Well here it is....only two and a half weeks to go before school starts!!! I must admit I am very excited! I am always excited for the beginning of a school year and more recently I am even more excited because it means peace and quite around my house, but that's excitement aimed at the children's school starting...I'm talking about my seminary classes. I began the seminary process feeling so overwhelmed. I looked at the degree plan that was handed to me the day of new student orientation almost two years ago and saw 9o credit hours and almost felt helpless!! I thought, "I'll never get through all this", but really it has gone by so fast it all seems a little surreal.
I must admit, when I began the process seminary was a means to an end. I had already been in ministry since I was 20 (I'm 30 now), I pastored my first church by the time I was 22 and I was ordained at 23, I felt like the old man of church :). I had already completed two degrees in Bible and Theology and had co-written a book with one of my Bible College professors. I thought, "what could I possibly gain from the church forcing me to spend 60,000 dollars to re-learn things I have already dealt with?" Well, two years later that is not the case. I would not trade one moment of my experience at seminary for anything, that is how valuable it has been to me.
I did "re-learn" a lot of things, but in a deeper and more meaningful way. I also learned a lot of new things, that helped me answer a lot of questions I had a bout my faith. For example, I was once a staunch and devote conservative and fundamentalist serving in the Assemblies of God. I believed without question all of what was taught to me over the years. Then I left the A/G and joined the Christian Church (DOC),(of which I was ordained in 2003) this is a much more progressive church. The drastic change caused some what of a theological void in my life, a void I could not fill because my faith had become so "heady". At St. Paul I learned about the mystics, I learned about the Wesleyan way of understanding faith and scripture, I learned that I could be and evangelical without being a fundamentalist, I learned how to reconcile the mysteries of our faith, without them having to be proven, after all they are "mysteries".
I am convinced that a seminary education, at lest one at theologically moderate and/or evangelical seminary, is invaluable to a pastor. I could not imagine having to have this great responsiblity as a pastor without a seminary education. Now thats not to say that some are called to minister, to preach and to even serve as ordained clergy...yes even as ordained elders...without it, but for me it was just that important.
Now this brings me to the point of all this. Earlier in this blog I commented on the $6o,000 of debt that will be incurred by me and many of my classmates over the course of 3-5 years in seminary. That is an astronomical load of debt for someone who will be, at most, making $41,000 dollars a year once they have completed the degree. I think that's a shame, and I think that this is one of the factors contributing to the decline of our church. Mark Beeson, who is a UM pastor in Indiana asks the question "how do we grow again?" Mark is critical...in a good way...of many of the "practices" of the Church and the cost of seminary issue is one of them. I think that is the question all of us should be asking, but I also think one of the answers is, elimnate seminary indebtedness. How can we expect our youngest and brightest to be fully missional if they can't go were they are needed because of financial needs? This leads to the discussion of guaranteed appointments, minimum compensation, apportionment's, and general agencies, all of these things are leading factors in the churches inability to be missional and apostolic, but we're only talking about seminary debt :).
Now, every UM pastor, before he or she is commissioned is asked a series of questions before they are approved by the executive clergy session at Annual Conference. One of those questions is "are you debt as to embarrass yourself or the church?" I suspect a little tongue and cheek when the newly graduated seminary students answer "no" (they have to in order to be approved).
In our Church we have whats called a Local Pastor. An LP is a full or part time clergy person (non-ordained) given the authority to do pastoral ministry and rites, but who normally does not have a seminary degree. Statisticly they are more effective as pastors that Elders are, why....I'm not sure, I have some thoughts though. Perhaps it's because they are able to serve in area's that otherwise would not get a pastor, perhaps it's because they don't have the weight of $60,000 over their heads, perhaps it's because they are not "guaranteed" an appointment, and have to prove their effectiveness for ministry every year to their superiors....but wait we're just talking about seminary :).
I love, absolutely love Methodism...it sits so right with my heart. I love it's history, it's theology, it's anthropology (in a theological context of course)....I simply just get it. I want our church to grow, I want the Methodist church in every town to be the biggest church in town. I am deeply saddened by our decline and want to do my part to keep it from happening. I think it all starts with a reevaluation on how we train, prepare and deploy our shepherds. I want our church to be missional, with the express purpose of useing the local church to reach the lost, but the local church needs a shepherd, a shepherd who is competent and free to do ministry that works in her community.
Grace and Peace,