If God is dead, are ministers and priests out of a job? I mean, no CEO, no corporation -- right? In our times religious leaders are struck by lightning over and over.
1. The Middle Eastern Big Three triangle -- Judaism, Christian, Islam -- is both broken (having been claimed by warring identities) and exceeded (even religion is globalized now). The rigid and seemingly permanent categories have shattered on one end (we are surprised to see how many sub-groups there are “inside” each of the three) and unified on the other (science-based worldview with the Cosmos as the mediating icon).
2. In the Western world, gender-assigned identities have also discovered that female ministers will evoke images that prompt behaviors. If you think they are nuns, that’s one thing. If you think they are moms, that’s another. If you think they are bitches, the devil will wear a blue dress. Mostly Protestants think of female clergy as low-pay workhorses, like nurses and teachers. Nice ladies, of course. In the meantime, some women themselves think they are Joan of Arc, sleeping in the straw with warriors. A few confuse female clergy with temple whores, a very old pattern.
3. Our understanding of community has shifted from the “silo” of people who know each other as like-minded and face-to-face, to the “laminated” horizontal communities of affinity on the Internet. We can’t take for granted the foundation of our formation and still turn to marketing which pursues popularity. If “religion” is going to be a matter of “product,” then money will always be the index. Commentators will always be aware of the mean income level of the congregation. The smaller the congregation, the less money. The larger the congregation the more they will separate from the denomination or dominate it.
4. The secret work of the seminary, which they never admit, is job-chasing for their graduates. They are lousy at it. The market changes, the supply of students changes, the pressures keeping down the uproar change, and the world context changes.
Because I was a UU minister for a decade (the Eighties) and sometimes write about it, I get occasional emails from people asking about ministry, usually young men. A few years ago it was an English teacher who wanted to know about seminary, but his questions showed that he thought it would be something like the army: he would be guided, assigned, made safe, so long as he was obedient. And yet he was a UU, the most free-form of denominations.
This young man, educated and probably a little seasoned, since he’d been teaching for a few years, sounded like an excellent prospect to everyone he had talked to until he found me. When he read my rather negative remarks, he was smart enough to call me up. After we visited a bit, I wasn’t hearing a “call,” as the pressing need to be a minister is described. It was March. I asked whether his teaching contract had been renewed. Not. I see. Ministry as default.
The seminaries love older retreads who will cash in their houses, their savings, and the time they have left in order to do something idealistic and “meaningful.” Which leads us to a more recent contact from a man who faced the dark side of idealism. I had described a built-in ordeal faced by the students who had now done the bulk of classwork and practicuums (internship, Clinical Pastoral Education) and had been around long enough to settle into the assumption that they were ready to write a thesis and get a job.
The seminary in question had three professors (M/L), though students also had access to a major university divinity school. The number of students was small, but their interests were both scattered and specialized, far exceeding the expertise on the payroll of the seminary. Anyway, the three were all middle-aged white men with limited world experience. They didn’t like challenge and aborted all troublesome prospects.
This second contact had been deeply scarred by the experience and had not realized it was structural rather than personal. He thought he was the only one. He thought there was only one route to the ministry, though there were a dozen other seminaries in the cluster and a myriad of denominations, to say nothing of world religions. He thought ministry was a combination of honor and certification that would defeat all the criticism from those he had offended over the years. Me, too. But seminary is a gauntlet. And ought to be.
Despite the amount of jargon in this Australian article, it bravely addresses the problem of educating “theology” people who then must serve congregations who have little or no interest in formal theology. They want help with soul-searching, with facing down evil, with power-wrestling for political justice, and how to get their own personal fishhooks out of their livers. In my experience lay people are not in the least interested in the curricula prospective ministers learn at seminary. They want comfort, reassurance, and the feeling that they are right as right can be.
The point the article makes is that “formation” for the kind of person we want ministers to be usually happens informally around the coffee table in the seminary or maybe down the street with a beer. It’s a face-to-face feedback sort of thing to do and the more intense and personal the conversation is, the better it works. So in a “low-residence” seminary which they vehemently defend as NOT a correspondence school what's going to supply that?
Recently General Theological School, an Episcopalian seminary located in Chelsea, NYC, a neighborhood that is artsy and avant garde, including gender role experiments, hit a hurricane when the new president, a former hotshot lawyer brought in from Florida where he had been considered the dynamic (and conservative) newly theologized leader and growth factor for a major church. The board called him in to save the sinking seminary, which he did by selling property. (Its origins very early in the history of New York meant that it was extremely well-endowed.)
Then he turned to the faculty. In the belief that the failing economics of student-based income was due to overly liberal professors, he began a program of change that was supposed to return to the past. He did small and simple things like changing the early prayer that traditionally started the day to a mid-morning event that would accommodate late night society but not intense study. He did not understand a liturgically conservative but theologically liberal faculty. He would not listen to them. So they went on strike, so he fired them en masse, so all the denominational and Christian diaspora Big Shots were divided between being aghast and amused, so finally the faculty was reinstated. What happens next will happen in March when the teaching contracts are signed. That will not be the end.
That’s at the traditional structured conservative end of the seminary scale. In Berkeley the problem that developed over the hiring of a new President was quite different. The committee chose a black woman with fine credentials. At least two students wanted their familiar beloved interim to be permanent. These students were battle-scarred social activists with a conviction that conscience rules. THEIR conscience demanded their values, so they broke the confidentiality of the search process in order to get support, equivalent to a strike. The seminary reacted with the equivalent of firing: they refused to award diplomas to the troublemakers.
When seminaries this different end up in the same predicaments, it’s coming from the larger society, the same forces that paralyze the US legislative bodies on every level, even the little old town council of Valier. Partly a matter of income inequality, partly a matter of fear as Big Three religionists become a minority, partly a matter of the mind-blowing ability to land rockets on comets, and partly fallout from the wild and leveling Sixties and Seventies, it’s a time of experiment and hope.
Change cannot be prevented. Want to be a minister? Start a church! Heck, start a denomination. Found a religion. What’s your message? Want a nice comfy job where everyone will admire you and your wonderful sermons? It didn’t work for Jesus, who was a rabbi.