I’m glad minister and blogger Christine Robinson (iMinister) has stirred the financing-ministerial-education pot here and here and here.
Her thoughts include a reform of the Unitarian Universalist ministerial internship system, in which it is not uncommon for a family to be divided for a year. I’d add the bottleneck — there’s more demand than supply, and there’s little incentive for congregations to add internships — which keeps promising candidates for ministry outside of fellowship. She proposed an extended, alternative internship.
But let me take this one step further. Is a seminary education an essential qualification for ordained ministry? Or rather, is it a one formation opportunity among others?
I have met — perhaps you have, too — skilled professionals, epecially in the literary, design and technology world who are either self-trained or who developed their skills while working. And I’ve known persons of spiritual depth and skill but lacking a seminary education (or ordination, or both) who I would gladly have as a pastor.
I’ve seen people of differing ages hobbled by the debt they took to afford a seminary education, and have met others who came to the end of their M. Div. to discover they had no continuing calling for the ministry. But do have the bills.
And — this is the rub — there are gaps in the seminary experience you could drive a semi through.
But back to the Unitarian Universalist experience for a moment. Apart from small district-led programs and local custom, there’s little opportunity to develop as a something-other-than-an-ordained-and-fellowshiped-minister, like, say the Universalist lay preachers or Congregational commissioned ministers. So let me start there. I would welcome as a minister someone who learned the ropes of ministry on-the-job for three or four years part-time, in a medium-sized or large church, under a minister’s supervision, with evening and weekend training to round out. Call this person a “parish assistant” or what have you. This experience might even run concurrently with a college education, should that opportunity present itself.
Throughout, and certainly at the end, let a committee of local ministers interview the parish assistant, and if he or she is found qualified, let them issue a letter of license for a year. Perhaps now’s the time to take on a sole pastorate. Review and renew, if worthy, the next year. And then a then again. And if at the end of three years — seven in all — the licensed minister has grown into a peer, let her or him be ordained. (It’s not hard to imagine a parallel process for institutional ministries.)
There are a couple of problems of course. I’ve known a training college in Another Denomination that prepared and supported ministers like this. It was well-loved by lay persons, too. But people with seminary ties saw it as a rival and it has been bled into a shadow of its former self. Such a plan, too, would attract enemies. It also assumes a geographic density that Unitarian Universalists have in only a few areas, but in which I suspect most of the membership lives.
And then there’s inertia. It’s plain there are enough people who are willing to suffer the current system. Suffer, perhaps, but can they thrive within it. And perhaps less than thrive — can we survive with a generation or two of endebted ministers, buffetted by a largely opaque and unaccountable system?