I am a parish minister currently serving the Eliot Church of Natick MA. Eliot Church is a Community Church affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Any statements made and postions held in "Unity," however, are solely mine(of course, they may be used with appropriate atribution). Therefore if you disagree, please do not blame the church!

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Seminary Thoughts

The recent flurry of posts about the now defunct merger between Starr King and Meadville/Lombard has been knocking around my head quite a bit lately. What I have been thinking about, in particular, is the model that we use for our schools. I am wondering if the M.Div. is really, truly the best way to go about preparing ministers.

I got my M.Div. (as I mentioned before) from M/L. What I recieved, for the most part, was a first class education in theology, church history and Bible studies. When I was there M/L students took over half their courses at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Some of our other seminary courses were cross-listed at UCDS (those taught by John Godbey and Ron Engel in particular) and others were taken at nearby seminarys, so we were very much a part of what was going on in the world of religious studies in Hyde Park. I was excited by the intellectual life of that community and was pleased to be a part of it.

My professional courses were OK too, but I didn't learn to be a minister in a classroom in Chicago. In fact, after two years I left and moved back to Maine to work for money while my wife worked toward her Master's in Social Work. I held positions in the social services and, later as a community organizer in the northern and western parts of the Pine Tree State. That is where I learned to listen, to plan programs, and to work with a budget. I learned to preach because I needed the money supply gigs provided. I preached a lot in many small, rural churches (two of which I later served as their settled minister). It was learning through practicing and it seemed to work.

Also, I took courses at Bangor Theological Seminary. I loved them. In many ways, I feel more of a connection there than to my experiences at M/L. They taught me about faith--mine and theirs. They challenged me to consider my vocation and call in a way that I had not experienced before. Enforcer points out that BTS has fallen on hard times. It is worthwhile to note that in this current economic and religious climate it is very easy for liberal religious institutions to do everything right and still struggle mightily.

Finally, I learned during those years from a small group of senior ministers who encouraged me and provided me with insight and inspiration. Key among them were the Revs. Johanna Nichols, Severn Towle, and Alec Craig. Later, during my internship, I had the pleasure of learning from John Corrado in Grosse Pointe Michigan. These four probably had more to do with the sort of minister I am today than all of my courses combined!

I guess what I am saying is that perhaps it would make more sense to separate the academic work from the practice a bit more than we do. Both are extremely important but are better taught in different ways. Perhaps we should encourage our prospective colleagues to receive two-year MA's from Divinity Schools and then take much longer internships (or, rather, paid apprenticeships) with senior colleagues. In this way the congregations could learn along with the students and the seminarys could provide the sort of formation-work that they are supposed to be best at.

How would we pay for it? I don't know. It would take a re-imagining of theological education, maybe there are some savings there. My sense, though, from what I have read is that many students are not happy with how things are now. I probably could have been happier, too. If we reallya re serious about finding new ways to move our ministry into the future, maybe it requires more than hiring a few professors or tweaking the reading list. Maybe we need a whole new way of thinking.