There’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:
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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”
“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?