Who will say you’ve mastered divinity?

Religion / Web/Tech

I had a wonderful conversation with a colleague over lunch today. We were talking about the future of Theological Education and the role of seminaries. (But we could have just as well have been talking about the role of traditional Universities.)

iTunes University and other similar tools make it very easy to share world-class lectures. But that’s only part of what’s involved in getting an education. There’s the issue of mastering the material, not just consuming it. And then there’s the issue of demonstrating mastery.

A professor at Wheaton College, Alan Jacobs, talks about this very question in terms of “credentialing” – or giving a student some sort of imprimatur that tells the rest of the world that the student is now the master.

Jacobs writes of how Universities are going to have to unbundle the services they provide:

“But now: unbundling. Clearly, many universities have come, or are coming, to the conclusion that their primary product is the credentialing, and that they can give knowledge away either as a public service or as brand consolidation (choose your interpretation according to your level of cynicism). Those 160,000 students may have learned a great deal about artificial intelligence, and the successful ones received a “statement of accomplishment … sent via e-mail and signed by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig.” But in announcing the course the instructors were careful to note that the “statement of accomplishment … will not be issued by Stanford University.””

Read the rest here.

The problem is particularly acute in theological education. We’ve effectively funded theological education for the past four decades by asking mid-life students to cash out the equity in their homes and use that to subsidize their and younger student’s educations. But the equity disappeared with the recent housing price collapse, and with it the business model of most of the seminaries in the Mainline denominations.

So how do we do education now? Perhaps by using freely available online education materials and asking local diocesan tutors (perhaps centered around diocesan cathedrals) to facilitate regular discussion and seminar classes on the material; not unlike how Community Colleges are using the free lectures being provided by MIT and Yale. The students get the best lecture material and they get the classroom discussions. Good!

The problem is certifying that the student has mastered the material in such a way as to be able to assure another diocese or congregation that the student is ready to be hired outside of the training diocese.

In the Episcopal Church we’ve used the General Ordination Exams to do some of that, but lately there’s been a great deal of dissatisfaction with the exams on the part of seminaries and dioceses. (The sense I hear is that the GOE’s are becoming quirky in what they’re testing.) I wonder if it’s time for the Episcopal Church to have a conversation about rethinking the GOE’s and the work of Seminaries so that working in concert they can manage the issue of certification.

If clergy are going to take on the rabbinical role in the community that is being increasing expected of them, we probably need to be moving in this direction.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. I think it’s an important direction to talk about, Nick. The correlative is that in the past century the wider church effectively delegated to the seminaries as well what I think we would call “priestly formation.” The shaping of character, moral life, piety, spiritual foundation, social infrastructure. In ancient, pre-20th century days the local bishop and the college of presbyters in the diocese devoted a considerable amount of time to mentoring those preparing for ordained ministry, both individually and in groups–and sometimes even residentially, with prospective ordinands living together in a kind of ecclesial fraternity. No question in my mind but that new technologies on one side and changing financial realities on the other have stressed the three-year residential seminary model in profound ways. But I don’t see iSeminary and a couple of extended weekend Commission on Ministry retreats doing the kind of work that needs to be done.

    Bruce Robison

  2. I agree that a devolved method of education professional clergy is probably the way of the future, and maybe it’s time to re-think the whole “credentialing / certification” thing … Rabbis in Jesus’ day didn’t have a piece of parchment or transcripts, like Buddhist teachers, they were simply known as people with an extraordinary knowledge of the scriptures and how one applied them in daily life.

    Clergy education is also something more than just class discussions and lectures, though. It is also a process of verification that a postulant’s spiritual practice is sufficiently mature and developed for the rigors of fulfilling the archetypical position of shaman / priest. I disagree with Bruce slightly, in that I believe Seminary’s role is not to provide a foundation of spiritual practice, or shape a postulant’s character, moral life or piety. Instead, I believe that we should expect more of Seminarians. It should be a given that postulants already have a solid foundation of character, moral life, piety and spiritual practice. Seminary should be a place where that foundation is further refined and the postulant be able to learn how to “live into” his or her calling.

    Just my humble musings. May they be of benefit to all sentient beings.

  3. Paul Martin says

    I think the point of credentials is that they serve as a substitute for deeper knowledge of the individual, and they communicate an imprimatur to people who are not equipped to evaluate the candidate in any depth themselves. This wasn’t necessary in a small village with a single blacksmith; you knew their work, defects were obvious, and the man lived or died (perhaps literally) by the value of his reputation. If I hire a plumber, I am less able to evaluate his or her skills, so I rely on credentials. The rise of Angie’s list and other services shows that system isn’t enough, but it’s a lot better than nothing. In a large, complex world where the next candidate for ministry could come from across the country, I don’t think we are going to get rid of credentials any time soon.

    I don’t know what the solution is, but I recognize the problem. If you compare the cost of a seminary education to the expected salary on graduation, I am sure the comparison is frightening. I wonder if our pool of seminary graduates is going to devolve into two camps: trust fund babies and financial idiots. Probably all wonderful people, but not a good way to discern a calling.

  4. EFM, internships/apprenticeships, and less Mickey Mouse GOE’s. I’m almost glad I was rejected for ordination because I’m much better off financially than I would be otherwise.

  5. One of the reasons why I think a cathedral-centered program has such promise is because, I assume (ok–in some places it’s a very large assumption…) that it is the one place in the diocese here you ought to be assured daily Morning and Evening Prayer with a suitable rota of weekday as well as Sunday Masses. Therefore it’s already got the liturgical practices that are an important part of developing a priestly (prayer-book centered) spirituality.

  6. I agree with what has been said here about the costs of seminary education and the challenge with the GOE’s. My concern about moving away from a residential seminary model is that while content can be taught, there is still much to be learned from ones peers in a classroom or seminar environment. Many undergraduate colleges and universities, especially the best ones, take this into account when they balance their faculty-to-student ratios to the quality of students they try to accept. I think that part of this learning can certainly be accomplished through a diocesan-based education program, but I also think there is something deeply valuable about engaging in discussion with peers who are also fully invested in the seriousness of the academic and spiritual exercise that is a residential seminary education.

    • I should be clear that I still think a traditional three year seminary experience will be the gold standard for preparation. It’s just that there are increasing numbers of students for whom that model isn’t appropriate or doesn’t work. And there are going to be clergy in new sorts of ministries such as bivocational priests leading house churches where the “gold standard” would be inadequate.

  7. So how about students who do the reading and lecture work on line being paired up with congregations who have been trained to mentor people in their ministry formation? And also grouping students into learning groups, to grapple with the meaning of the material and experiences they are sharing? We have experience in pieces of this, but how do we put it together using the resources of our seminaries and our congregations in some kind of synergy?

  8. Andrew, I agree in part, but I think formation within the community of the congregation is actually the easier part of the equation to solve.

    The harder problem: you need to get a bunch of people who are preparing for ordered diaconal or presbyteral ministry and pour them into a pot with a bunch of people who are mature, experienced, and healthy deacons and priests, put them over a low flame, and stir frequently, for a significant period of time.
    I don’t actually believe the seminaries, or at least most of them, have done all that great a job of this kind of formation over the last century. But the diocese has thrown in the towel pretty much altogether.

    If we’re going to shift a locus of formation back to the diocese, this will I think require specifically the bishops and clergy of the diocese to make personal, “hands-on,” substantial participation in that formation a much higher priority in terms of time and energy both before and after ordination.

    Bruce Robison

  9. Bruce, actually I agree with you on this. The idea I have is that there be a mix: on-line learning for content and lectures; a mentoring parish; a peer group led by a mentor/supervisor; and a community of experienced clergy who would participate in the formation as well. I like your last paragraph in particular.

    Andrew Gerns

  10. Could you expand on the last paragraph a bit? I’ve gotten the impression most priest’s role is more managerial.

  11. I wish I could attend seminary. But I live far from any that are Epsicopal, and I have 12 years of kids in college ahead of me. And I am not alone. Seminaries are going to have to adapt to the reality of who their students are — or would be, if there was more recognition of reality.

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