When the Iona School for Ministry launched in 2004 as a training ground for bivocational priests and deacons, organizers in the Diocese of Texas hoped the innovative program would help small congregations in eastern Texas find the type of leaders they need.
Nine years later, Iona has done that and more. Besides training 27 deacons and 25 priests in the Diocese of Texas, the school now attracts students from as far away as Nebraska and Wyoming, and it’s taking steps to replicate the model in other dioceses.
“We were never thinking that other dioceses would want to send students to our school,” said Mary MacGregor, executive director of the Iona School for Ministry. “That was not even on our radar. The word got out about our school.”
Last year marked the start of the Iona Initiative, a pilot program aimed at reproducing insights from the Iona School for Ministry and training bivocational leaders for service in eight dioceses. Overseen by the Seminary of the Southwest, the Iona Initiative provides local formation programs in Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Hawaii.
The quest to provide low-cost training has apparently struck a chord. Costs at Iona School for Ministry are a fraction of those charged at traditional Episcopal seminaries, where students graduate on average about $50,000 in debt. At Iona, students from the Diocese of Texas pay just $2,000 per year. Those from other dioceses pay $3,600.
The school keeps costs down by using the diocese’s Camp Allen Conference and Retreat Center and paying modest wages for educators, according to the Rev. Samuel R. Todd, Jr., Iona’s academic dean. Some diocesan staff members teach as part of their jobs and receive no additional compensation for classroom time. Others brought in to teach receive just $250 for teaching all day on a Saturday.
Students are working professionals, retirees, and others who intend to serve without compensation in small congregations. They spend 10 weekends per year for three years at Camp Allen, located 70 miles northwest of Houston in Navasota. They drive or fly in Friday and stay through midday Sunday. A packed schedule includes classes on Saturday night, more classes on Sunday morning, and leading worship services.
Todd acknowledges that Iona students depend on less-credentialed faculty and do not receive the same level of training as those educated at traditional seminaries. Still, they cover subjects from New Testament to the history and practice of priesthood. And they graduate ready to serve, without burdensome debts, in congregations that cannot afford to pay even a part-time priest’s salary.
“We have to cover the same ground in a lot less time” than traditional seminaries have, Todd said. “We do it in a condensed way that’s much less thorough.”
On the flip side, Iona offers some advantages for its niche of students. The training is focused on small churches’ needs and prepares students specifically for situations they are apt to encounter in those settings.
G. Jeffrey MacDonald