When pondering through why I should continue in theological education I realized one of the motivations to finish my M Div is very simple: an advanced degree from a seminary will increase my chances of getting hired in the Christian job market. Just like an MBA degree increases your chances of employment in the business world by signaling advanced education and training in business, so an M Div degree increases your chances of employment in the Christian world by signaling advanced education and training in Christianity.
The fact that we train our leaders and even the fact that we confer a degree to denote that this training has happened does not cause me much distress. We should obviously train our future leaders and having some way to denote this training has happened is useful. However, where seminaries are relied upon to provide this training, such training is primarily if not exclusively conformed to a Western educational model. For example, the requirements for attaining an M Div at Fuller are almost entirely academic in nature. There are classes with teachers presenting lectures to an audience of students. There are papers and assignments and readings to do. There are letter grades, GPAs, student loans, and accreditation to worry about. Relying on the Western model for education is at points inherently problematic and ultimately leaves the job of training Christian leaders incomplete…while at the same time conferring degrees certifying that such training is in fact, complete.
Why is education the primary way we train future Christian leaders? Such educational experiences are common to any secular graduate program; should the way we train Christian leaders looks so similar? This model itself is not without its own problems. An increasing number of studies are connecting mental health issues with the stresses of graduate school. We put people through incredible stress in graduate schools which often results in some sort of mental illness. Then these people then go on to lead our churches and ministries. I’m sorry but if how we approach training our leaders is arguably causing mental illness this is a serious call to evaluate our model of training leaders. Furthermore, do we really think the difference in content is enough to go from training a business leader to training a Christian leader? The cost alone is prohibitive to many Christians who are gifted with the ability to lead. Should they be barred from leading in a church because they could not afford the religious instruction we have chosen to charge people for? Why are we worried about accreditation from human governments; what say should human governments have in how the Church trains its leaders? One might argue accreditation is required for to do due diligence in regards to the government authority and to process things such as loans, but once again why are we concerned with charging people for training. I do not remember reading Jesus, Paul or anyone in the Bible charging for religious training. Do papers, readings and assignments really develop the gifts of the Spirit or do they test how much you can memorize or how well you can read the personality of your professor?
In 1 Timothy 3:1-13 the qualifications for a church leader are spelled out almost exclusively in terms of character. Education is not listed as a qualification. Why do we make it the primary focus when attaining an M Div, a degree that supposedly marks one as qualified to lead in the Church? I fear where the educational model dominates the landscape, as it does in seminary, we can only really qualify graduates as religious experts. Under the current paradigm we can ensure our graduates are religiously educated but do not have a system in place to guarantee they meet the other criteria listed in Scriptures.
I have said it before but it bears repeating: one can be theologically educated and thoroughly unfit for Christian leadership. Exhibit A: My life. I had a B.A. in Biblical Studies and was a third of the way through my M Div program before I voluntarily spoke up about my serious struggles with faith let alone my struggle with addiction and the dubious motives with which I was doing ministry and their root in my family of origin. I could have easily graduated and gotten hired at some poor church and continued to cause a lot of problems as an unhealed wounder…with an M Div.
In the current situation I fear seminary degrees, instead of marking someone qualified to lead in the Church, are simply Christian graduate programs providing a rubber stamp or “union card” helping their students procure gainful employment in the Christian world. This sounds a lot more like a religious industry than the Body of Christ. Seminary sounds and feels like a graduate program and Fuller is actively trying to be more professionally respected as a graduate programs.
I fear that we have fallen into an all too common pit and adopted a cultural model for how we should approach church. People are being trained (educationally) for a role in society (in this case a religious one). The general assumption is good education leads to a well-trained and competent worker/professional/specialist. In many cases this is exactly right. I would not want to be operated on by a surgeon who had not studied biology or service my car at a place that did not require some sort of automotive education, but is such a model sufficient or completely compatible with the Body of Christ? Obviously I don’t think the current educational model is sufficient. It’s not that theological education is bad it is just that is not all there is to being a Christian leader. The Christian life requires more. The Christian life and Christian leadership, requires Christ, who says apart from me you can do nothing (John 15). Jesus did not say “Apart from me or a completed degree from an accredited seminary you can do nothing.” Certifying religious experts with no real concern for spiritual formation is a fundamentally flawed way to train Christian leaders, regardless of how academically respected we are by secular organizations, how much we charge, or who gives us what accreditation.
In uncritically adopting an educational model we appear to suffer from amnesia and a lack of imagination. We forget that Jesus spent three years living with twelve men. No formal education was involved in training the disciples for leadership. We forget that throughout the centuries God’s spirit and the discipleship of mentors and elders in the faith tested and trained future leaders. While many churches today have creative models that avoid formal seminaries (their benefits and their pitfalls) but still provide tangible training it seems many more simply equate education with qualification.
This all got me thinking about the Christian job market (why is there even one?) and how we approach hiring people in the Church which is the subject of my next post.