Most people who go to seminary carry out their ministries in congregations. Even those who train primarily as academics usually maintain ties of some kind to congregations, and are often quite involved. The Association of Theological Schools accrediting standards describe the Master of Divinity program as a course of study “preparing persons for ordained ministry and for general pastoral and religious leadership in congregations and other settings.” The implication is that congregational settings are the most typical. For all of that, seminaries vary widely in the degree of exposure to congregational life they require of their students and how such exposure is tied to the curriculum.

Tim Henze

It’s not for lack of popular support for the notion of connections between congregations and seminaries. Conventional wisdom has it that students, teachers, and governing boards of theological institutions have hugely different ideas about how the school should be run, forcing administrators into a variety of circus skills that include those of contortionist, tightrope walker, and lion tamer. There may be places where this is true, but when In Trust asked representatives of each group some central questions about theological education, questions like: How well are theological schools in general and yours in particular doing at preparing people for life in congregations? What needs to change? their answers were similar. The consensus was that students need consistent exposure to congregations, and to healthy ones at that. Nobody expects to be drilled through every pastoral eventuality. As one student put it, “I do not want to pay tuition to the tune of $13,000 per year in order to learn how to unjam the Xerox machine.” There’s not enough time in any seminary program to teach students everything they need to know, but they do need to know where to look for answers when they don’t know what to do. This involves enough background in disciplines like Bible, history, and theology to put their ministries in context. They need to know how to ask the right questions for their own situations, and where to find answers. The need will stay with them throughout their ministries.

Recent Graduates

Cast of Characters

•  Tim Henze, Iliff School of Theology, 1993, pastor of United Methodist churches in Scobey and Opheim, Montana.

•  Sarelle McCoard, Pacific School of Religion, 1996, director of youth ministry for five Roman Catholic parishes in Oakland, California. 

Sarelle McCoard

•  David Miller, Princeton Theological Seminary, 1998, Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., enrolled in doctoral program.

•  Pam Tinnin, Pacific School of Religion, 1996, pastor of Partridge Community Church (United Church of Christ), Partridge, Kansas.

For her first few months as pastor of a church whose membership includes slightly more than half of the 250 residents of Partridge, Kansas, Pam Tinnin “felt as if I’d dived into the deep end of the pool, and I had somehow skipped swimming lessons. I can remember being extremely anxious that I could even do this, and feeling some anger, which usually comes from fear. I know that there were times when I asked myself, ‘Why didn’t they teach us anything about actual stuff, like how to do your first funeral?’”

In the intervening months, Tinnin has learned that she can indeed do funerals, and everything else she needs to. Like the other recent seminary graduates In Trust interviewed, she is grateful for her seminary experience. At the same time, she and the others are all ready to cite the shortcomings of their education.

The courses they list as particularly helpful are diverse. Billy Joe Daugherty (who is listed in this article with the trustees but also qualifies as a recent graduate, having earned a master’s degree in practical theology from Oral Roberts University School of Theology in 1992) was quickly able to make the connection between church history and his ministry. “It’s good to see where they made mistakes in the past,” he said, “because history repeats itself.” Sarelle McCoard, a 1996 M.Div. from Pacific School of Religion, is a youth worker, but she says that her scripture courses are a source for ministry, “and not just for people who preach a sermon every week.” Tim Henze reports that Iliff gave him a strong grounding in the sociological and psychological aspects of ministry, and a sense of professional boundaries that remained intact in the midst of a stressful first pastoral assignment.

David Miller

That’s the good news. When asked what they needed but didn’t get, there was also a variety of responses. Tinnin wishes she had taken more practical courses, but, she says, “I know that I didn’t have the time to fit any more classes in, so that wasn’t a real possibility, but I think it would have helped. Perhaps the alternative would have been to spread it out over four years, but then there’s always the issue of the cost of seminary education”—especially for someone like Tinnin, who was working half-time during her seminary career. Tim Henze said, “I didn’t get enough Reformed and orthodox theology. We had plenty of the post-modern stuff, but not a good sense of what it grew out of. So when I found myself in a church that was the center of the charismatic movement in Montana ...” His voice trailed off. When asked how he found his feet in that place, he replied, “I didn’t.” He left his first post after a year, and is now in a happier situation, with two rural congregations. He attributes some of his contentment in his current setting to his perception that “my faith has deepened into me in the parish. At Iliff, there was a focus on deconstructing faith and building it back, but I think they neglected to build it back. That has happened since I graduated.”

In retrospect, Henze wishes that he had been required to do a full-time yearlong internship. His desire for more exposure to actual ministry was echoed by all the recent graduates. Henze thought there wasn’t enough required; McCoard thought that what was required was insufficiently focused. “I did my second-year field ed with the Catholic Charities gay and lesbian task force,” she said, “and while it was a good experience, I should have been required to spend some time in the parish.” Just being in a parish wasn’t enough for Tinnin. She said, “I think the director of PSR’s field education was a wonderful and committed educator. Unfortunately, for whatever reasons, there weren’t enough field education sites and so you had to sort of take what you could get. My experience was absolutely abusive, and so the sort of help I would have gotten at doing ‘real’ church stuff just never happened.” 

Pam Tinnin

David Miller is the recent graduate interviewed who is not now working full-time in a congregation. He graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary May 18, and is now enrolled in Princeton’s doctoral program, where he intends to work on harmonizing the academic areas of ethics and pastoral care, drawing in his own background in finance. Congregations are important, he says, but the church also has a mission to those who are not in congregations. “Unless God has a highly nasty sense of humor, I’ll be ministering to people in the business community, helping people integrate faith and work,” he said. Indeed, he already is, leading a series of “Faith in the Workplace” groups at his Presbyterian church in Princeton. About a third of the participants are unchurched. Although he thinks his seminary is proud of what he’s doing, he also gets a sense of, “That’s David’s thing.” He doesn’t think the school is particularly interested in experimenting with new models. Miller’s overall assessment of how well seminaries are doing at preparing people for congregational realities is: “It depends on what you mean. If the goal is maintaining the status quo, seminaries are doing as good a job as they’ve done. Otherwise ... they’re not doing very well.”

Seminarians, it seems, are looking to make connections: between class work and field work, between their faith journeys and those of the people to whom they minister, connections between students themselves (Henze groups students in broad categories: those who come looking for spouses, those who need healing, academic types, pastoral types, “and finally, those who are just there.” Miller has his own distinction: “Sometimes other students who have come from the business world say, ‘Aren’t you glad you’re out of there?’ Well, no, actually.”). Tinnin is hopeful about another sort of connection: “I understand that PSR is trying to implement a mentoring program where seminary students and new pastors are matched up with those already in the field. I think that has excellent potential. I built my own network of support via e-mail, but it would have been great to have someone I knew I could contact with all those ‘How do I ...?’ questions in those first weeks and months.” The Internet, by the way, is frequently cited by people new to the parish as a lifeline to their friends who are in the same situation, and to sources of help.



Cast of Characters

Billy Joe Daugherty

•  Billy Joe Daugherty, Oral Roberts University School of Theology, Tulsa, Oklahoma (earned an M.A. in practical theology from the school in 1993), pastor, Victory Christian Center, Tulsa.

•  Loren Dykstra, Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Christian Reformed church), retired.

•  Mary Ellen Gunther, St. Mary’s Seminary, Baltimore, Maryland (and a member of In Trust’s Advisory Council).

Few governing boards of seminaries have a clearer sense of their students’ links to congregations than the board of Calvin Theological Seminary, a Christian Reformed Church school in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As board member Loren Dykstra explains, “Our board is directly involved in two major screening processes: when our students are licensed to preach, which can happen as early as their first year, and again in May of their senior year, when we approve them for ordination. The license—which enables them to fill in for a vacationing pastor, for example, follows a faculty review. Our interview is quite charitable—we might, for example, ask their position on some major doctrine of the church. In May of their senior year, teams of lay and clergy members of the board view or listen to a tape of a real sermon they’ve preached in a church, we visit them in their homes, and we interview them. Our decision is not the final one; we present recommendations to our synod, which approves them. It’s unusual, though, for the synod’s decision to differ from ours.” 

Loren Dykstra

Such direct involvement is possible in a small denomination with close ethnic ties. Dykstra admits that meetings of “strangers” within the church can involve “forty-five minutes of who is possibly related to whom.” In such a context, it’s fairly easy to keep a finger on the pulse of congregations. Dykstra said, “In recent years, the board has been more aware of previously neglected areas: the subtleties and complexities of counseling for example, and aspects of liturgy such as diversity of worship styles.” A current set of issues of concern, according to Dykstra, includes “some deficiencies in the art of preaching” and the realization that “we’re not necessarily recruiting the cream of our young people—although some of our second-career people have been great successes at their previous occupations.” He sees a link between the problems. “Mediocrity can sometimes breed mediocrity,” he said. “Poor pulpiteering month after month does something to young people in pews.”

The board of St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore is more advisory, far less hands-on, and represents a far more diverse public than Calvin’s. But some concerns leap across denominational lines. “Of course preaching is a problem,” said board member Mary Ellen Gunther, “and not a new one. It’s exacerbated by educated people who won’t sit still for bad preaching, and by priests who presume that everyone shares a theological base.”

Gunther’s assertion that “priests are meeting different congregations than the ones they expected” echoes the sentiment of recent graduates. In an attempt to learn from graduates’ experiences, St. Mary’s board once invited two of their graduates who had been out of school and working in parishes for five years to spend some time with the board talking about their experiences, and particularly about how well the seminary had prepared them for parish life. A major outgrowth of that meeting, according to Gunther, was a new continuing formation center designed to help clergy fill in newly perceived gaps in their preparation for ministry.

Mary Ellen Gunther

Billy Joe Daugherty, vice-chair of the board of chancellors at Oral Roberts University, knows that not all seminarians are preparing for ministry. He had more than two decades of pastoral experience under his belt when he enrolled, but was looking to expand and add to his abilities. He believes that theological schools can strengthen ministers by “getting students involved in churches that are life-producing,” another echo of student experience. “The key is turning out people who can do things—lots of people know things. Is it just about getting into the system, or about depopulating hell?” He notes ORU’s “charismatic distinctive,” its emphasis on what he calls the “power gifts.” These, he said, are taught in the classroom but need to be modeled in real life. With this in mind, Daugherty is intentional about having students on the staff at his 11,000-member Victory Christian Center. Among them currently is the pastor responsible for integrating new members into the life of the congregation.

Seminary Staff

Cast of Characters

•  Sister Carol Rennie, teaching-parish program coordinator, Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity of the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota. 

Sister Carol Rennie 

•  Scott Sheldon, program director for congregational life, Princeton Theological Seminary.

•  Rebecca Slough, until recently director of congregational and field education, Bethany Theological Seminary, Richmond, Indiana.

•  Joyce Tucker, dean of continuing education, Princeton Theological Seminary.

In Trust interviewed students and trustees chosen to reflect some diversity in background. Seminary staff were chosen from among schools with good reputations for connecting classroom and church. Theological schools have two chances at helping students learn congregational life: during their classroom days, when the focus is on helping them discover what they will need to know, and as continuing education after graduation, when they have a clearer fix on what questions they still need answers to.

Some schools have had decades to build ties with local congregations. Bethany Theological Seminary, on the other hand, has been in its present home in Richmond, Indiana, for just four years. Even though the move was in part motivated by a desire to have the school closer to Church of the Brethren congregations, it has taken time to build relationships. Rebecca Slough has been the person most responsible for recruiting congregations into the school’s field education program. “It’s been a matter of interpretive work with pastors, with congregations, with denominational executives,” she said. “There’s been some skepticism, some resistance. Sometimes the $3,000 stipend (paid to the student for his or her 400 hours in the congregation) has been a problem, and we have only a small fund to help with that. But in four years, there have been only two placements that didn’t work out, and lay people’s ownership of the program is growing, especially as students get better at asking questions and asking for real feedback.”

Scott Sheldon

Slough works with students as well as congregations. Bethany’s middler class meets in small groups once a week to reflect on their congregational experience. Students use tools including spiritual autobiography, case studies on the realities of sin, evil, and forgiveness, and—Slough particularly likes this one—developing metaphors for ministry. “I let them choose them and live with them,” she said. “Some are traditional—the shepherd. Some are related to other experiences the student has had—camp counselor, wilderness guide, baseball catcher. That last one seems pretty out there, but it was actually very well thought through. Others are way out there, but I let them live with them over the course of the year, and sometimes they change.”

Sister Carol Rennie has an ordered and methodical mind. The extensive cross-referenced teaching-parish manual she developed for St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, makes that clear. But when she was asked about the response of lay people to their involvement in teaching-parish committees, her joyous vocalization doesn’t find words for a few moments. Then she quotes some: “It’s the first time we’ve felt listened to in the church,” and, “I’ve never had a chance for this kind of conversation about faith before.” The committees’ degree of involvement in the program is not accidental—they get an hour and a half orientation sessions with Rennie, they are invited to a “teaching-parish celebration” liturgy at the school at the beginning of the year (and encouraged to bring their children to the event and the reception that follows), and if they attend the ordination of their field education student, they will hear their parish name listed among those who have recommended him. 

Rebecca Slough

Mutual accountability is a hallmark of the St. Paul’s teaching-parish program. Expectations are clear and are written out, even as to how classroom learning and field experience are to be integrated. Supervisors are accountable to the school and are evaluated by their students; they are also required to meet with other supervisors. “I don’t ask anyone to do what I don’t do myself,” says Rennie, who regularly receives supervision and worships regularly at teaching-parishes. “It takes time to build trust,” said Rennie, “but over time, students begin to get it. And as I understand the process better and explain it more clearly, they get it sooner.”

St. Paul’s handbook also includes a list of pastoral competencies needed for effective ministry in the first year after ordination. Among them is scheduling time for continuing professional development.

“There is a matter of learning readiness,” said Joyce Tucker, dean of continuing education at Princeton Theological Seminary. “Teachers can try to get through to students, but sometimes they have to be in the midst of ministry for it to make sense. Then they begin to say, ‘Maybe I should have taken that course.’” Apparently, Princeton’s continuing education staff has been listening to recent graduates. “Two of our areas of concentration are congregational analysis and development and spiritual growth and renewal,” said Tucker, “and there’s an obvious link, because you’re not going to have a vital congregation that isn’t spiritually alive.” Scott Sheldon is program director for the two areas, grouped as congregational life. He is developing a number of programs. One is a gathering of eight diverse congregations to identify shared themes in spirituality. Another, following the tendency of the newly ordained to try to connect with one another for mutual support, is a series of class gatherings for conversation and reflection one and a half, three and a half, and five years after graduation (the last precedes but is separate from the class reunion). Thanks to a generous donor, another educational perk awaits Presbyterian graduates of Princeton Seminary. After they spend five years serving in congregations, they can join a two-week study trip to Israel for $500.

It’s not enough to just present a student with a spread of options. Students need to be steered toward the ones that will be of use to them, and they need to take an active part in the choosing. Student Ann Markle just finished her second year at Yale University Divinity School, and is convinced that the school is doing a good job of preparing her for the parish. This is not, however, something that just happened. She believes that students need to take responsibility for getting what they need. She said, “Yale is preparing me superbly for parish ministry, I believe. Much of this has to do with the personal responsibility that I take in selecting classes, as well as the mind-set with which I learn (How will this be useful to me in parish ministry?). Perhaps seminaries could orient students to this outlook.”

Joyce Tucker

Perhaps candidates for ministry need to be so oriented even before they become students. Markle, an Episcopalian, says of seminary selection, “I think a seminary needs to be chosen with an eye toward goals and interests as well. Too often people choose a seminary based on their bishop’s instruction, or the alma mater of their parish priest, rather than making a thoughtful decision. Yale’s strength, for instance, is ecumenism. Choosing the right seminary requires some autonomy on the part of the applicant, but perhaps seminaries should consider identifying and publicizing their particular strengths and identifying and differentiating factors more clearly.”

Each school is unique, and its leaders should have a sense of what its distinctive character is. The task remains, though, to communicate that sense to prospective students so that they can make constructive use of those qualities as they develop their own gifts. When the message clicks, it’s clear. David Miller said that he was affirmed in his choice of Princeton when half of his friends said, “Uh-oh, way too liberal,” and the other half said, “Uh-oh, way too conservative.”

Seminaries also need to find their niches in continuing education, as graduates are faced with new challenges in ministry and look to retool. This means that schools need to keep a finger on the pulses of the congregations they serve. Sometimes this is easy and fairly informal. Sometimes it requires careful outcomes surveys that track graduates and examine how they have fared. A school that can sense new possibilities for congregations and can prepare people working in congregations for their next set of challenges will have a lively ministry.

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