In two previous posts, we’ve seen the ways in which the education seminaries provide is vital for the formation of clergy. And we’ve seen how the so-called problems of the seminaries are overblown and that, in fact, Episcopal seminaries continue to provide the vast majority of clergy active in the church. This is not to say, however, that the current system of choosing and educating priests is perfect. What needs to change?
The first thing is, I think, that we need fewer priests. Since the late 1960s, Episcopal Church membership has been on a fairly steady decline. At the same time, however, the number of clergy ordained per year has, with some blips up and down, stayed fairly steady. That means the Church now has a higher clergy-to-lay ratio than it did back in its “glory days.” (That this should have happened in the same generation in which the “ministry of all the baptized” has become a central part of the church’s teaching is particularly ironic.)
I think it is no accident that the late 1960s and early 1970s is the period when the church changed its ordination process to add commissions on ministry, parish discernment committees, and all the accoutrement that now go with what is called in seminary “The Process” (capital T, capital P). The church largely relies on its future clergy to self-select themselves and then “tests” that call in The Process. I don’t think, however, that God is calling more priests per layperson now than God called before The Process was devised. In some ways, I think, The Process, by distributing authority has made it more difficult to say a flat “no” to people (though this does happen). It is easier to pass the buck on making the decision farther and farther along until it becomes practically impossible to do anything but ordain the person.
Moreover, all those sundry committees are supposed to be helping people discern ministry in general, not just ordained ministry. In practice, however, many of these committees focus only on ordained ministry and have little ability, if they say “no” to someone, to help them discern a calling to lay ministry. (That the church does so little to honour lay ministry is a problem for another post.)
The major hurdle in The Process is becoming a postulant. This is the stage at which the prospective priest is allowed to begin seminary. For all the reasons I mentioned earlier, seminary should be a huge part of the discernment process. It’s when people who think they are called to the priesthood actually get to try out what it feels like to be a priest. The diocese gets to see how the ordinand is doing and re-evaluate their earlier judgement. Theoretically, there are later points at which a diocese can decide a person is not called to be a priest. But in practice, they are rarely taken. Because the church provides essentially no financial support for its ordinands, ordinands pay out of pocket for seminary. Once they’ve sunk money into the experience like that, it can seem awfully churlish for the diocese to turn them down.
What that effectively means, however, is that the three years of seminary education are not a meaningful part of the discernment process, even though they should be its core. It also means that the General Ordination Exams, taken in the third year of seminary and supposedly one of the big hurdles to ordination become merely a rite of passage. In my experience, it is exceptionally rare for a diocese to decline to ordain someone—whether because of performance on the GOEs or a report from seminary—once it has made him or her a postulant.
Fewer priests means fewer students for seminaries, which will likely mean fewer seminaries, which is not the end of the world. The United States is blessed with a huge expanse of territory but its seminaries are concentrated on the east coast. This can create huge hardships for people who have to uproot their families to go to seminary. I know many people who have sacrificed an incredible amount to attend seminary. Although I know that each situation is different, I think we should be suspicious of potential priests who are unwilling to travel to pursue that call. Fewer and fewer priests end up going back to their sponsoring diocese. Going off to seminary is the first step of following God on this new journey of ordination.
Obviously, what I have outlined here cannot apply to everyone. For small, rural, distant, poor dioceses, sending a single ordinand to seminary is a huge hardship. Because our church has so come to value the Eucharist as the principal Sunday morning service, there is a need for a priest every Sunday, even in the smallest of churches. Sometimes, local ordination can be a helpful solution for priests who help maintain congregations as they are. (Whether we should be keeping those congregations open is another matter entirely.) But I would hate for the church to conclude that this should be the way a majority of it clergy are trained. Seminary education remains at the core of the future of the church and deserves only to be strengthened and improved.