The case for the 45 credit seminary degree

The Atlantic ran a disturbing article on the state of middle class clergy carrying a seminary degree: high debt, low wages, vanishing churches, and part-time pastor positions. The piece profiles Justin Barringer, a recent seminary grad who like many before him graduated the call to pastoral ministry. His story is not unlike thousands of other ministers:

Justin Barringer would seem to have the perfect résumé. He’s a seminary grad, an author and book editor, and a former missionary to China and Greece. But despite applying to nearly a hundred jobs over the course of two years, Barringer, who lives in Lexington, Kentucky, could not secure a full-time, salaried church position.

So he splits his time among three jobs, working as a freelance editor, an employee at a nonprofit for the homeless, and a part-time assistant pastor at a United Methodist Church. “I am not mad at the church,” Barringer says. “However, I wish someone had advised me against taking on so much debt in order to be trained for ministry.”

Here is the reality: high debt and scarcity of full-time paying pastor positions.

The traditional mainline church track for full-time pastors followed like this: 4-years of college, 3-years of graduate seminary education, and ordination. This process launched a generation of pastors into their ministry in the 1950′s, 60′s, and 70′s. The traditional 90-credit seminary degree, the master of divinity, became the mark of an intellectual, professional, and full-time pastor. Churches had the people and money to support such a model. The pastor typical could raise a family and even buy a house (if one was not provided).

Now, because of cost of graduate education, seminary graduates are saddled with debt. In the $40,000 to $60,000 range (on top of college debt). The pace of the rise of the cost of education has exceeded the rate of inflation: to the tune of 500% since 1985.  Usually, when a professional incurs such a debt, their boss gives them a raise because of their higher degree. Not the case with pastors. Many pastors have the same credit hours as school administrators, but paid much less.

With this current reality of shrinking churches, downsized church budgets, less full-time pastor positions, and need for a generation of clergy to lead churches into a new culture, a shorter more focused seminary degree is needed. An online distance modified 45-credit degree could shake up this bleak future for pastors and churches. Here’s what the 45-credit seminary degree could look like:

12 credits – Bible (Learning the story of God’s people)
9 credits – Theology (Learning who God is and how God works)
12 credits – Leadership (Learning how to lead through conflict and change)
12 credits – Mission (Learning how to put into practice the entrepreneur mission of the Gospel in the community)

If a distance online-modified program were introduced, it would cut debt and cost.  Some seminaries are attempting this. If denominations and seminaries realized they are training pastors for a religious world that does not exist anymore, then this proposal would help churches revitalize. Seminaries were so busy on training and educating biblical and theological grounded graduates that seminaries did not see the need for individuals train in how to help churches write the next chapter of their ministry. Currently, seminarians are not being trained in how to respond to the challenges of aging congregations, lament of downsized churches, aged buildings, loss of congregational creativity, and lack of interest in organized religion.

The case for the 45-credit seminary degree makes the track for pastoral ministry more attainable.  Seminary programs need to produce ministers that are ready to step into a church on day one and meet the church’s challenges. More training on leadership is needed. The 45-credit seminary degree needs to replace the 90-credit master of divinity.

A smaller graduate level seminary degree geared more towards training people in how to lead and serve rather than how to think, will fundamentally change the way people hear and experience Jesus Christ.

Alan Rudnick

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Alan Rudnick has been featured on television, radio, print, and social media and serves as the Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Ballston Spa, NY. He has quickly established himself as a leader, blogger, and commentator in the areas of faith, Christianity, ministry, and social media. He is the author of, “The Work of the Associate Pastor”, Judson Press. Alan’s writing has been featured with the Albany Times Union, The Christian Century, Associated Baptist Press, and The Fund of Theological Education. http://alanrudnick.org

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  • Barrett Owen

    As someone who works in seminary admissions and is a part time/bi-vocational pastor, I’m particularly drawn to this kind of converation. I’d prefer to see partner institutions help offset the cost of seminary education for students before we reduce the course load and expectations for future ministers. But you may be more right about what the future of theological education will look like.

    The problem appears to be twofold: 1) the cost of theological education is on the rise, and 2) professional ministry positions are declining. By reducing a seminary education by 50% is significant. Only requiring 45 hours means students could theoretically attend full time and graduate in three semesters. Here are four reasons why I’m against such a position:

    1) Summers for full time seminary students are invaluable. International mission immersion trips, Clinical Pastoral Education, or summer camp staffer experiences (with institutions like Passport) occur. Savvy students use their summers for almost all of these life-changing opportunities. A 45 hour degree would elminiate summer opportunities.

    2) Part of the seminary experience is being invited into a network of churches, parachurches, nonprofits, ministry partners, etc. Contextual ministry internships happen through this network channel. By reducing a degree program to 45 hours, networking opportunities would suffer.

    3) One of the most important aspects of seminary is the critical reflection that occurs on one’s own self. Unveiling our hidden idiosyncrasies, discovering the theological lies we once held as truths, and shedding light on the dark corners of our own selves (spiritual and physical) takes time, reflection, guidance, and a safe, unencumbered space. Seminary is this safe space. Eliminating 50% of the time you are trained and nurtured hinders these future ministers.

    4) It’s ironic that we are all admitting ministry positions are declining and our answer to this problem is lowering the expectations of ministers in order to produce more ministers.

    Despite my critique of 45hr degree program, I admit most of these feelings are being projected from my own sense of accomplishment, self-discovery and vocational discernment that occurred at McAfee School of Theology and my 90hr degree program. I also admit that there is a cultural shift occuring in theological education. Changes are on the horizon. Your idea of a 45hr degree may be the future. I just hope it isn’t. I don’t want a minister helping me through life’s hardships and/or theological inquiries who only went to a school because the hours allowed them to graduate faster. If we lowered the cost of theological education (partner institutions must help financially) and find creative job opportunities (partner institutions must help here) then the curriculum may not have to be the “thing” that goes.

  • GaMoo79

    Leading and serving rather than thinking. Interesting. No doubt a new age necessitates a new paradigm. But if we must stop thinking in order to minister, we are in deep trouble. Thank goodness for the days when we had thinkers. The apostle Paul, Augustine and Martin Luther come to mind. I guess we can just keep on reading those guys while we lead this generation in the newest praise choruses.
    By the way, both the shema and Jesus commanded us to love God with our minds.
    I could say much more, but I wouldn’t want to think too hard. Good grief.

  • LetsGoBravesfan

    I find this article incredibly problematic. The cost of seminary and student debt is a problem facing America’s clergy. However, the solution is not to contribute to the dumbing-down of the American Church. Biblical illiteracy and a lack of theological understanding is problematic enough among the laity without the clergy joining the ranks of the uninformed. Instead, why not advocate for lower seminary costs? Why not rally the community to call out Presidents and Trustees for their irresponsibility. Seminaries should be ministries, not for-profit businesses.

  • tmarsh0307

    I really appreciate this article as an attempt to address concerns regarding education, debt and the decline of full-time opportunities in the church. However, looking at the proposed curriculum, I see a few glaring issues:
    1. Where are the preaching classes? I took two required and one elective course in seminary – 8 hours total.
    2. With regards to Bible, will seminaries discontinue the requirement for Biblical Languages? I took 18 hours required Hebrew/Greek. Yes, I find these tools necessary for the study of scripture and preparation of sermons.
    3. Knowing the story of the church also requires church history – I had 6 hours. I think that it could be reduced to three, but it would be difficult.
    4. What about the opportunity to specialize and/or take elective courses? With 45 required hours, there is no room for elective credits.
    5. Seminary/Divinity School is one of those programs that has value to classroom connections with professors and with classmates. Developing Christian community in seminary with professors and colleagues is priceless. I would be concerned to “encourage” online education, but am not opposed to making it available.
    I value each and every credit hour I received in the MDiv program. While I agree that educational costs must be addressed, I can see some potential pitfalls, especially for pastors, if the MDiv is cut in half.
    I am beginning DMin studies at Gardner-Webb University. The Divinity School has recently announced at joint venture with the university and Religion Department to offer a 5-year pastoral track, in which graduates will finish with both a BA and MDiv. I am excited to see how this might work and would invite prospective students and ministers to look into the program. Yet, it will require undergraduate classes in religion.
    It seems that we need to find a way to fund the education, make it affordable, and offer counseling before entering the program. However, this is an excellent conversation-starter.

  • John Thornton Jr.

    I’m curious if the author plans to write more on the rising cost of seminary. He writes that it’s risen relative to inflation with no explanation of why. Where’s all that money going? In universities across the country it tends to go to hiring more non-teaching administrators and building projects. Perhaps Christians should start a movement of slow seminary in humble settings. As has been pointed out, the author admits that seminary education is producing ill-equipped ministers. Yet it’s unclear how a faster seminary experience that relies heavily on online, distance learning remedies this situation rather than exacerbates it. I don’t think he can have his cake and eat it too. It’s not impossible to think of solutions that address rising student debt because of rising seminary costs AND properly trains ministers in the Scriptural and theological vocabulary they need for ministry. This article, however, fails to adequately address either.

  • http://www.etf.edu/ Creig Marlowe

    The States could learn from Europe on this. Why not return to the days of the BDiv (3 years not 4 in Europe) followed by a 1-2 year ThM? I agree the 90 credits on top of a 4-year BA is very problematic these days (but that has been needed because the BA could be in any subject). The sad part of the 45-credit approach in this US system is of course the minimal education being used for someone to claim MA status and be required to exegete the Bible without Greek or Hebrew, etc. for a classical theological education. Those with a BA in theology can get an English-language ThM in Leuven, Belgium for “peanuts” in comparison to costs in the US (because all accredited theological education is government and church subsidized). See http://www.etf.edu.

  • Sharyn Dowd

    Just a couple of comments:
    A. Seminary is NOT graduate education. It is professional education. Most students admitted to seminary would not be admissible to a graduate program requiring a GRE score. Many, however, have a genuine call to ministry.

    B. It is likely that, like local congregations, seminaries/divinity schools will begin to change when they are forced to by reduced funding.