Once upon a time, college seniors with a call from God applied to seminary,
graduated in three years, and were ordained in their mid-twenties to serve as assistant or associate pastors in large institutional churches or as solo pastors in rural or small town institutional churches. They were almost always male. They usually married young. And they usually had children that they raised in the church.
About the time I felt God’s nudge, things were changing a bit:
- More women were feeling called to serve the church as pastors.
- Those women often needed to attend seminaries near their working husbands (which means they were not always free to relocate to attend a denominational seminary.)
- Some of those women didn’t follow their call to seminary immediately after college because they were raising their children, or they were supporting their husband’s careers, or they were unaware that professional ministry was even an option for their gender.
- Some men were increasingly taking different paths to seminary as well.
- Culture was changing.
- Church was changing.
It used to be true that all future pastors followed essentially the same path to serve the church professionally, but today seminarians are more diverse – and not only in terms of age and ethnicity. Life situations are wildly varied among today’s future pastors.
For starters, fewer people are preparing to be future pastors, but that post is for another day.
This post is about something else: Our seminarians and candidates for professional ministry are increasingly exceptional – in every way.
Our local Commission for the Preparation for Ministry (the entity that oversees the process towards ordination for Teaching Elders/Pastors/Ministers of the Word and Sacrament in the PCUSA) was discussing recently the fact that our students and seminary graduates are increasingly asking for exceptions to the requirements. Many have very good reasons. Maybe they need to take field education in a foreign country because of family responsibilities. Or maybe they need to figure out an accelerated course of study. Or maybe they can only take Clinical Pastoral Education in a setting on the other end of the country.
Life is more complicated these days and sometimes this means exceptions are necessary. This doesn’t mean we toss requirements that are merely inconvenient or difficult. It means we prepare people in the best possible way for professional ministry based on their personal needs and situations.
Again, this is about traditional preparation for ministry. There is a valid conversation in spiritual communities today that seminary may not be possible, practical, or necessary for all professional church leaders. While I believe that there are gaps in seminary curricula today (e.g. in teaching missional ecclesiology or how to start new churches) I still value seminary education as an important tool for preparing people to serve God in spiritual communities professionally.
Seminary education is shifting. From financial struggles to fewer applicants to cultural tsunamis, the seminary of 20th Century and the seminary of the 21st Century need to do things differently, if they are going to be effective.
And in the meantime, we’ll continue to make exceptions as needed. There’s more than one way to equip the saints for professional ministry. And permission-giving is often an act of grace.