There is another solution to the high cost of ministry besides forgiving debt and adding a new class of lay ministers, and that is to pare down the requirements for preliminary fellowship to those which are essential to a beginning minister, can’t be easily acquired when not in school, and which can be reasonably accomplished in three years. When I entered seminary 40 years ago, almost all students finished their seminary work, their internship, and their Clinical (chaplaincy) training, met the Fellowship Committee (credentialing) AND completed a search for their first ministry, all in three years. Part time work in churches, work-study, and a couple of summer jobs was a part of those three years, making the process much more affordable.
My experience with intern applicants and seminary students these days tells me that, besides the 250% increase in the cost of seminary, a major contributing factor to the expense of preparing for ministry is that this is now at least a 4 year long process, which sometimes extends to 5 or more. That’s almost twice the amount of prep time ministry used to take, and that time, for most candidates is time out of a living –wage income. While seminary itself is still a three year degree, the list of competencies to prove, experiences to have, and books to read has grown longer and longer over the years. The MFC meets half as often as it used to, meaning that students often complete all requirements for ministerial fellowship and then cool their heels for months waiting for their interview. And if they don’t happen to perform well enough in that interview, they wait at least 12 months for another chance to prove their merit before they can begin to even look for work in ministry. (This happens to even well-prepared candidates who go on to success in ministry.) The high stakes nature of this interview itself encourages candidates to delay their appointment and increase their preparation time. All this adds incredible stress and expense to the work of preparing for ministry.
If we assumed that our new ministers would continue to be learners throughout their career, we could ease up on the requirements for preliminary fellowship, discarding some and perhaps moving some to the second stage of Final Fellowship, allowing new ministers to “finish” their ministry preparation while being employed. Let us look again at that high stakes interview that is the key to the ministerial credentialing process (which has not been seriously reviewed since merger, and which is very different from any other professional credentialing process) and ask ourselves if this is really the best way to assure that ministers are prepared for their work, and if it is worth its many costs.