I’ve known scores of seminary students. Many have the natural leadership gifts to be pastors, but many do not. I’ve seen the ones who do not jumping through the bureaucratic hoops with a wife and children in tether, sacrifices made, poverty borne with grace, and then heartbreak. No pulpit, no job, except maybe a church planting opportunity with no start-up grant. The wives seem to suffer the most in these cases.
Imagine an institution that requires its leaders to attend not only college, but graduate school. Imagine that the graduate school in question is constitutionally forbidden from receiving any form of government aid, that it typically requires three years of full-time schooling for the diploma, that the nature of the schooling bears almost no resemblance to the job in question, and that the pay for graduates is far lower than other professions. You have just imagined the relationship between the Christian Church and her seminaries.
Mainline churches are nearly universal in their requirement that their Priests/Pastors/Ministers/Reverends be seminary graduates, and since seminary is a graduate school, this means the students must first be successful undergraduates. So take all of the arguments about a college bubble and add at least three years of tuition cost and forgone income.
But you’re not quite done: My friend Father Jay Geisler counsels seminary students. He tells me that in his experience roughly half of matriculated students do not graduate within three years. In addition, he tells me that the living costs tend to be higher for seminary students than for undergrads because undergrads are almost never married with children, but seminary students often are. As such, dorm room type accommodations for grads will not do.
In addition, incomes for late 20- and early 30-somethings with wife and child tend to be higher than the traditional undergraduate-age student, so the opportunity costs — meaning the lost earnings — are considerably higher. Father Geisler tells me that he commonly sees young men graduate from seminary $60,000 or $70,000 in debt with few employment options other than very low-pay youth minister positions. It’s often even worse for women in conservative denominational traditions in which female ordination is still controversial.
And the prospects are worse clergy than for other forms of professional education, because there is no legal seminary requirement which stifles professional competition. If you go to medical school, you know you’ll have challenges in the job market, but at least you know you won’t be competing with non-medical school graduate physicians. Ditto for law school; it’s illegal to practice law or medicine without the requisite graduate schooling. Other professions, such as CPA and engineer, require at least the four-year diploma.
If you graduate from seminary and become an Episcopal priest, the church almost certainly required that you get the degree, but there’s no guarantee that increasingly indifferent churchgoers won’t, at the drop of a hat, leave your church and move a few blocks down the street to attend a Pentecostal, charismatic or fundamentalist church led by a high school dropout with generous dollops of the gift of gab, no school loans and probably less overhead. Interestingly enough, statistics indicate that these less “professional” churches are growing and the top-heavy cousins are rapidly shrinking.
Historian and sociologist Rodney Stark finds that the historical pattern fits the current one. Decentralized church systems with a history of less formal schooling historically outperform top-heavy ones with heavy academic requirements.