Friday, April 15, 2011

Another Question from the Strategic Plan for Ministry

(Which you can find at the website)

Is the Masters of Divinity still the best pathway to the ordained ministry? What alternatives might we explore?

This question could have a couple of meanings.  The first involves the degree itself, which is actually not required for our ministers if you can show you have equivalent preparation.   The M.Div is one of the few generalist masters degree programs left in the educational pantheon, and a UU minister certainly needs that broad preparation; academic, religious, spiritual, and practical.  We want our ministers to have knowledge of religious history, theology, UU'ism, world religions, psychology, social theories, the multi-cultural world, scriptures, literature.  We want them to be mature and have basic management and leadership skills, not to mention wisdom, writing and public speaking skills, and church smarts.  Most of all, we need them to be theologically and spiritually grounded and able to assist others (of different theological and spiritual bents) to be grounded.   The M.div attempts all of that.  When added to clinical work and church internship, I think it covers all the bases.

But I have a feeling that the question really means,  "is seminary education as we used to know it still the best pathway for ordained ministry?"  That is to say, is the best preparation for ministry embedding oneself in a community of persons preparing for ministry, probably within an interfaith/academic context?

The answer to that question is that even if it is the best, it is probably unaffordable, and even then, only by mooching on the Methodists (and a few other old-line denominations) who endowed their seminaries with scholarship funds which they are generous in sharing with UU's.  I myself took advantage of this generosity and got a fine education.  After a semester of sabbatical, watching our Seminary at Meadville re-make itself for a more affordable and sustainable future,  I believe that we will feel this loss, and will have to find ways to compensate for it.  The graduates who will not come into ministry in debt to their eyeballs will, it is hoped, be able to continue their ministerial formation more easily in their early years of ministry.

Meadville has gone to a distance-learning model which embeds those preparing for ministry in local congregations and gathers students for intensive learning experiences during the year.  I think that it is possible that these students will get something out of their seminary experience that traditional students don't get; a long-term view of ministry and congregations.    Students are also involved in learning groups which meet by telephone and with their professors via email and teleconferences, and it is clear that they form deep bonds in these groups.   They have some brief experiences of traditional seminary during the intensive course month of January, but the coursework they are involved in is, well, intense.

I hear that Starr King is also reaching out in distance-learning, although it still offers a more traditional resident community.  And I believe that about 2/3 of students studying for the ministry are studying in seminaries of other denominations, either because they are near where they live or because they  want that traditional seminary experience and have been offered scholarship help to afford it.

If the question means,  "Would it be possible to do as the Evangelicals do, to self-educate ministers within congregations?"  I think that the answer is "no."    The Evangelical model of ministry is different from ours.  It is deeper in some ways, and considerably narrower.  The areas in which it is deeper, such as spirituality and biblical study, can be taught within a large church (quite a bit larger than any of our churches...) The breadth that we expect in our minister's training can only be gotten within academia, and probably within a program specifically designed to prepare for our kind of ministry.  The distance-learning models that, in different ways, ours and other seminaries are exploring, will probably be the "new way" that people prepare for ministry.   What we should be exploring is how churches and the support of ministry need to change to produce fine ministers, given the reality of this distance-learning preparation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've been enjoying your blog for some time. Thank you for your thoughtfulness.

One other area you might investigate is the interfaith seminary route. Several of us from the Rochester NY UU church have or will graduate from a phenomenal program in NYC at One Spirit Interfaith Seminary. We do not get a masters and it's only two years parttime. While none of us is planning on parish ministry, we are ordained and are bringing a deep ministry to our church. Mostly we are older, mid-50s - 60s who make up for the academia with the wisdom of life experience.

I think to thrive, our congregations ought to be looking at this as well as the deacon route you described earlier. Our church is certainly benefitting.

Thanks again,
Joy Collins, First Unitarian Church of Rochester NY