How seminaries and the ordination process leave theologically “liberal” Christians behind

Clerical CollarThere’s a new piece in the Washington Post about seminary graduates who don’t plan to enter ministry. According to the article, “About 41 percent of master’s of divinity graduates expect to pursue full-time church ministry, down from 52 percent in 2001 and from 90-something percent a few decades ago, according to the Association of Theological Schools, the country’s largest such group.” The writer lists a variety of reasons for the increasingly popular choice to obtain seminary training without seeking a church vocation, including a sense of spiritual calling to a secular career and general misgivings with the church as an institution.

As I read the Washington Post piece, I thought about the number of graduates who won’t enter church ministry for another reason. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the writer does not mention that many won’t become ministers because they’ve been barred from eligibility on the basis of their personal theology and/or social views.

The process known as “ordination” can be an ugly one– specifically for candidates seeking credentials in a major denomination. In addition to meeting academic, “moral” and mental health requirements, candidates are required to submit to a review of their personal beliefs, including a detailed assessment of their “personal theology”. I have observed a variety of these reviews during the past few years of my trek through seminary as my colleagues have worried if some nuance in their understanding of a theological concept will send up a red flag for their ordination committees. I have personally witnessed the fear associated with the prospect of one’s vocation meeting an abrupt and unceremonious end because their personal statement of faith or the oral defense of said statement revealed a nontraditional perspective. I believe there are a variety of problems with this, including the following:

  1. Many denominations require candidates to obtain a graduate degree involving work in the areas of theology and philosophy. In those graduate programs, professors spend countless hours training students to think outside the theological box, only for their ordination committees to demand that they put God (and their capacity for exploration) back inside the box. Seminaries are often free and open spaces where people are encouraged to draw their own conclusions about sacred matters. Yet, students endure rejection after the academic stage of their ordination processes–ironically for drawing unapproved conclusions. I have come to think of this as the Explore Now/Pay Later model. (And, by “pay” I mean in terms of consequences and not dollars… The excessive number of dollars required to obtain a seminary degree are another matter altogether.)
  2. The Explore Now/Pay Later model is detrimental to the spiritual and intellectual growth of the ordination candidate. Students who are afraid that they might begin to believe something that could cancel their eligibility for ordination can be resistant to the transformative process of intellectual pursuit. For these students, the information presented at seminary is viewed as a threat. Those who fall into this category could go through the motions of obtaining their graduate degree without appreciating the value of what they’ve learned. This reduces the rich history and diverse ideas within Christianity to a mere hurdle for the student to overcome, rather than something to be embraced, understood, remembered and passed on.
  3. Many students will enter the ordination process with the intention of concealing their beliefs from their professors, ordination committees, and congregations. They enter ministry at the expense of their own sense of authenticity– often sacrificing their sense of self to the demands of the institution. I occasionally receive emails from pastors who fit into this category. They’re miserable in their parishes because they have to dress in a theological costume that doesn’t fit them… day after day… week after week… liturgical cycle after liturgical cycle.

As I read the Washington Post article, I thought about the words of Marcus Borg in his book titled Speaking Christian. With regard to the Christian preoccupation with believing certain things, he wrote:

The meaning of believe prior to [the year] 1600 includes more than [mental assent]. It comes from the Old English be loef, which means “to hold dear”… Thus until the 1600s, to believe in God and Jesus meant to belove God and Jesus. Think of the difference this makes. To believe in God does not mean believing that a set of statements about God are true, but to belove God. To believe in Jesus does not mean to believe that a set of statements about him are true, but to belove Jesus.

This meaning goes back to ancient Christianity. The Latin roots of the word credo, with which the creed begins and from which we get the word creed, means “I give my heart to.” Heart does not refer simply to feelings, to emotions, though those are involved. Rather, heart is a metaphor for the self at its deepest level–a level of the self beneath our thinking, willing and feeling. To whom do you give your heart, your self? To whom do you commit your self?” (pgs. 118-119)

I wonder how the ordination process would change– and subsequently, how Christianity would change– if instead of asking people:

“Which of these statements do you affirm, under penalty of exclusion from candidacy, are wholly and indisputably true”

…we asked…

“In what way do you demonstrate that you belove God, and that you belove Jesus? How do you demonstrate to the world that you have given yourself to them?”

I am not sure exactly what would happen if the criteria for one’s “beliefs” were to change. I do, however, suspect that such a change could forge the marriage between the liturgical and academic arms of the faith–a union which many Christians have desired over the course of the past few generations. And over time, after an infusion of out-of-the-box thinkers into ministry roles, Christianity could see some change in its reputation for being an anti-intellectual religion. Such a shift would likely be very uncomfortable in the beginning, but could be exactly what the church needs in the long run.

Until that day comes, our seminaries and ordination committees will continue to miss an amazing opportunity to tap into what could be a great ministry resource today. There are people in this world who crave the chance to hear what alternative voices in Christendom have to say about matters related to theology, morality and the social direction of the world. To cast those voices aside, particularly in an age when people are walking away in droves from the “intolerant, anti-intellectual, boxed-in” church just seems short-sighted. Of course, while I hope such an epiphany –an epiphany about the short-sightedness of telling theologically liberal voices to sit down and be quiet– will strike our institutions, I know it’s not likely…

Still, I can hope… Can’t I?

44 responses to “How seminaries and the ordination process leave theologically “liberal” Christians behind

  1. Pingback: (Reblog) How seminaries and the ordination process leave theologically “liberal” Christians behind | The Theological Wanderings of a Street Pastor·

  2. I’m just beginning to explore the discernment process (ELCA) and have a VERY liberal (or rather post-liberal) understanding of theology. I wonder if you would know if the ELCA ranks amongst those denominations you are describing here?

    • Brian, I was on the Candidacy Committee of the Lower Susquehanna Synod for 20 years and resigned in utter disgust 6 years ago. There is no room for thinking outside of the box in the candidacy process of the ELCA, in my experience, and am absolutely convinced that if I were a candidate today, I’d never be approved for ordination. 32 years in the ministry of the ELCA and I’ve evolved to the point that I don’t even believe in Jesus as our Savior anymore. And I’ve never been happier nor freer. I’ve gone WAAAAAAY out of the box and can’t wait until retirement. I still feel that God is using me as an instrument for God’s message, however, NOT necessarily the church’s message. Somehow the institution seems to think they are both the same, but that’s pretty far from the truth.

      If you feel called to ministry within the institution of the church, then I wish you all the best. The church needs people like you to challenge it, but if you’re out of the liberal theological closet, fasten your seatbelt. You’re in for a rough ride, and if you’re honest with your committee, you may never get the opportunity to serve because you think for yourself. Peace be with you as you discern your call.

      • Thanks, unorthodox, for your insight. As a scientist and an reader of pre-digested postmodern and über-modern theological materials (Spong, Ehrmann, Tickle, McLaren, et al.) I think many might classify me as one of Spong’s “believers in exile.” I would like to help more people like myself re-imagine their faith as a living part of today’s world without pretending that their intellectual and/or academic understandings are unimportant.

        If God was poured out into Jesus, and if Jesus was poured out into caricatures that illustrated Judaic liturgical structures, and if Jesus was then poured out into a caricature of a deity that better-meshed with the pagan world into which he was being introduced, what must our theistic Jesus be poured out into next to fit within a world of scientific understandings? I’m not interested in trying to “prove” Jesus and/or God with evidence: that is pointless. But the “magical” world of present mythology is moot and it is failing the relevancy test. Isn’t it possible that there is a new paradigm that speaks better to modern people of the mission of Jesus and his body on Earth?

        Too many questions and not enough answers. heh heh.

    • Hi Brian – my husband was an ordination candidate in the Southeastern Synod of the ELCA. After going through 4 years of academic education and 2 years of chaplaincy training, he was not approved. (He was not rejected either, but was told to do an additional internship, which would’ve meant another 2 years of no income.) The committee did not give a reason. They do not have to justify their decisions. That was the most horrifying part. They had enormous power over our lives and in every way demonstrated that our lives as human beings did not matter. And there is no appeals process.

      His gifts in ministry were not relevant. His work with those in hospitals and prisons, his education ministry and preaching — who cares? The committee cared more about his dedication to the committee, rather than his dedication to God. And our guess was that they were rejecting him because they suspected he was too liberal.

      And he was left with rejection, disillusionment, a heavy student loan debt, and no employment. I have completely lost any faith in institutional religion. They exist to serve themselves, not God. We learned this the hard way.

  3. This says to me that the sending communuty, the academic setting, the credentialing setting, and the calling setting are out of touch with one another. I think it is wrong to out the onus solely on judicatory credentialing and local church settings. This reflects a disconnect from the beginning to the end of the process institutionally and naïveté in the part of students/candidates.

  4. Good post, Crystal.

    I also wonder how the ordination or call process would change if we also asked people how they kept their faith vital, and by this I don’t mean asking about how much Bible they read or how often they pray, though that is important. But looking to see how the candidate keeps their faith fresh and growing. But I guess the committees would have to be comprised of people who are doing the same themselves and who haven’t given up and settled for the tried and true and left the idea of transformation behind. Committees should actively look for people to bring fresh insights, not regurgitate the party line.

  5. I serve a local parish as senior minister, and am also a member of the committee that oversees the process leading to licencing, commissioning and ordination in our denomination. I’ve found this discussion helpful, but also struggle with the reality that seminaries and judicatories exist to serve the local church, not just encourage spiritual exploration on the part of candidates. On the one hand, in my opinion, churches need more candidates who are pursuing the kind of theological integrity about which this blog is speaking. On
    the other hand, the reality of life in the church means that ministers are constantly trying to find the balancing point of leadership – too far out in front of your flock and nobody follows, never challenging them to stretch a little and there is no growth, leading by opinion poll and you find yourself left behind. Ah. the much talked about but often neglected art of discernment…

    • I think you’re right about this. I recently remarked to someone that churches are in search of multi-talented CEOs, but seminary students are not always prepared to provide that kind of leadership. In fact, many seminary students are fresh out of undergrad when they arrive at seminary, never having managed any organization. There really should be some balance of leadership training and theological training… but there must also be a commitment to the realistic understanding that newly graduated seminarians won’t be ready for the kind of leadership churches require until they’re several years into serving their parishes. I appreciate your comment. :)

  6. I retired within the past 30 days but still serve on my presbytery’s Committee on Preparation for Ministry. I had that committee attempt to exclude a candidate at the end of the process, but I dug my heels in and said “No way!” For better or worse, she has been ordained. Keep raising the banner; there are others out there!

  7. My observation is that the whole ordination process as it is practiced in mainstream Christianity (both Protestant and Roman Catholic) is based on the patriarchal premise that there must be some outside stamp of approval for a person to be a “legitimate” minister to those in need. Most give lip service to the idea of lay ministry, but then in countless ways send the message that lay ministry doesn’t really “count.” I respectfully disagree. My baptism was my ordination and Life is my seminary – with all due respect to those who jump through the necessary hoops to be formally educated and ordained. I have at various times seriously considered pursuing formal ordination but just could not make it make sense. And, oh, yes, that matter of the financial investment required to get an M.Div….for a middle-aged person who already has a master’s degree – again, I just couldn’t make it make sense, knowing that after making the huge investment of time, money, and energy to get that M.Div., I would be systematically discriminated against as a woman and would probably never be able to earn as much money in the ministry as men with less education and experience. I’m really not surprised to hear that more and more seminary graduates are choosing careers outside of church. What surprises me is that ANY of the really gifted people stay in, unless they are white males and then it makes more sense..

    • Hi Grace. You’ve described a major element of my misgivings with organized Christianity as it exists today. While I do understand and appreciate the checks and balances for choosing leaders that have been developed throughout the years, I think we’ve lost touch with the core concept of ministry– which is service– and requires no permission from any other human prior to taking place. And of course, the cost of the M.Div., a degree that most fields don’t understand or value, is prohibitive to say the least, making it an unattainable goal for many who dream of pursuing it. I have found the seminaries in the DC areas to be very intentional about cultivating diversity with an eye toward emphasizing the voices of people of a variety of walks of life, including those in the LGBTQ community. I’m grateful that those diverse voices are sticking it out in seminary, specifically because I know it will mean positive changes for Christianity in the future. Thanks so much for commenting!

      • Crystal, you are lovely and gracious and (to my eyes/ears) Spirit-filled. Thank you for all you do to bend the arc toward justice. G~

  8. “Left behind”? “Barred”? …victim words from post-reporting spin.
    The Washington Post piece simply observed and reported that some people are doing theological inquiry and making vocational choices beyond a pastoral-ministry track. Spare us the melodramatic spin, as if students were being victimized by denominational villains.

    • Thad, just curious, would you by chance be a white male? If not, you have possibly been co-opted into the white male mentality which sees anyone who challenges the status quo of white male privilege as whine-y pseudo-victims engaged in “melodramatic spin” (to use your own very condescending, disrespectful words). In my reality (admittedly subjective) , students and others ARE victimized by denominational
      patriarchs who will not willing to give up their privilege to the “others” – anyone who is not white, male traditional, (i.e., “safe”) – unless they are convinced that the occasional token “other” female and/or person of color admitted to the exclusive inner circle will NOT make waves. The denominational patriarchs are not villains, in my perspective – they are simply unconscious in a culture that promotes and rewards unconsciousness. The patriarchs are not malicious, usually, just wounded and fear-based like most of us,. One would hope that religious leaders would be more consciously aware of injustice and would actively and courageously advocate for those who are unfairly discriminated against, but alas, more often than not our religious leaders act as agents of injustice. I thank God for incremental change and for an arc bending toward justice.

      • Yeah, ‘cos everyone knows that white males are less capable of independent, analytical thought than the rest of the population. It’s always nice to get a bit of sexism mixed into one’s racism; it balances it out nicely.

      • Dave, you are (of course) always welcome here… but your tone in the comment sections of the last two posts I’ve written has been more abrasive than I would prefer to see from my visitors. Please feel free to express your opinions, but refrain from addressing my other guests so harshly. Thanks for stopping by. :)

      • Sorry Crystal. Next time I see bigotry on your blog, I’ll make sure to react more gently, that it may continue undisrupted.

      • Dave, my only request here is that you tame your tone. Surely, you have the capacity to express disagreement without being disagreeable. I don’t think I’m asking for anything unreasonable.

  9. I think if they started substituting the first question for the 2nd, they’d simply end up replacing orthodoxy with orthopraxy. Just as they need to tangibly measure an applicant’s beliefs today, they’ll still need to tangibly measure the “ways one demonstrates they belove God” tomorrow.

    Instead of “Do you believe in the Reincarnation, Trinity, and Salvation by faith?”, it’ll become “have you abstained from pre-marital sex, how many days a week do you evangelise to unbelievers, and how much money do you tithe?” I’m not sure how much better this second option would be.

    Still, I agree with you that this state of affairs is seriously in need of improvement, lest the chasm between the ageing gatekeepers and young recruits keep widening.

    Though having said that, I would think that the statistics you cite could easily be interpreted quite positively: More laypeople are getting interested in Christian spirituality and theology……the Church hierarchy is breaking down, and Instead of leaving theology up to the ‘professionals’ and ‘authorities’, ordinary people are starting to take it up……People are no longer content with blindly consuming theology once a week on Sunday, but now want to discover it themselves and apply it to their lives, even though they have no desire of becoming ordained. That’s a good thing, no?

    • Dave, as one of those laypeople, who has earned a certificate from an unaccredited, multicultural/multifaith seminary specifically oriented to the kind of lay education you suggest, but spent an 8-week summer session at her denomination’s biggest-name seminary to take the 2-semester Hebrew course that the denomination requires for clergy ordination, as part of a process of discernment that her call was not to parish ministry, you have no idea what you’re talking about. Though my denomination says my ordination to lay leadership differs from that of clergy in function only, and though my local judicatory validates my ministry as “Writer in Residence,” I am as often as not seen as competing with the clergy for pulpit-supply gigs and access to the pension program, and my publications of my theological discoveries earn me no more than pats on the head. The institutions have control of the money, and they’re more concerned with that than with theological discovery.

      • No, I probably don’t have any idea of what I’m talking about, since I was merely speculating. I also have no idea of what you’re talking about, on account of those tongue-twisting behemoth sentences you just wrote. But it sounds like you probably know what you’re talking about, so you’re probably right.

  10. Crystal, lest I sound like a total grump in my reply to Dave, I want to post a clear appreciation of your post and your view. You’ve alerted me to a Borg work I’d missed and a particular insight that fulfills my wish to find a more active expression to translate =agape=, especially in the Galatians 5 “fruits of the Spirit” (published and about to be republished as http://www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/20480).

    I also bear this problem going back to my Dad, who twice attempted UMethodist seminary and service, but threw up his hands when his ordination committee (he was ordained a Deacon), informed that he did not believe in the literality of Virgin Birth, responded “Well, you’re not going to try to preach that from your pulpit, are you? So no problem.” Yes, he was a white male, but he didn’t fit into a number of boxes. I’ve further seen Presbyterian bodies go both ways, chiding a 2nd-career woman for thinking her pastoral call need not disrupt her outstanding career (and secure pension) as a professor of psychology, and the same Presbytery bringing members of a conservative congregation to tears at the thought that they might not “let us have the pastor we want.”

    I don’t know quite how we can do it, but I don’t see how the institutions can survive without outgrowing the shackles of “belief.”

    • Hi. I just want to tell you how much I highly recommend Speaking Christian by Borg. It didn’t seem to receive the fanfare that his other books have enjoyed, but it really does offer an important and well-simplified series of lessons in theology through the lens of Christian jargon. It could be a great source for group discussion. Have a good night, and thanks for your comment!

  11. I can’t speak to what ordination committees do, since I’m not on an ordination track– I am a Master of Arts student at a prominent seminary. But I can say that I have heard my fellow students say, in response to some things they’ve learned in their classes, that they won’t/can’t share what they’re learning with their future congregations, or they will lose their jobs. This makes me weep.

    • That is very sad. While it is good that the future clergy know the truth about biblical evolution and construction, it is sad that the same people can’t educate their parishioners about it. I am very fortunate that I have a pastor who is willing to push the envelope sometimes… but it’s pretty clear that not all of our congregation are ready/willing to go there. She sees her position as meeting people where they are at to try and bring them further along. But so often, “where they are at” is in the 1960′s or the 1600′s. That’s a wide range of people to have as a teacher.

  12. Great piece, Crystal. I entered into a Masters program because I wanted to be able to expand intellectually and really had no intention of entering in to a minister, or religious, position. I think you already knew that though :) This was a great read, and maybe something I’ll do some more research on for another post another day.

  13. As one unceremoniously dumped from the ordination process by my commitee for none other than desiring to become deacon / Chaplin and serve outside the “walls” as primary ministry, your article hits the nail on the head. Hierarchies cannot control bedside, prison, corporate chaplains-so mostly they give them hell for attempting : only a few aspirants survive. Hoping for spirit over hierarchy has great history. Good enough for JC? Good enough for me.

  14. Some genuinely saddening stories are being shared here. Though it should be kept in perspective, because it isn’t that unusual, and could be worse. These commissions are being so selective because they can. If you were in most other Western countries, you’d be getting knocked back not because of your theological beliefs, but because there weren’t enough positions in the first place, and those positions would be diminishing by the year as congregations (many of which are predominantly white-haired) dwindle or literally die off.

    It’s basic supply and demand. There’s evidently more supply (students) than demand (pastoral positions) in the U.S., so those doing the hiring can afford to be choosy, and reject people as they please. That’s actually pretty normal.

    No one’s going to pay you a salary without strings attached, and almost no one in the world has free reign in their job. That’s just how the real world works. It’s tempting to expect religion to function differently, since it concerns itself with the sacred rather than the mundane, but ultimately organised religion is as much a part of the real world as everything else.

    Teachers don’t get to set their own curriculum. Professionals have to put their company’s interests ahead of their own even when they don’t agree with their ethics. Designers don’t get to be as creative as they please, but must bend to the client’s will. Politicians need to tow the party line. Musicians must be prepared to cater to the tastes of the market if they want to make a living. It would be naive to expect that becoming a salaried pastor would be any less complicated.

    I don’t mean disrespect to the people who have shared their difficulties here, but the reality is that no one can just waltz into an established institution and expect to play by their own rules while getting paid for the privelege. It would be nice if the world worked like that, but it doesn’t.

    • I am a white male about to retire after 38 yrs of local church ministry. I too like others back then was turned down both at my seminary and the ordination committee. This is not new. After 2 years and struggling and jumping thru hoops more I was ordained. I lasted 3 yrs at my 1st church before they ran me off because I expected them to want to receive what I learned and experienced in seminary. It was hell! It too 15 years and a stint in Nicaragua plus a deep personal, emotional, spiritual crisis for me to realize that my congregants were novices in the spiritual journey like I was, and I needed to start over with them on the journey with Christ. That changed everything for the last 20 years.
      No church I served wanted or expected me to really be their pastor. But folks like Eugene Peterson, Frederick Buechner, Madeleine l’Engle, Will Campbell, Carlyle Marney, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and my own seminary prof Walter Brueggemann in succeeding years helped me to realize it wasn’t about me and pointed me into the nuances of who it is about. In more recent years folks like Anne Wilson Schaef, Brian McLaren and Leonard Sweet pushed way beyond myself so that now at 64 I feel like I am finally ready for ministry though for 38 yrs I have complained and raged about the state of the church and the institutional stagnation the members want me to perpetuate.
      I would say the one difference between back the and now is the outrageous amount of loans so many if have. That creates I think a totally impossible situation for your ministry. As a wise one told me years ago, if you are not willing to risk your pension, you will never fully preach the gospel.

    • Try not to get too discouraged by this. Remember, there is a Higher Power at work in the midst of us, in spite of us. I am doing an “entrepreneurial” ministry of grief & trauma education/support (my true calling/vocation/passion/bliss) and I receive some financial support in donations from my clients plus I do fund-raising events and I do some part-time home health consultations to help pay the bills. THANK HEAVENS for my husband’s insurance benefits from his job (which also cover me). I’m not sure what I will do when my husband retires in a few years, but I am trusting that Higher Power has a plan for my medical care that will be revealed when the time comes. I do believe that if any of us has a heart for serving God, then God is faithful to provide for our needs. I believe this based on my personal experience. God hasn’t brought me this far to drop me! Blessings to all, G~

  15. Seminaries are academic institutions. One of their functions is to expose students to unfamiliar ideas, encourage them to consider them without bias, and formulate their own theological positions. But the students have an obligation to ask themselves whether ministry in the Episcopal Church is really consonant with their theological positions, and ministry commissions/standing committees/bishops have an obligation to ask the same question. For although the Episcopal Church is not a “denomination” with a confession of its own, to which ordinands must subscribe, neither is it a church that teaches nothing. It subscribes to the Creeds, which express fundamental Catholic teaching concerning the Trinity and the Incarnation. But, perhaps more important, for Episcopalians “the law of praying establishes the law of believing,” and nearly all the teaching of the seven ecumenical councils is somewhere expressed in the Book of Common Prayer. Those who cannot recite the creeds or participate in all the Prayer Book services without feeling compromised should not be seeking ordination in the Episcopal Church; and ministry commissions/standing committees/bishops owe it to the people in the pews to see that they do not receive it if they are so lacking in integrity that they seek it. They can minister much more honestly as Unitarians.

    • Spot on. And I think you’re very right to distinguish between the ‘blue sky’ world of academic study and the more limited, entrenched demands of the paid workplace. Again, this is pretty universal, regardless of which sector you are trying to work in. The fact that a pastor’s work centres around God won’t magically prevent the rules of the world from applying.

      I’m reminded of my own degrees. In my Multimedia and Digital Arts degree, I was encouraged to produce work that was as artistic, experimental, and creative as possible. I loved it, and produced some really meaningful work. But I’d have been dreaming if I thought I’d have such free reign once I left university. I enjoy the work I do for a living, but it’s nowhere as creative as what I could do at uni.

      And what of the amazing insights I learned during my Philosophy minor before that? Well, those have directly contributed to my career, um…..never.

      Of course, both degrees have impacted my life and informed the way I operate and do my job, but that influence is often indirect or modest. Ultimately the academic and professional worlds are very different animals, as everyone learns sooner or later.

  16. Pingback: Reader Favorites in 2013 – Thank you! | Crystal St. Marie Lewis·

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