is an important part of the clerical education experience and should be continued. Theological understanding can change but sharing spiritual and personal experiences sets the ground for good pastoring. This is not to denigrate theology as less of a sacred science. The argument is often made that it should be no different from medicine and law. It is a fact, however, that several states allow qualified, intelligent candidates to sit for the Bar exam through law office study or graduation from unaccredited law schools. There are provisions for dedicated applicants who do not have the ability or finances to attend a traditional graduate program. There should be a similar approach for qualified clergy. There is also the question of Christian education in the church. Many pastors do not teach Sunday school themselves. When they do, however, they have a list of resources and guides. Denominations and private publishers now publish a plethora of standard Sunday school resources with biblical references, projects, and reflection topics that provide a meaningful experience for congregants.
Besides theological works, there are numerous sermon helpers and guides to assist a pastor develop an outline for their own sermon. Some include a full sermon, pointers, an outline, and biblical cross-references to allow the pastor to personalize their message while staying theologically pertinent and biblically grounded. There are certainly pastors who utilize these resources verbatim for their own sermons, although these are generally a minority. Pastors are increasingly using a more personalized approach to sermons. These include personal stories or events, important issues in their community, and non-biblical resources to enhance their message. These are things that are not taught in seminary but developed with life experience. It is good practice to make subjects pertinent and personal to listeners as these are often the most effective sermons. Counseling is an area where a master of divinity or equivalent can be very practical. Counseling a parishioner can be a very difficult, emotional experience. This is especially true if it is an issue or situation that affects t he church body. The necessity of a counseling ministry and requirements depend on the pastor, however. Some seminary graduates do not feel comfortable going beyond initial problem solving, and often recommend their parishioner to an educated church member or psychoanalyst in the community. Some pastors feel qualified to counsel and draw on their educational and life experience to offer emotional support to a parishioner or couple. Sometimes these clergy do not have a graduate theological degree but are secularly trained in counseling or helping professions. Many clergy choose to supplement their reading with counseling-focused research on marital problems, death, social situations, etc. Much also depends on the psyche of the parishioner. If they do not feel comfortable expressing their personal difficulties with a pastor then they won’t. Sometimes they do feel able to and a pastor can be a unique resource for troubleshooting. This can be anything from individualized solutions to recommendation to community support groups for assistance.
Finally, many seminary graduates have expressed their dismay at not learning practical information regarding a church. This can be financial information, facilities maintenance, and a whole host of other problems. This is where practical experience or lay assistance can be the best resource. Perhaps the pastor has a background in business or finance. Or maybe there is a parishioner who is a CPA and is willing to donate some time to make sure everything is running smoothly. This often depends on the board of the church and the personal involvement of the pastor. Focusing on these areas is not attempted to be an oversimplification of clerical training and experience. It is merely a generalized focus on some common areas of emphasis by clergy. It highlights the increased level of resources available to pastors and the recognition that there are options available for persons who seek to work in formal ministry but do not have a theological education. An important disclaimer is that these are, of course, often individual specific. Pastoring a faith community requires a level of critical thinking that is difficult for some people. There are plenty of clergy, seminary trained and not, who do not have critical thinking ability and are only able to regurgitate biblical references. Clergy must have the ability to utilize resources and especially to acknowledge their limits. Recognizing theological or experiential limits does not make one a non-professional, but makes them a truly good leader. Numerous management books tell us that the best method for leaders is the delegation of authority. This can be practically done if the gifts of associates and laity are truly recognized. As faith communities and denominations recognize the gifts of their lay and called members, there should be a greater recognition of their calling and an offering of ordination even without seminary. As previously stated, many competency areas can be covered by resources available to the average person. The key is that the individual develop their own method of critical thinking and utilize it for the common good of their community. The essence of ministry is love of God and love of neighbor. This, in itself, cannot be taught. Thinking theologically, solving the needs of a faith community, and compassionate leadership can be developed if a core is there.