When I was at Solomon’s Porch on Sunday night, Doug Pagitt said something to the effect that when he was going to seminary he was being trained for an industry that was dying and would likely cease to exist (and that those of us in seminary should think about that). He compared it to being trained as a typewriter repairman in the late 80s. It’s a scary thought for those of us pouring thousands of dollars into a seminary degree.
But I think I totally agree.
Our current ecclesiology is simply unsustainable. In the ELCA the average church is under one hundred people and shrinking. Most churches have their own seminary-trained pastor, who set aside 8 years of his or her life (undergraduate and seminary) and pay tens of thousands of dollars in order to be equipped as a leader. When churches are shrinking and the cost of training pastors is increasing, eventually you reach a tipping point where churches simply cannot afford the old model of pastoral training. Once we do we will see a radical shift in what it means to lead a church.
At this point in our history, we have outsourced the training of pastors to a German research university model. Why are our churches not able to train people up as leaders and pastors? Surely a local body of only ten small-sized churches has the intellectual and financial capability to train their people locally in Christian leadership.
As someone who is enrolled in a seminary program that requires us to be working in a local church (most of us are full-time lay staff) as we complete our curriculum, I am seeing the immense value in connecting theological education to local church leadership. Much of the initial research that is being done on our program is pointing to the advantage of such a model of training and education.
Honestly, the shift to distance education is a fairly small one, because it is still tied to the institution and the “mother church.” But the direction it is moving, albeit slowly, is back towards contextual education within local congregations. A bigger step would be to remove the educational process from the seminary institution and move it towards the churches. Such a move requires would require us to rethink vocation, ordination, ecclesiology, and church polity, all discussions that need to be had if we are going to survive and flourish in this cultural climate.
As much as I love the big ideas that happen in our educational institutions, when I ask the question, Does this model best serve the church? I keep answering with a resounding No. We may still need institutions for people who want a Ph.D., but congregational leadership training could be located elsewhere. The church must learn (and quickly) how it will reclaim the training of its people from the distant institution and relocate it within the local congregation. Some attempts have already been made, with little success. What will be needed for this to work is people with the proper educational credentials leaving the established system to pursue an alternative method.
I’ve said before that we need a radical new ecclesiology. A critical piece of that will be a radical new way to train leaders in the church.
Any ideas how to get there?