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Increasing numbers of churches are turning to part-time, low-paid, or unpaid ministers. What does this mean for seminaries?

In Trust addressed some of the many aspects of this topic its Spring 2014 issue in an article titled “Ministers without master’s degrees." The article is still relevant today! “The unpaid clergy model is not the norm among North American churches, but it’s growing more common. Some of these are fully ordained ministers, but others have pursued alternate tracks to ministry that haven’t required a master’s of divinity, which takes longer than a law degree.”

Some denominations have a long history of lay ministry. For example, Methodists have always emphasized a combination of ordained and lay ministry, a theological position inherited from the earliest Methodist itinerants of 18th-century North America. The Assemblies of God has also traditionally honored and validated the work of lay pastors, and a master’s degree has never been required for ordination in the Assemblies of God.

But within the last decade or so, denominations that have traditionally emphasized the importance of clergy with postgraduate education have learned to adapt to new ministry models.

William C. Miller, retired director of accreditation and institutional evaluation at the Association of Theological Schools, says that paths to ministry that bypass seminary have gained ground because of the needs of bishops and other judicatory heads. “It is very hard to recruit a priest for a small, financially impoverished parish,” he noted, speaking of the Episcopal Church in particular. “A young person with education debt can’t do it. You might think an older priest would be able to fill in, but that is not the case. They don’t want to retire to a small town in the middle of Kansas and minister to a very small parish. How do the bishops find people for these churches?”

The Bishop Kemper School for Ministry in Topeka, Kansas is one answer to Miller’s question. Founded in 2013, the unaccredited school forms priests, deacons, and lay ministers together, providing training both for people preparing for ordination and for congregational lay leaders.

Another mainline denomination that has moved toward lay ministry is the Presbyterian Church (USA), which has mandated postbaccalaureate education for ministers for centuries. But in 1997, after vigorous debate, the church’s General Assembly created the position of commissioned lay pastor (now called commissioned ruling elder). Today, three-quarters of Presbyterian Church (USA) presbyteries use commissioned lay pastors. Presbyterian lay pastors have theological education that is on average the equivalent of three college courses, about 120 to 135 contact hours.

Theological schools are responding by becoming more involved in the training of lay pastors. The “alternative track” in education makes sense particularly in the case of older students, and those who are already pastoring part time. Many schools see this type of student and this type of ministry as an important part of their mission. Yet their desire to serve this population is balanced by the knowledge that these students tend to be intensely aware of the cost of education, in terms of both time and money. They cannot afford to invest tens of thousands of dollars and years of their lives to prepare for part-time, unpaid ministry.

Has your school looked into the future and discerned an opportunity and a need for training lay ministers? Has your board scheduled the financial, staffing, marketing, and communications discussions needed to create successful paths to alternative ministry? If not, now may be the time to begin.

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