Thursday, October 13, 2016

Eliminate the Undergraduate Degree

A common question with regard to preparation for ordained ministry is "How much can we live without?"  Several emergent circumstances prompt this question -- decline in seminary enrollment, the difficulty of church bodies to subsidize their seminaries, the crushing burden of academic debt on people who have been painstakingly prepared for a profession in which full-time work is becoming scarce.  Naturally, churches ask how to control the cost of preparing their ministers, a question which leads just as naturally to the follow-on: which aspects of the present preparatory routine are dispensable?

For those who do not know, the preparation of a Protestant minister, in the United States, typically looks like this:

  • a four-year undergraduate degree in any subject, although the humanities are preferred; 
  • a three-year graduate program in "divinity," which quaint word indicates a combination of Biblical, historical and theological studies; 
  • practical work, normally taking the form of field work while in seminary, Clinical Pastoral Education and (for all Lutherans, at least) a year or so of (very lightly paid) parish internship.  
  • Lutheran students who have  graduated at a non-Lutheran school may also be required to complete a year of residential study at one of their own denomination's seminaries.

It amounts to nine or ten years of study, the last few of them 12-month years during which postulants have no vacation time in which to earn any money.  They are all but guaranteed to graduate penniless, hungry and in debt.

In fairness, churches have not mindlessly insisted upon adherence to this general program.  For years, they have experimented with variations.  Especially popular these days are "terminal internships," in which a candidate completes the entire classroom course of study, and is then placed in a parish as "vicar," under the periodic (but not daily) supervision of a neighboring pastor.  The expectation is that after ordination the vicar will became pastor to the same parish.  Other less popular variations include distance learning, which allows the student to continue working and avoid the costs of residential study,  and programs that simply waive some academic requirements for older postulants from "emerging ministries," meaning especially minority communities.

None of these is bad, but none of them is a magic bullet, either.  Terminal internships may place new pastors in difficult situations without adequate mentoring, and in any case save them only the costs of the internship year.  TEEM and similar programs save a lot more money, but create the very serious risk of burdening congregations with pastors who are not intellectually adequate to the task, or whose adequacy is limited to the very specific location to which they were ordained, and do not transfer well to other parishes.

Over and over, it comes back to "What can we cut?"  Is a decent grounding in Biblical languages more or less important than a summer of hospital chaplaincy or a year of daily supervision?  Is a grasp of Reformation history more or less important than an a third semester of homiletics?  All of these things matter; all of them are important to the effective conduct of pastoral work.

But do you know what is not important?  A degree in biology.  Or aeronautics, or even "religion" as that discipline is understood by the modern academy.  These are undergraduate studies, of great interest by themselves and in some cases of direct value to potential employers.  They are not, however, subjects absolutely required for pastors and theologians.

So let's make studies in divinity an undergraduate subject.  

By which I mean: let us agree upon a course of study which can, in four years, prepare a capable high school graduate to carry out the duties of a parish pastor.  Teach them, in the course of four years, the things we now teach them in three, and add to that a smattering of "elective" subjects -- music and art would be the most professionally useful, but such matters could be negotiated. So might an optional fifth year of study, in which an advanced degree (rather like the Th.M. or S.T.M.) could be granted.

Such a plan might give new life and purpose to our moribund seminaries.  The course of study could not be as diffuse as those which lead to the typical BA and BS degrees -- and this degree would be neither of those.  It would have to focus more narrowly on theological subjects, which most colleges are unprepared to teach, but at which seminaries excel.  Therefore, a seminary is the natural institution to offer such a degree, perhaps  after enlarging its faculty a bit or in conjunction with a larger school.

But the chief virtue of such a plan is that it could potentially save a fortune for those with an early vocation.  Of all the costs incurred in the "typical"process, the undergraduate education is surely the greatest for most people, and yet paradoxically it is the one with the least obvious practical value.

Oh, downsides are obvious.  Pastors prepared this way would be less mature in years, and likely emotions, than those to which parishes are accustomed.  Moreover, they might lack exposure to fields of study -- especially sciences both natural and social -- with genuine, if secondary value for a theologian. Second-career pastors gain nothing from this plan, although they do not lose anything either.  There are no doubt other difficulties as well.  But still:  It. Saves. A. Fortune.

What do you think, readers?

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