From libraries to launching pads: cultural shifts in seminaries

Library

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According to stereotypes I’ve heard, seminary culture used to be something like this:

Future ministers pack up their lives, move cities, rent a small apartment on campus and find a corner in the library in order to learn how to parse Greek participles. They emerge after three hard-fought years of exegetical papers, book reviews and theological discussions in order to take a full-time church position offered through denominational affiliations.

Students even tried out their calling by doing a “seminary pastorate.” They’d drive 100 miles either direction and pastor a small, quaint church in the country. Seminaries didn’t have classes on Mondays so the students could enjoy Sunday evening worship with their church community.

Sadly, this culture is dead. Students now come to seminary in one of three ways:

  1. Young professionals with ministry experience and nonprofit interest. These students grew up in church but don’t want to pastor or work in a congregational setting. They studied abroad in college, fell in love with some type of service ministry and now want to dedicate their lives to serving others. They typically are over-achievers looking for a sending agency to connect with long-term.
  2. Second career, working adults looking to enhance credentials from the business world. These students are looking to make a career move into ministry and need a professional degree to make it happen. They typically carry an array of family dynamics (i.e. kids in school, single adult, health concerns, working-spouse, etc.) which forces them to attend part-time.  They’re over-worked, underpaid and are sacrificing nights and weekends to fulfill degree requirements.
  3. Students feeling a strong conviction to serve the local church.  These students come in all shapes and sizes but share one similar conviction—God’s not done with the church.

In all three groups, students look for a school that works around their schedule. They need flexible, one-day-a-week class options with online components. They need ministry placement, media-enhanced learning modules and a professor savvy enough to keep up with their fast-paced lives.  In short, students appear to be turning in their library cards in exchange for service-learning opportunites that free them up to work, travel or just juggle more than recommended.

The old seminary stereotypes are exaggerated. Service-learning isn’t a new invention, and seminaries then did just as much for the community as ours do today. The difference from then to now, though, is the role of the students. They can’t commit their time and lives to the educational institution.

One reason is because on average they carry over $24,000 of undergraduate debt and will be paying eight times more per credit hour than when their parents went to graduate school. This means they need to work. A second reason is because they’re struggling to acquire ministry experience in a competing job climate. Seasoned ministers are working well past retirement age and, therefore, causing a backlog of job opportunities.

Couple these two realities with the students’ ontological needs for meaning and purpose, seminary becomes a place for over-extended, overly-committed students who are piecemealing their vocation.

Take me for example. I’ve been a bi-vocational pastor for six years gaining experience in preaching and pastoral care while acquiring two masters, adjunct teaching and working a full time position in admissions. At 29 years of age, I have a resume I’m proud of, but I’ve sacrificed time, energy and relationships working 65+ hours/week getting here – which is still not a sustainable, vocational place. And I’m just one of many in similar situations.

But don’t take this as a sign that seminary students are less committed. On the contrary, they work just as hard and are just as committed to spreading the good news of Jesus Christ as anyone. Life just poses different demands requiring new ways of responding.

So what does this mean for higher, theological education? It means it must adapt to the changing culture that’s in need of launching pads as well as libraries. It must be able to engage culture in a way that educates the students as well as allows them to keep paying off more than just compounded interest. It must provide service-learning opportunities, classes that educate the students on organizational leadership and part-time ministry positions for them to get paid for hands-on experience.

Seminaries (whether intending to be or not) are now launching pads. Inevitably, this means partner institutions (i.e. churches, donors, parachurch ministries, sending agencies, nonprofits) must stay connected with seminaries. Without dedicated partnerships, where will these students work? A better question, “If we don’t partner, how fast will we lose these students to sustainable job fields?” The best question may be, “What will happen to the seminaries that fail to embrace this cultural shift?”

Barrett Owen

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About the Author
Barrett Owen is the admissions associate at Mercer University's McAfee School of Theology and pastor of National Heights Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Ga. He blogs weekly at Liminality: Exploring the holy, in-between spaces.

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  • George Bullard

    Barrett, your perspective is why we need to continue to push for a perspective that the seminary experience is ministry preparation with appropriate theological reflection rather than theological education with some ministry reflection. It must be more practical, flexible, and see the student as the client rather than the seminary as the client.

    • Barrett Owen

      I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for reading.