The average church-goer is often impressed with the idea of seminary. The thought that someone could devote three years of their lives to theological minutiae in order to take a job with long hours and substandard pay, is mind-boggling. Having been a seminary creature for so many years, however, makes me wonder if many church folk realize that seminaries are businesses. Non-profits, yes, but businesses nonetheless. This is a trait that they share with other institutions of higher learning. Customers pay money for a good or a service (I’m not sure which) in the form of a degree. If a student can’t cope academically, they’re often “grandfathered”through because, well, it costs a lot of money and you deserve to get what you paid for, right?
This business concept of higher education is dangerous and is primarily prevalent where governments do not support education. Schools have to raise money and if alumni don’t give, well you have to raise tuition. And the more somebody pays the better case they have for getting their degree. Seminaries, however, also suffer from generally low-income alumni and sponsoring churches needing clergy. (It’s not difficult to get accepted into most seminary programs.) Only when a candidate is a serious problem will they tend to be weeded out. And congregations get the results of such a system. My level of cynicism probably results from having gone through seminary and then having taught at one for many years. At no point have I been ordained. In fact, even churches facing clergy shortages have shown no interest. Call it sour grapes.
To me, however, the crisis in higher education is the result of business practices being applied to education. The two don’t mix. In a world where job options are limited for those too weak to dig and too proud to beg, ministry has some appeal. You can be considered a community leader and an expert in the relatively innocuous arcane area of “theology.” And most of the people you serve will have no idea what seminary delivers, or doesn’t. I attended events for seminary administrators offered by the Association of Theological Schools—the seminary accrediting body. I learned that they too are under pressure to approve unless there’s a serious problem. Even heads of accrediting bodies have to eat. So we let the system churn on as it has since the earliest universities turned out educated clergy. And we don’t stop to think what all of this means.