What we should learn in seminary

Free Range Priest

Maybe it’s time to reclaim the original definition of germinating new ideas.

“They didn’t teach us this in seminary!”

It’s the rallying cry of clergy in the digital age. And it’s not just technology that inspires this cry. It’s also pandemic, political extremism, boiler explosions, intractable congregants, and unusual situations. There’s a Facebook group and a podcast dedicated to this topic.

I once had a feral cat give birth in the church courtyard, and I spent several weeks of my ministry bottle feeding furry babies (and a couple of nights with a rescue team, trapping a group of feral cats and getting them fixed and vaccinated). Was that class in my seminary handbook? Far from it.

Should they have taught this in seminary? A totally different topic.

If you know me, you won’t be at all surprised that when it comes to theological education, I’m kind of a purist – and a traditionalist. For those of us who are ordained, we’re getting the big bucks (theoretically!) because we’re the ones the community has invested with the deepest possible knowledge of Scripture, theology, liturgy, pastoral care, ethics, music, and history. We’re devoted to – and set aside by the community for – bearing the faith tradition into the world.

Three years (traditionally) hardly seems long enough to soak up enough learning to carry out the task.


I wonder if it’s possible to think of seminary separately from formation for ministry.

Seminary is a late 16th century word that originally meant ‘seedbed‘. It was meant to be the place where knowledge grows, a literal nursery for ideas.

It seems to me that seminary as education needs to focus deeply on the basics of the Christian tradition. And seminary as a nursery for ideas needs to focus on the practical tasks of ministry in a rapidly changing era. I’m not sure cat wrangling would necessarily be on either agenda, but it gives us the opportunity to discern what should be included in both.

As traditional seminaries themselves struggle with the times, we can’t expect the academic model to necessarily incorporate all practical ministry training. At least not in the same way.

But we can consider practical ministry training – through dioceses, denominations, online programs, and yes, seminaries, that truly is a seedbed of new ways of thinking about church. Some topics/ideas I’d love to see…

1. Most applied ministry is the same whether someone is ordained or not.

I think this has to be acknowledged. Ordination is its own process, with its own guidelines. In my own tradition, it includes sacramental tasks (for priests and bishops), but all ordination involves discernment, formation, and upholding by the community for specific roles.

How we actually engage in ministry, though – and even what we call ministry – is not that much different. Preaching, for instance, is done by both lay and ordained ministers. Their preparation may be different, their authority may be understood differently, and their perspective may differ, all according to their roles. But the actual craft of preaching is accomplished (study, prep, delivery) in much the same way.

I’m fond of using the medical professional analogy. Doctors may have very different training, experience and authority than EMTs, but if they’re putting in an IV line, it’s done the same.

In very similar ways, we can have practical ministry training that is the same for all ministers, regardless of status.

2. Digital literacy is nonnegotiable for ministry.

We live in a new world, and it is imperative that we find ways to share our ancient faith through modern methods. Most seminary education still presumes a mid-20th century organizational structure and administration of congregations, dioceses, and denominations.

Practical ministry demands that we think in 21st century ways, and these include fluency with technology. Ministers should be comfortable with things like: navigating social media, utilizing automated messaging and scheduling, and organizing/storing information on cloud-based platforms.

Practical ministry training should help them learn these things.

3. Financial training needs to go beyond church budgets.

When I was in seminary (in the very late 20th century), it was considered cutting edge for seminaries to teach classes on budgeting and parish finances. In some cases this is still true.

While we do need to have some financial training, in the 21st century it needs to go beyond balance sheets. Many ministers are entrepreneurs now. We need to know about income streams and engaging clients and pricing for our services. We need to know how this works in terms of taxes, pensions, and making a living wage.

Practical ministry training should include the reality that most clergy (and lay ministers) serve part-time, and if they want full-time work, it needs to be intentionally created from multiple roles.

4. Content is key.

When it comes to how we serve our ministry, we have to think beyond worship. While gathering for prayer, sacrament, preaching, and song is still central to our life together, there’s lots of need for creating paths to faith. In today’s world, our mindset needs to shift.

The traditional congregational model is programs – ongoing meetings of the same group of people around a topic or project. In today’s world, we need to think about content. Creating courses – even programs – where the core material is set and easily accessible online and in-person. We need to think about how we help our members grow in their relationship with God – and how we help others find that relationship outside of church.

Practical ministry training helps ministers make the mindset shift, and become content creators for spiritual journeys.

Should we teach all these things in seminary? In an academic setting, it seems like we should get all the scholarly subjects we can handle. After all, if we’re not deeply formed in the faith tradition as ministers, who else will be?

But as the growing place for new ideas, I think new kinds of practical formation seminaries – online and in-person – are very much needed for 21st century church.

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