What graduates are saying about job prospects

Christian Theological Seminary

How marketable is the M.Div.? This was the underlying issue that guided a recent multiday online conversation that I hosted on my Facebook page. My motives in starting it stemmed from my seminary’s recent investigations into the job market for graduates holding our signature degrees — particularly the master of divinity (M.Div.). While we knew plenty of success stories of graduates going on to lead congregations effectively as ordained pastors, we have been interested in the overall job market for those holding these degrees — jobs within the church and outside of it.

 

Having served as a pastor, a professor, and a seminary staff member, I’ve amassed a large collection of Facebook friends who are seminary graduates from across the ecclesial spectrum — Lutheran, evangelical, Orthodox, and beyond. These friends work in a diverse array of vocations, and the length of time they’ve been at their work is all over the map — some are retired, some newly minted graduates, and most somewhere in between. 

 

In the course of my asking questions about the marketability of seminary degrees, more than 50 friends — a number of whom I have never met in person — chimed in. Due to Facebook’s ability to host multiple sub-threads within a larger discussion, participants were able to respond to specific themes, indicate agreement with a point via the “like” button, and generally give an intriguing snapshot of how current seminary graduates are thinking about the job market for the degrees that most of them spent multiple years and thousands of dollars obtaining.

 

The three questions that I posed were as follows:

 

1. For pastor friends: What aspects of seminary prepared you well for your ministry, and what was lacking/in need of improvement?

2. How do you view the job market for your field now compared to when you entered and/or graduated from seminary?

3. For those of you who have master’s degrees related to ministry but sought employment outside the church, how was your degree/seminary training looked upon by those potential employers?

 

I unpack the responses below.

 

1 “The ones who expect seminary to teach them everything are the ones who get in trouble in the parish.”

Answers to the first question, on “what aspects of seminary prepared you well,” mostly indicated both gratitude (for a grounding in theology, history, Bible, and preaching skills) and criticism (for the lack of training for organizational leadership in times of near-constant transition). One respondent wrote: “Seminary trained me to accept failure, but it didn’t teach me how to manage success in worldly terms — numbers, finances, etc.” Another wrote: “Lack of training in conflict management leads some pastors to end up taking personally what is actually a developmental need of their congregation — leading to burnout and worse.” Still another wrote: “I needed to know how to deal with sexism, ageism, and micro-aggression within congregations.”

 

The complaint that seminaries are too academic and insufficiently practical is, of course, an old one. What was striking in these answers was that the desire for practical knowledge had less to do with learning the “how-to” aspects of ministry and more to do with being taught how to adapt and learn while immersed in communities that are in flux and laden with anxiety. 

 

2 “Ministry happens everywhere, anywhere, whether you get paid for it or not.” “Right, but I have student loans.”

It was in answer to the second question — about the job market within the church — where responses became the most heated. There was significant concern about the viability of full-time ministry as a career with a living wage. In a sobering comment, one friend 10 years into the ministry invoked Martin Luther’s explanation of the Third Commandment (“do not wish any sort of harm upon your neighbor”) as his reason for not encouraging people to go into the ministry—in this person’s mind, the financial risks were simply too great. Others made the argument that the job market in the church was still healthy, provided candidates were willing to move.

 

A turning point came when one seminary professor suggested that the job market was moving “from institutional to entrepreneurial.” This reframed the skepticism about institutions. Even as respondents continued to state flatly that “many congregations that think that they are viable really are kidding themselves,” the note of self-reliance and missional savvy suggested by the language of entrepreneurship resonated with a number of people.

 

While the language of ministry as a “job” created tension with some participants, in responding to that tension a number of people pointed to the need — a need borne out by significant research — to dismiss any separation of effective ministry and effective long-term financial health. The latter is a prerequisite of the former. 

 

3 “My friends think I have a degree from Hogwarts.”

Answers to the question about how seminary education was viewed by employers outside the church revealed two points of consensus: On the one hand, respondents believed by and large that their seminary training had conferred a number of transferrable skills useful in the business and nonprofit worlds. On the other hand, they also believed that most secular employers were skeptical about their skills. The respondent who made the “Hogwarts” reference went on to explain: “I'm personally grateful for the experience and all I learned, but professionally it’s meaningless to anyone outside of a certain pretty narrow sector.”

 

Those most sanguine about the usefulness of their seminary skills seemed mostly to be already employed outside the church. For them, theological education was a kind of add-on to their way of being in the workplace. One respondent stated:

 

I speak as a computer engineer who manages engineers, while still completing my seminary degree. What I have learned in seminary comes into play every day. From scripture and theology courses, I have learned how to make and support my claims with a sense of humility, which always carries weight with these folks. From pastoral care, I have learned how to listen more deeply with people who don’t necessarily know how to express themselves well, and support them.

 

A number of these comments crystallized into reflections that have stayed with me as I have thought about how our seminary curricula best prepare graduates to navigate career uncertainty. 

 

First, I would suggest that seminaries need to help students tell a better story about the transferrable skills gained in theological studies. And seminaries may need to mimic other professional schools in helping to educate employers about such transferable skills. Law schools are doing this — helping employers see the value of a law degree. Seminaries could do the same. 

 

Second, in our time, seminary recruitment is as much a matter of making the case for “ministry as a way of life” as it is of highlighting the virtues of any given school. We know that seminaries are adapting both the substance and structure of their curricula to prepare students for the possibility of fulfilling ministry under a multitude of entrepreneurial circumstances. It may be that seminaries need to do a better job at describing these entrepreneurial, Spirit-led possibilities in ways that make the life of ministry seem both vocationally exciting and fiscally responsible. 

 

The overarching impression left by this and other conversations is that the passion for ministry remains high among those educated in our seminaries. The challenge is to bolster that passion with creative and adaptive understandings of the marketability of seminary education so that the case for ministry as a way of life can include financial responsibility and confidence in the gifts that an excellent education confers. 

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Article from: Spring 2017

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