The Misplaced Seminary (part 1)

July 9, 2013HH Brownsmith

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American college tuition is rising at twice the rate of inflation. 1 The average student loan debt has climbed to nearly $25,000. 2 And according to a study cited by Anya Kamenetz in her book DIY U, public university tuition would cost the poorest one fifth of Americans 55 percent of their income. 3 Government subsidies for education are championed as the solution to these problems. It is one of Barak Obama’s second term promises that he will be “giving everyone a shot at an education.” 4 The truth is the university has developed multiple cost-shifting strategies to handle recession. It is the university’s practice to raise tuition, court out-of-state students, and increase class size when government grants dwindle during difficult economic periods.  The modern university has a steady flow of funds but a poor understanding of stewardship.

Even by free market standards, the university’s business practices are opaque. People who can afford to go to school can’t find out what their ever-increasing tuition is actually paying for. Recruiters boast that class sizes are being reduced and distinguished professors are being hired. But education watchdogs have found that tuition is often being funneled into marketing departments and new campus gyms while under-paid adjuncts teach to classes of over 100 students. 5 If this were any other business and the quality of the product was deteriorating but the cost was rising, the consumer would no longer purchase the product.

But in a culture that gives undue regard to credentialing and professionalism, degrees are granted more weight than successfully completed apprenticeships or years of on the job training. As cost-prohibitive as college may become in an ever-waning economy, Americans will continue to believe they need a degree to succeed, make money. Perhaps, this co-dependent relationship between an institution built on classism and hierarchical pedagogy and our title obsessed secular culture makes sense. But why is the Church so comfortable being the third wheel in this unhealthy affair? Why has the seminary chosen to be enmeshed in this model of education that is so cost-prohibitive it keeps many folks from being able to attend and relegates most of those who do receive a degree to a lifetime of debt? How do we extract it?

These three questions gave way to a number more. Feeling puzzled by the lack of discussion around this issue, I sent out a list of questions to friends in ministry. Their responses have been interesting but, on the whole, they seem as confused as I am about how the seminary has ended up in its current predicament. I put these same questions to you and ask you to think deeply and critically about the education you, your friends, and/or your minister received. As we stare head on at the brokenness of our medical system, food system, and prison system we must also face the reality that our higher education system has become stratifying, myopic, and unimaginative.

  1. Lots of folks, even those who believe strongly in popular education, seem to view education for adults that happens outside of a degreed program as good “continuing education” or “career development”. However, they do not see workshops, seminars, conferences, retreats, or perhaps even apprenticeships as legitimate alternatives to a university education. The university is inherently inaccessible to a large portion of society due to cost. If we believe that being faithful means doing the work one is called to and we believe that the world is made better by people doing the work that makes them come alive, then how do we make training for one’s service more accessible? Is this about changing mindsets, church hierarchy, and/or what ministry looks like?

  2. It used to be common for folks who were called to the ministry (or any trade) to do an apprenticeship that included study. This didn’t happen after years of advanced schooling in a separate institution. It happened in their immediate community or the one they planned to serve. Are you aware of more mainstream denominations encouraging or even accepting ministers who skip the degree in favor of the “old school” apprenticeship approach? If not, why do you think this model of training for the ministry went by the wayside?

  3. In many ways there are strong parallels between the members in the Occupy movement who encouraged a departure from the university (instead of debt relief and more government subsidies) and Christians with a radical understanding of social justice. Why do you think that the progressive church has not developed a critique of the university as an exclusionary big business?

  4. With generations growing farther apart and people, regardless of age, becoming more disconnected due to technology, politics, the economy, etc. what form(s) of education will best hold this up-coming generation of ministers accountable to their elders and churches?

In addition to sending the above queries to people in ministry, I interviewed Joyce Hollyday a UCC minister, seminary graduate and one of the founders of Word and World about doing seminary outside of the university. The second half of this series will contain parts of that interview with Joyce.



  1.  Clark, Kim. Tuition at Public Colleges Rises at 4.8% October 24, 2012. (
  2. Finnegan, Leah. Majoring in Debt: College Students Struggle Under the Weight of Loans November 6, 2011 updated. (
  3. Kamenentz, Anya. DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2010.
  5. Kamenentz, Anya. DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2010.
  • Charity Jill Erickson

    Great thoughts. I’ve come across churches who do apprenticeships, or their own training program, but it’s usually because they distrust education, seeing it as elitist, or tainted by secularism. These churches have agendas to push, so they keep apprentices from being exposed to new ways of thinking. I think one possible reason that the mainstream church doesn’t embrace this same kind of thing is because it doesn’t want to be confused with fundamentalist sects—it wants to maintain a position, or at least the image, of openness. It would take a lot of humility, I think, for any church organization to create an accessible program of education for future ministers that didn’t promote a theological/social agenda. This is why we look to “impartial” universities to educate ministers. But maybe this is delusional—agendas exist in academia, too.

  • Greg

    I agree with Charity Jill Erickson that these are all really excellent questions and thoughts. My church in Brooklyn does do year-long internships and residencies which really are a wonderful opportunity to dive into real hands on ministry and I think it’s one of my favorite things about our church (we currently have two year-long interns: the second one is arriving at LaGuardia as I type this). However, I think that there is a major divide between academic training in a seminary setting and hands on ministry in a church setting: although I think that they are both important. I have two seminary masters degrees (I’m Christian but my MA in Bible is from Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan) as well as two years of Clinical Pastoral Education and did multiple ministry internships during my first masters degree (M.Div.): I see all these things as important in ministry training.

    I think that the divide is a problem on both ends: I think that many academic institutions (including seminaries) lean towards looking down on churches and much of church leadership as not being educated enough in Biblical studies and theology, and many churches are suspicious of seminaries for any number or reasons. I think that the way to start actively working on the problem is to have the church and seminaries much more intertwined with each other, so that church communities and seminary communities can complement each other instead of regard each other with suspicion. That’s a long road, but one well worth traveling.

  • rdhudgens

    An important topic. I’ve really appreciated your contributions to JRad. Thanks!

    I recommend part one of the book by Robert Banks, Reenvisioning Theological Education: Exploring a Missional Alternative to Current Models (Eerdmanns, 1999). Banks does a good job of surveying the state of the discussion up to 1999. [HIs grasp for an alternative in the rest of the book doesn't quite attain his reach].

    Two of the constraints on our current practice are (mis)conceptions about church and about work & vocation. Most theological education educates for the institution of church or sometimes the university (not for example the mission of God). Futhermore, the market economy has redirected almost every aspect of theological education towards the goal of a salaried/paid position in a market-based institution (church, social work, non-profit). Theological education has been thoroughly commodified.

    So, at least one angle of attack comes through addressing ecclesiology and economics. People do have to put food on the table and it is important to seek a mutually beneficial relationship between our individual vocation and our individual calling (our survival dance and our sacred dance).For me, that leads directly to the priority of intentional Christian community.

    However, the constraint here (in intentional community) is that the depth of theological reflection that many of us hunger for is often viewed with suspicion. The answer for me is being rooted in a local community but seeking out and forming arenas for reflection that are not confined by that community (like JRad or IAS).

    Being clear about what we are educating for, being flexible for an amorphous “church”, and avoiding the commodification of it all will be crucial to the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2a).

    • Brian R. Gumm
      • Bill Kinzie

        We require our pastors to be wise, theologically prepared, able to grow and administrate the fellowship, and be loving and compassionate human beings…a big order.

        I wonder if seminaries could pool resources and make use of the Internet to create online courses. Some of the large universities are already doing this. Coupled with an oversight element this could help grow our future pastors economically.

      • Jeff Neuman-Lee

        Some observations and questions.

        We have terrible confusion these days. Let’s forgive ourselves for the swirling, changing world about us. Perhaps our job is to be as steady as we can be, but even that is difficult in these times. Steady for what? Anti-abortion? Pro-woman? etc.

        Theological education absolutely includes this: the nature of and trajectory of the human community. It cannot stand apart from all the stuff that is out there. In what economic context is the human most deeply realized? Churches that don’t base their work on the current economic context will not speak the language of that context. But what do we do when that context is, more and more, Walmart, a language of subjugation of people and land, a language that we detest? How do we who indeed “have to put food on the table” live as community in a land of people who studiously re-interpret events away from communal reality to the myth of the lone individual?

        Communities are always based on economic assumptions which run counter to the Word. “The poor you shall always have with you.” is not prescriptive, but a warning.

        As for Brian’s anarchist video, . . The very presumptions that people would like to all speak at high levels of abstraction, even if not using academic language is the flip side of presuming that they wouldn’t/ couldn’t. My observation is: Some do. My observation is: Some will see the larger world beyond themselves and their small tribe; a smaller number of those would act like Christ behalf of that larger world. My observation: that those few who love their lives away actually do bring in the Realm of God.

    • HH Brownsmith

      Thanks so much for the book suggestion. That tension between vocation and calling is something I feel I am ever-muddling through.

  • JamesH

    I really appreciate this article — thanks so much for sharing. A lot of the challenges to formal university/seminary education I’ve encountered are based on either a fundamentalist-don’t-let-the-outsiders-contaminate-us worldview, or are rooted in anti-intellectualism. I’m curious how we can (in both church and society) create rigorous, egalitarian educational spaces that are not cost-prohibitive and aren’t tied so much to promised salary pay-offs. The questions you posed will be very helpful for me as I develop programs in my own context.

  • Alex

    At one point I was going to pursue ordination in the Free Methodist denomination – they had a 3 track model at the time, depending on how much formal education you had or wanted. Don’t know if they still have that. Their theology is more conservative than I am anymore.

  • John

    I am and educator and an ordained clergy person (deacon) in the Episcopal church. My formation consisted of two years of course work and about 9 months of an internship. The course work consisted of “hybrid” courses offered through seminaries that have partnered with ECMN (The Episcopal Church in Minnesota). By hybrid, I mean 6-8 week on-line courses that included one or two one day seminars. ECMN subsidized the courses I believe… cost to participants was $200 per class. We received no credit for these courses so we were not working towards a degree. This made it doable for the most part, although it was a stretch and one of our cohort members was forced to drop out of formation because he lost his job and just couldn’t continue. The rigor of the course work was not great… a little disappointing… but as quick survey courses introducing people to theological thinking, church history, and biblical studies they did the trick. My internship was lacking in real training or learning experiences. The parish I was with just didn’t know what to do with me. I was essentially a new member who tried to fit in where I could. Others had a better experience than mine and were challenged to explore their calling and make mistakes.
    This was the first attempt of ECMN to create a more accessible and egalitarian formation experience for ordinands.
    I agree with your comments regarding the current models of higher education. The cost of seminary was prohibitive for me… I rejected the idea of a call to the priesthood simply because I couldn’t burden my family or myself or my ministry with a debt load of $100,000 or more. Many priests I have met are from a social economic status much higher than my own or the vast majority of our congregants… but this is wholly in keeping with the establishment ethos of the Episcopal Church in America. Many of these priests I’m afraid, have a hard time relating to the hopes, dreams and needs of many of their congregants. This is another issue with this system… it really can contribute to an elitist and out of touch clergy.
    I hope this new idea of formation is a response to this. It’s a barrier that just needs to be removed.
    Thanks for the post.

  • Chris Petruzzi

    As a university professor (in business) I am well-aware of the fact that higher education is expensive. It is, however, expensive in terms of the scarce resources it uses regardless of how we pay for it. Professors are themselves well-educated and go through a long process of obtaining doctoral degrees and publishing in academic journals. Not many well-educated people want to go through that for the wages of a university professor since the wage rates of other professions requiring higher education have increased at about the same rate as those of university professors. That means a limited supply of qualified educators.
    The biggest effect of subsidizing the tuition of aspiring students is to increase the demand for education and, consequently, to increase the price. There is no easy way around that problem.

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