In the last post, we thought about one set of objections to the current system of seminary education: why do priests need to learn all that stuff anyway? But there are other criticisms you hear as well, and they are of a more practical nature. They go something like this: it is unreasonable to expect people to uproot themselves to go to seminary; seminaries are too expensive and leave priests saddled with debt; no one goes to seminary anymore.
What we’ve learned in our work on the Berkeley Board of Trustees is that many of these views are, well, simply wrong. The seminary deans commissioned a study from the Church Pension Group to see how many priests currently active in the church went to seminary. The answer? Well over half. A significant percentage of the rest went to a non-Episcopal seminary. Locally (i.e. non-seminary) -trained clergy were a small minority. More significantly, of those priests who were in full-time parish ministry more than five years after graduation almost eighty percent went to an Episcopal seminary. Seminary-trained clergy are at the heart of the church’s presbyterate. The idea that “most priests don’t go to seminary any more” is a canard. (You’re going to have to trust me on this figures, as the presentation is not online.)
True, many seminaries have experienced periods of financial difficulty in recent years, leading to mergers and the possibility of closure. Such things have happened in the past, of course. Seabury-Western, one of the seminaries that merged, used to be two schools. (No prizes for guessing what the names of the two schools were.) Moreover, the idea that General Convention can somehow reduce the number of seminaries (as has been proposed) is silly. Virtually all Episcopal seminaries (unlike those of other denominations) have no formal link with the churchwide structure. We have a system in which seminaries will rise and fall on their own (financial) merits, as they have in the past. This has led to major changes in recent years but as Joe Britton, dean of Berkeley and convener of the Episcopal Council of Deans, said in an article in Episcopal Journal (which doesn’t post individual articles so I can’t link to it) a year ago, “Reports of the death of the seminaries are greatly exaggerated. We have good news from the Episcopal seminaries.”
One issue that recurs in conversations about seminary is that of debt. The line of thinking is that it doesn’t make sense to send priests off for formal professional training that costs so much they’ll be paying off loans for the rest of their career. This is a really important issue, particularly the less-talked about issue of older students who liquidate assets to finance their education and then don’t have money for retirement. To an extent, this conversation is based on a misconception that seminary is expensive. It is, but there’s often financial aid to help out. (Berkeley, for instance, off-sets on average 86% of the cost of tuition per student.)
More importantly, the seminarian debt “crisis” is a result of the Church’s abysmal failure to invest in its future clergy. Our sister denominations give lots of money to their seminarians (as I enviously learned at my ecumenical seminary). The Church of England pays tuition for their ordinands and gives them a living stipend. You only have to read information from the Society for the Increase of Ministry to know that the debt “crisis” could be solved with an increase in small donations from a small number of Episcopalians. Those who point the finger at a debt “crisis” should be asking themselves what role they may have had in creating it.
Between this post and the last post, the image of seminary critics I’m gathering is something like the anti-government wing of the Republican party: anti-intellectual, critical of institutions they claim no one uses (contrary to fact), and determined not to fund something and then claiming it’s too expensive when the expense was created by the lack of funding.
Although I’m convinced seminaries are important, I’m not convinced that they’re perfect. In the final post in this series, we’ll look at some of the ways they might need to change.