By Sarah Condon
Several years ago in a galaxy far, far away, in a diocese no one has ever heard of, I attended a conference for parish clergy and the keynote speaker told us we were idiots. Well, he was more subtle than that, but we all felt like idiots when he was done.
The speaker was a seminary professor who wanted to talk about where he thought ordained ministry was heading. His casual opening lost him the room: “Every year,” he began, “like clockwork, I have students come into my office to tell me that they want to be ordained, but that they do not want to be in parish ministry.”
And then he paused dramatically before asserting, “And they are always the smartest students in the class.”
So there I was sitting with a room full of Episcopal parish priests, wondering if I really had been as dumb as I felt in seminary. One of my fellow clergy leaned over and loudly whispered to me, “We are all stupid.”
I am not sure what seminaries intend to train people to do these days, but I am convinced that it has very little to do with actually running a church. What I know seminaries actually do is make the students feel very good about themselves. Every idea I had in seminary was allegedly a good one. I am fairly certain I went three years without hearing one critique. And this was not because I was some sort of a seminary superstar. I had some terrible ideas. I commuted from far away. Oh, and I had a baby.
The affirmation culture of pop psychology has made its way into the theological academy, at least at mainline Protestant seminaries. We are told that we can be the leaders who will fix the church and that all of our snazzy ideas are totally going to work, indeed, that they are “prophetic” (please stop using that word to describe anyone you know).
Of course, the problem with this system is that then our seminaries send these “prophetic” newly ordained people into actual churches with actual lay people. And the ability of lay people to spot bad ideas is very strong. This combination usually makes for a painful, short marriage. One need only glance at the numbers of clergy who last less than five years in parish ministry to know that perhaps that professor was right. Maybe we are all idiots for wanting to do ministry in churches; the smart ones got out ahead of time.
Or maybe our seminaries could do better by the people they are training. Why are we not telling people in seminary that if they do not want serve in churches then they should not be pursuing ordination? I understand the practical reasons (mostly money), but I am astonished that we do not see the negative endgame for the church, not to mention the damage it does to the individual paying for an education: Paying student loans for a ministerial education that proved worthless is a sure and certain path to embitterment.
When I was in seminary, I remember having an endless number of conversations with people in their 20s who wanted to be ordained but classified themselves as “just not sure” about the church. Most of them were interested in academics. I wonder how many professors of systematic theology or biblical studies we will need in the future. According to the flood of people in our seminaries, I am guessing 4 million.
I would suggest that our seminaries are inadvertently devastating our churches. Most people who are ordained do end up in some kind of ordained ministry at some point in their career. However, if they have been encouraged and you are so special-ed through seminary, then it seems perfectly logical to them that they can make their living being an urban garden planter who occasionally talks about Jesus.
The problem arises when they cannot find that job and so they apply to be the lowly assistant at the local church. And they do not have time to plant a garden, because they are running a Vacation Bible School they loathe and preaching sermons they never thought they would have to write. If people do not have a passion for church ministry, then why, O Lord, are we sending them to an educational program that allegedly equips them for such work? Doesn’t the church have enough problems?
I cannot lay the blame for what ails the church squarely at the bottom steps of the seminary. What we are told in our training and what we see in practice just feels so disconnected. There are days when I wish that seminary was more like the FBI Academy.
Seminarians would walk in on the first day, only to be told that many of their classmates will not make it through the year. Instead of spending two weeks writing a sermon, we would give students two hours (because some weeks that is all you are going to have). And then when seminarians preach those practice sermons and they are not very good, someone needs to be brave enough in the ivory tower to tell them that. When a student wants to share a vision for the church as a dinner theater, instead of responding with unbridled enthusiasm, someone should suggest applying to culinary school. There is nothing wrong with learning how to cook well, but there is everything wrong with trying to do it at seminary.
If, after all of that, our seminarians still long to preach the gospel, they still ache to bring the good news of forgiveness to a hurting and sinful world, they still want to seek the lost and the lonely on the pews of an old church, then by all means call them idiots. Because they are indeed fools for Christ.
The Rev. Sarah Condon is an Episcopal priest serving at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, Houston. She is married to the Rev. Josh Condon, and they are parents to Neil and Annie.
The featured image comes via Flickr user Iraul06. It is licensed under Creative Commons.