By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

As fall classes resume for priests-in-training at General Theological Seminary in New York, those in their final year are spending most of their time on campus — and closing out a long tradition.

That’s because GTS will overhaul the third-year experience for master of divinity candidates. Starting in fall 2015, third-year students will work 20 hours per week at area parishes, where they will hone practical skills and put lessons from the classroom into action.

The pioneering of this new “Wisdom Year” as part of a Way of Wisdom at General shakes up a seminary norm of three classroom years that has dominated since the 19th century. It’s the latest in a wave of efforts across denominations to make theological education more practical for those who hire graduates and less expensive for those called to serve.

No longer will GTS students be largely cloistered for three years in “The Close,” as General’s Lower Manhattan campus is known. Nor will their field work be limited, as it has been for years, to internships of 10 hours per week.

“If one of the premises is that you gain wisdom from being out in the real world, then we need to open the gates of The Close,” said the Very Rev. Kurt Dunkle, dean and president of GTS.

For students at General, the financial payoff will be immediate. The estimated $25,000 they will earn for Wisdom Year work in local parishes will offset the $10,000 they pay in tuition plus the $15,000 they pay annually for housing. Reducing the net cost of seminary by one third will help lower their debt load, which currently averages $54,000 at graduation (including earlier student debts), Dunkle said.

The benefit should be equally pragmatic for congregations. The idea is that congregations will welcome more seasoned priests than if they hire individuals who spent most of their third seminary year in classes.

“The more traditional way is three years of seminary with a little field education and then you assume that somebody is a curate or an associate pastor in larger congregation for a while, learning some things,” said Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools. “But that is changing, and General is responding to that.”

A new graduate often serves solo as a part-time vicar or rector. That situation heightens their need for on-the-job training before they leave school entirely.

General is betting the Wisdom Year’s practical value to congregations will appeal to bishops, who decide where postulants attend seminary, and generate fresh support for the seminary. GTS is shaving costs wherever possible to manage what Dunkle called an “unsustainably high” deficit. He declined to say just how large the deficit is, but added that “everything is on the table” as Episcopal seminaries discuss new ways to share services and resources.

Observers of theological education say it’s a significant experiment. They will be watching to see whether the quality of education can be sustained while students commit more time to parish responsibilities. How GTS will alter its curriculum is not yet decided, Dunkle said, but the seminary world is already eager to see the results.

“Doing this kind of integrated, on-the-ground, in-context year just makes perfect sense,” said Christian Scharen, vice president for applied research at Auburn Theological Seminary’s Center for the Study of Theological Education.

Scharen said the Wisdom Year responds to two major drivers of change in theological education: hefty student debt loads and the need for practically trained leaders who understand fast-changing cultural contexts and can respond effectively.

Observers, however, should not think GTS is trying to do seminary education on the cheap, Dunkle said. Improving how tomorrow’s priests are trained, with an emphasis on church growth, is the motivation.

“The Wisdom Year does reduce the cost of most aspects of seminary by about a third,” Dunkle said. “The cost saving is not the driving factor, but it is a delightful unintended consequence.”

Wisdom Year students will do much of what curates used to do in flusher times. They will preach every Sunday; employ church growth techniques learned from visiting experts at GTS; and grow comfortable reviewing balance sheets, making consequential decisions, and living with the results in a community.

The vision calls for learning on the job, through some trial and error, to chasten tomorrow’s priests before they become vicars, assistant rectors, or rectors. Prospective supervisors are meanwhile cautiously hopeful that hiring students as full-fledged pastoral staff will be a wise investment.

“Seminarians typically come in and they require as much work as they give because they require oversight and supervision,” said the Rev. J. Donald Waring, rector of Grace Church in New York City. “For this to be attractive to parishes, the person has to be someone who comes on staff and doesn’t require more work [than] he or she brings to the table.”

If the Way of Wisdom does work, Waring said, it could meet a significant need in the Diocese of New York.

“It can help the parishes that can’t afford a curate,” Waring said. “What they can have is a Way of Wisdom person for a fraction of the cost.”

Many Way of Wisdom details remain to be worked out. Dunkle said first- and second-year students might have access to a greater range of academic courses than they do now. For the sake of costs and speed, they’re likely to continue a trend toward completing academic requirements in five semesters. Whether GTS will rework courses to help students cover more material in less time remains to be seen.

General’s foray into a new education model stands in contrast to approaches used at many seminaries, where courses are increasingly offered online and at satellite campuses to hold down costs. In these other settings, every effort is made to help cash-strapped students work toward their degrees without leaving full-time jobs or relocating with families in tow.

Aleshire said General’s approach bears some resemblance to that of Meadville Lombard Theological School, a Unitarian Universalist seminary in Chicago, where the Master of Divinity program has been reinvented to draw heavily on a variety of field placement experiences. This aligns the Wisdom Year somewhat with the way physicians are trained, he said, as they do a series of rotations at hospitals.

The Episcopal Church’s 10 seminaries have thus far leaned toward a traditional, residential model that places a premium on priestly formation in a community setting, despite high prices that have made programs difficult to sustain.

If General’s Way of Wisdom delivers on its promises and satisfies bishops, then peer Episcopal institutions are apt to consider following suit, at least to some degree.

“They’re all going to look at it,” Aleshire said. “I don’t know whether they’re all going to adopt it or adapt it or say it’s not the way to do Episcopal education, but they’re all going to pay attention to it.”

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