Thinking about changing The Process

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.

Rarely is the question asked: is our priests learning? Part II

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.

Rarely is the question asked: Is our priests learning? Or, In defense of seminary education

What kind of priests does the church need in the 21st-century?

For the last two years, I’ve been a member of the Berkeley Divinity School Board of Trustees, where this question has consumed much attention and conversation. As well it should. Although lay people are the backbone of the church, it is priests in parishes across the country who are, in large measure, responsible for leading the people of God in their daily lives. We want to make sure we’re putting the right kind of people in those leadership roles at this point in the church’s life.

As this conversation takes place, it seems there’s this widely-held belief that the seminary system is broken and that most priests don’t go to seminary anymore. (This view wasn’t helped by the current Presiding Bishop, who once said something like “The three year M.Div. is dead.”) I see this online and hear it in conversation. Why do we people need to study Greek when there are so many more pressing issues for the church to confront? How will studying the early church help a priest fight injustice? The Episcopal Church has (sadly) always had a bit of an anti-intellectual streak so these comments are not terribly surprising. But they are disappointing. Here’s why.

I hope I don’t need to defend the value of education and education for its own sake. (As a former Classics major, however, I am well-practiced at making this case.) History repeats itself. I think the Donatist heresy of the fourth- and fifth centuries is hugely relevant to debates on a huge number of issues in the church today. The church today debates the nature of Jesus—son of God? really cool dude?—in the way early Christians did (with different language). I’m convinced that a huge division between camps in the church has to do with theological anthropology: are people basically good or are they bound by sin? This deserves another post but you see this division in a variety of issues. Doesn’t it make sense to know what folks in the past have said about who we are in the eyes of God?

(I’ve visited several seminaries in other parts of the Anglican Communion and am always impressed by how much students there want to learn everything they can about the faith. In South Sudan, for instance, where there are a huge array of complex and pressing problems that have nothing—ostensibly—to do with theology, I was blown away by the commitment of students to learning about the inheritance of faith. This article from Ellen Davis about teaching Hebrew to southern Sudanese makes this same point. In this context, it seems especially offensive to insist that theological education is somehow a waste of time.)

Moreover, I’m convinced that lay people in the church want to learn. There’s a lot of great research being put in practice at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Lake Forest, IL that concludes that people come to church because they want to grow spiritually, and that one of the best ways to help people grow spiritually is by teaching, particularly the Bible. I am stunned at how positive the response is when I conduct a Bible study or preach a sermon that helps give context, background, and meaning to the passage under consideration, rather than letting things meander off into conversation that may or may not be linked to the text. If you read the priestly ordination service, you’ll see just how many times some variation of the word “teach” is used. Doesn’t it make sense that our priests know something about the Bible (and lots of other stuff) so they can teach others about it?

The priesthood is a profession, like it or not. Priests are going to be ministering to congregations full of other professionals—doctors, lawyers, business people, etc.—and the fact that the priests are professionally-educated is, I think, important in the way it puts them on a level with these professionals. (Of course, many members of churches are not professionals and clergy need to relate to all members of their congregation. This is one of the joys and challenges of the ministry.) I don’t think we want church members to feel when they go to church that they somehow have to lower their intellectual and professional standards because it’s church.

True, much of this learning can happen by reading books, online, or other non-seminary forms of education. The key thing about seminary, however, is the way in which the education takes place in a community setting. The Gospel is fundamentally about community. The seminary environment is a place in which people not only learn facts and values but (try to) live them in their daily life. This is a hard case to make for folks who haven’t experienced the seminary environment but it is clear to me that there is simply nothing that compares to sustained, prolonged learning in community.

One of the recurring themes you see when you read mission history, as I have, is the push to “proclaim the Gospel afresh in every generation.” There’s the kergyma or proclamation of good news that is at the centre of the Bible but the form it takes in each generation and culture needs to be discerned by people in that generation. In order to do that, we need to learn how the good news has been discerned by generations past. There’s no better place to do that than in a community of people from a range of backgrounds seeking to do the same thing.

This is the first post in what became a three-post series. Part II about more practical objections to the seminary system is here; and part III about redesigning The Process is here.

(And for a clip of the line referenced in the title of this post, look here.)

Forming and choosing new priests

I sit on the Board of Trustees of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and we’ve devoted considerable time in recent meetings to the question of what kind of priests the church needs in this era of its life. This is of more than a little interest to me as, God willing, I may one day be one of those priests.

So I found the resolutions submitted to this summer’s General Convention of the Episcopal Church interesting in this regard. By my count, there are two that propose changing what candidates for the priesthood should be trained in. (You can see the text of these on this page.)

  • A071 changes the language regarding inter-cultural training. I’m not sure I see the force of this resolution other than to specify what groups priests should know about. (The resolution does seem to leave in place the implicit assumption that priests will be white Americans and they need to know about these “other” groups.) The explanatory text says seminarians aren’t receiving enough training in this area (which is likely true) but the solution to that is more money for seminaries, I think, not changed wording. Berkeley sends lots of people overseas and into other inter-cultural settings. The school needs more money to make sure everyone has that opportunity.
  • A072 adds a requirement that new priests be trained in “the practice of ministry development and evangelism.” The resolution makes no reference to the existing (and, in my experience, neglected) canon that requires training in “missiology and mission theology” (III.5.g.3), which seems to be of at least overlapping interest. The resolution also crams in as many popular buzzwords as possible—”storytelling” “building capacity” “engaging God’s mission”—and, in its list of resources for evangelism fails to mention the Bible.
If the Episcopal Church—and mainline Protestantism in general—is, as we continually hear, truly at a point in which everything needs to be re-considered as we build the church of the future, surely that includes the priesthood as well. Just as we are (hopefully) considering church structure from the bottom up, I think we should be considering the formation of new priests in the same way.

This seems to be what resolution A148 accomplishes when it calls for establishing “a committee to initiate and coordinate a Churchwide conversation regarding what essential learnings (knowledge and skills) The Episcopal Church expects its candidates for priest and deacon to have at the time of ordination.” Although I have a default suspicion of committees and commissions, I find this to be a pretty good idea, particularly if it succeedes in initiating a truly churchwide conversation.

But I think A148 doesn’t go far enough. When we talk about the future priests of the church, I hope we talk about how they are chosen as well, not just how they are trained. The current system of picking priests begins when people decide they are called to be a priest. There is then a lengthy process of testing that call within the church. One result of this is that since the 1970s, when the current ordination process really came into being, the number of priests ordained each year has stayed steady even as the number of Episcopalians has declined precipitously.

What if we began the process of choosing priests not by letting applicants initiate the process but by actively recruiting those we thought had the gifts the church needed? To some extent this is true already: I wouldn’t be a deacon were it not for people who actively encouraged me to go to seminary and enter a diocesan discernment process. But I think we can go farther in this direction. Rather than making priests of people who say, simply, “I feel called to be a priest,” I hope we can shift the conversation in the direction of “The church is need of these particular talents/gifts/experiences and I believe I can provide them because close friends/mentors/advisers have told me so.”

It is clear that the choosing and training of the church’s ordained leadership is as much in need of review as the church’s structure. I hope A148 passes and I look forward to the fruits of its labours.

Who teaches us?

My time at Yale Divinity School is coming to an end. As I’ve been thinking back over it these past few days, I decided to do a little math. The results may only be of interest to me but here’s what I came up with.

In my time at YDS, I’ve taken 22 courses. (You need 24 to graduate. I did a semester abroad, which I’m not counting here.)

Of those 22, 18 were taught or co-taught by male faculty. Seven were taught or co-taught by female faculty. That means only four courses I took were taught solely by a woman.

Nine were taught by ordained faculty members (and one has been ordained since), though I’ve learned that different faculty wear their ordination differently. For some, it barely seems to register in their consciousness.

Four of those 22 courses were taught by non-white faculty, all of whom were male. (And three of those courses, oddly, were taken in the same semester.)

I can’t figure the age breakdown, though I’d guess my faculty have ranged in age from a few years older than me to close to or past retirement.

So what to make of these figures? I don’t think I steered deliberately in any one direction. Many of the courses I’ve taken were required and many of those are taught by white, male faculty.

One thing for sure is that whom we are taught by shapes who we become. The faculty I’ve had courses with are the ones to whom I turn most readily for advice and input on my life and career. How should I feel about the fact that the majority of courses I took were taught by people who are like me? And how will that shape what I do in the future?

Do you think this breakdown is reflective of something specific to Yale or is it generalizable across seminaries?

In any event, interesting questions to reflect on as I prepare to leave this place. Maybe at some point—when I’m really procrastinating—I’ll look back through old syllabi and figure out the breakdown of the books I was assigned to read.