The Crisis in Preparation of Candidates for Ordination in the Episcopal Church

By Peyton G. Craighill and A. Wayne Schwab

[Prepared at the request of the Presiding Bishop  — September 8. 2008]

In recent months, Episcopal Church publications have run articles about the widespread concern for the condition of our seminaries as they face the task of preparing candidates for ordination. This concern is not new. For years, seminary boards, administrations, and faculties have been wrestling with the increasing difficulties that they face in carrying out their mission. Now for a number of seminaries those problems have reached the point of threatening their survival. The underlying issues that have led to this crisis can no longer be pushed aside. For the welfare of Christ’s mission, leaders of the Church must address them directly.

The issue facing the seminaries that is usually raised has to do with seminary finances. As with other educational institutions, the cost of theological education has risen far faster than the general growth in the economy. One seminary estimates that the full cost for educating a candidate for ordination is $60,000 a year, while income from tuition does not exceed $13,000 or 22% of the total. The remaining $47,000 or 78% must come from endowment and donations. A few of the better endowed seminaries with larger donor bases manage to make up this deficit, while the rest find themselves sinking in red ink.

Although the financial issue is, of course, serious, the contention of this paper is that this problem is more a symptom of the crisis rather than its cause. To get at the root of the matter we must look deeper. A paradigm shift is called for in our understanding of Christian mission and ministry and of how church members are prepared for ministry.

In recent decades in the Episcopal Church, our understanding of ministry has been undergoing fundamental change. It used to be that the word “ministry” was associated with ordination. Entering Christian ministry meant being ordained. Now we are returning to the New Testament position that ministry grows, not out of ordination, but out of baptism. From this perspective, ordained ministry is regarded as being a subset of the ministry given by Christ to all his followers through baptism. The ordained are not called to dominate. Their role is to serve and support the ministries that Christ gives to all baptized people. Clergy are no longer viewed as providers of ministry given by them to the consumers in their congregations. Instead they offer inspiration, guidance, and support to the members who share together with them in Christ’s mission. In the Church’s power and authority structure clergy no longer see themselves positioned at the top of the ecclesiastical pyramid. Rather they accept Christ’s model of leadership through servant-hood. Far from losing power, they greatly strengthen their power by sharing power through the ministries of all whom they serve.

The perception of the primary locus for the Church’s ministry is also shifting. In the past, ministry has meant what clergy and congregations do through their parish programs. What church members have done through daily activities in their secular affairs has been regarded as their private business. Now these daily life activities – in the home, at work, in the community, in the wider world, and in their leisure — are coming to be seen as the primary arenas for Christian ministry. Parish programs are not disparaged. They are still valued but in a secondary role as essential services but limited in their ability to change the world around them.

When seminaries accept and adapt to this approach to ministry they go through a similar transformation. They no longer simply teach students how to minister. They help students learn how to aid those they serve to live into the ministries Christ calls them to. Students recognize that they are not just preparing for a future ministry. Through living out their baptismal covenant, for many years they have already been in ministry. And during their time in seminary, as they prepare for ordained ministry they continue to live out their baptismal ministry. As they are given the opportunity to explore their baptismal ministries, past and present, they recognize that they provide the foundation on which their ordained ministry will be built.

At this point our research (“Missionary Spirituality” — now working as Member Mission Network, Inc. — funded by Trinity Church Grants for 1999-2000) and subsequent experience have significant resources to offer. To truly live their baptismal covenant, students need tools to center on the specifics of what they actually do in each arena of their daily lives — home, work (seminary for students), community, wider world, and leisure, as well as church. First, they discern, as best they can, what God is already doing in each of these arenas of their lives. Next, they discern how they will join what God is already doing there and that becomes their ministry for the time being in that arena of their life. Finally, they look for teammates to help them and anticipate how they will talk about God and the church with their teammates.

The results are two-fold. When students have worked through these tools, their living of the covenant is enhanced exponentially. And, they have learned how to use these basic tools to help the members of the congregations they will serve to do the same.

A further step calling for explicit recognition in parish administration and field work is needed. Students need help in how to reshape the corporate life of congregations to support their members in the daily living of their ministries. Small groups for ongoing support, the Prayers of the People including specific reference to these daily arenas, preaching that tells of people living their ministries, each parish organization and activity thinking out how it will support their participants in their daily living, preparation for baptism and confirmation, the reception of newcomers — one by one, each of these can be reshaped to support the members in their daily living. This is a wholly new way in mission for most churches. Managing change, therefore,
becomes a central part of the role of the clergy.

Seminaries that are equipped to prepare students for this approach to ministry will have to move beyond some of the primary assumptions that have been made about what a seminary is. The seminary model that we know today emerged in America in the early Nineteenth Century. From the beginning, seminaries were looked upon primarily as repositories for the wisdom contained in biblical and church tradition. Their purpose was to provide candidates for ordination with an opportunity to withdraw for several years from the distractions of secular life. This gave them time to turn inward on a journey of exploration of the Christian heritage as a foundation for their calling to ordained ministry.

From this perspective, the seminary experience is assumed to be primarily a matter of turning inward and turning to the past. If this is the foundation they build for their parish ministry, is there any wonder that parish life is also assumed to be about turning inward and turning to the past? What does this do to our baptismal commitment to engage with all the arenas of existence lived in the world today seven days a week, and to our vision of God’s Kingdom drawing us into the future?

If we examine the Bible for the story of God’s mission, what do we see? We see God engaging his  servant people as they live their lives in their daily activities — or arenas. Moses is called while tending his flock and Peter while fishing. God empowers these two with a new vision of the future, in the first case, liberation, and in the second the coming of the Kingdom. If this is true for God’s mission in biblical times, isn’t it equally true for God’s mission today? In baptism God still  challenges his servant community to engage the future through outreach into all the arenas of secular activities. Every time a congregation celebrates a baptism, the members renew their commitment to the covenant that sends them out. Shouldn’t the parish experience be primarily one that reaches forward and outward and only secondarily inward and backward? If so, shouldn’t the same be true for the seminary experience?

What do we mean by a seminary experience that focuses primarily on reaching forward and outward and secondarily inward and backward? We begin by recognizing that, unlike rowers who determine their direction for moving forward by looking backward, we Christians are directed, motivated, and empowered by God reaching out to us from the future. The daily ministries the students have discerned become the specific futures for each of them.

The seminary experience begins by helping entering students to see more clearly how in their baptisms God began his call to them to share with him in his mission and in particular how their journey with Christ has been in response to his leading. To make this awareness more concrete and experiential, this examination will focus on the particulars of the various aspects of their daily lives — family, work, community life, the wider world, leisure activities, and participation in church life. Building on this background, they go on to examine how their specific participation in Christ’s mission in the specific arenas of their daily life led up to their decision to enter into ordained ministry. The relationship in their lives between the specifics of baptismal ministry and ordained ministry is examined. Consideration is next given to how life in the seminary community with its variety of participants supports and manifests the call and work of God empowering all its members to share in God’s mission wherever they are.

The empowering call of God from the future and the world’s response to that call, both positive and negative, becomes a hermeneutical principle for the various theological disciplines. The past is by no means slighted. If anything, it becomes more important because it illustrates how in every age the future has been calling people forward while the past has given them the resources to move creatively. The inwardness of the individual is also not overlooked. Once again it becomes more important because the individual’s faith journey is seen in the context of God’s cosmic mission of creation, reconciliation, and new life.

One of the most significant changes in established seminary practice may emerge in regard to the practical theology courses on parish administration and Christian education. At present, these courses have been intended to prepare clergy to be capable of organizing and running an effective parish program. This is certainly a goal much to be desired. But now that we have come to recognize that ministry is not just the work of the ordained and that the most important  ministries are done in seven-day-a-week activities, there is a new stress on seminary students learning how to prepare and support the laity for their daily-life ministries. This calls for including the teaching of ways to help each member to discern how one will join God’s work in each arena of life; and teaching of ways to reshape church life to support members in their daily living.

To return to the question with which this paper began, how can candidates be prepared for ordination effectively with the resources available for the task? It may be that, like David, we must put aside “Saul’s Armor”, – the physical and structural impedimenta inherited from the past. Already, much of the education for ordination is carried on through less formal ways that avoid financial burdens too heavy to carry. In certain situations our graduate school-style theological education survives. But let us not judge too hastily other patterns as necessarily being second-rate.  In the course of their development, we may perceive the Spirit at work, ushering in more creative forms of preparation for mission in daily life.

The question facing us now is this: for the church community at large, what means are most appropriate for supporting these efforts in ways most responsive to God’s challenge to us as he leads us into the future? Will our answers include teaching students to help all of the members of the churches they will serve to discern how to join God’s work in each arena of life and teaching students how to reshape the life of these churches to support their members in living this way? As parish clergy take on these roles, Christians living the baptismal covenant more effectively will  begin to conform the world much more closely to the future that is God’s kingdom.