If All Else Fails, You Can Always Go to Seminary

Posted: August 15, 2013 by Matt Horan in Uncategorized

By Matt Horan

Our system of developing leaders for the church has a pretty serious flaw.
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If we can afford to go to seminary full time, we tend to go to Duke–the impressed face people make when we say we’re going there makes us feel good.  If we can’t afford to do that, which is the story of 3/4 of the students at the seminary that is currently the fastest producer of pastors in the Florida Conference, then we get on a 5-6 year plan while working as a worship leader or youth director or something and go to class once or twice a week–fitting the classes in when we can, and going into sizable debt in the process.
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Further, many seminaries do not reject any eligible applicants.  So now the students who are about to lead the Florida Conference’s churches are surrounded by other students with no academic achievement or ability of any kind required to get in other than finishing college and passing the GRE.  In fact, great professors have left the seminaries that take anyone and everyone over the years when they got the opportunity to work with more serious students elsewhere.
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So after we fit in our classes and struggle to survive the reading and writing while working to support ourselves and often husbands and wives and toddlers, we graduate with $40,000 in school debt added to whatever we owe for our undergrad degree and our car payments.  Unless you’re one of the lucky handful of people who get to go an be an associate at a place like Killearn or Hyde Park or Trinity Gainesville or First Winter Park or St. Luke’s, you become the replacement for a young clergy person who graduated a couple years ahead of you, or someone who just retired, at a church that has probably had 4-5 different pastors in the last 10-15 years, and you haven’t had any intentional leadership training at all since someone taught you how to lead that group of nine-year-olds five summers ago.
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I got in the habit during the last 3-4 years when I would attend the senior banquet at Hyde Park of asking all of the kids if they’d considered possibly going to seminary someday.  The high achieving kids who’d gotten scholarships to MIT or Harvard, or even the ones who’d gotten into schools like UNC, FSU, UF, UGA, Flagler, etc., looked at me like I had two heads.  They had not even considered it for a second on their way to achieve lofty successes among the kings of the world.  The schools they were attending had competed for them–had been in touch with them already during their junior years, and had local alumni pat them on the back whenever they could.  They offered free rides–heck, most of them qualified for Florida academic scholars and had their parents buy a Florida prepaid college plan that had been paid off back when they were in the 3rd grade.  They go to college making money on it.
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Now, obviously we can’t offer all that some well funded state universities or prestigious Ivy League schools can offer.  But unless our denomination is willing to take responsibility for paying the cost of seminary so that students can actually “go” to seminary and focus on being in seminary and finish without stockpiling massive debt, and unless we’re willing to offer an adequate and well-funded training experience that will equip them for success, and unless we’re wiling to proudly say to the Rhodes Scholars out there that leading the church of Jesus Christ is every bit as noble and honorable a profession as the doctor or lawyer or CPA or business owner they plan to be; then we’re going to continue asking our clergy to learn on the fly.  We’ll be spending half of our time doing work in the church that was never even mentioned in seminary and was never modeled for us because only 2-3 associate positions come open for the 20-30 new local pastors or provisional elders who are licensed or commissioned for ministry every year.
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Seminary has to be free–tuition, room, and board.  Well-qualified students should be competing for these no-cost opportunities for the church to invest in them becoming the best leaders they can be.  As long as we sit back and just take whoever can afford one or two classes at a time, we’ll lose the nation’s best future leaders to other professions and other organizations.
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I know that we believe in a call system.  People hear a call to ministry and the community confirms it.  I believe in the call system.  But our “sit back and see what we get” plan is not serving our students, our clergy, or our churches well.  Our current plan keeps pastoral leadership completely off of the radar of the Conference’s brightest students every year.  What does it matter if God calls?  Many of our students don’t even think to listen.
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I received incomparable gifts one after another in my training over the last few years.  My first real church membership was at Killearn UMC, and I was mentored by Bob Tindale.  Then I went to seminary and someone sponsored me and I went without having to accumulate a lot of debt.  Then I became a ministry candidate and was mentored by and interned with Bob Bushong.  Then I finished seminary and became an associate for Jim Harnish.  Now I am no longer an associate–there’re no other pastors around but me–but at every turn the words of my mentors and experiences in leadership and training from back when those great professors were still there have been in my head and in my soul, standing in line to be called upon when I needed them.
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For a while I just kept thanking God, wondering why I would possibly be the recipient of such riches of grace and mercy poured out on me when so many others have had to scrape and struggle and beg their mentors to care about them.  But now I think I’m starting to feel some frustration over my experience being so rare.  Can’t the church do better?  Can’t the church give similar opportunities to others?
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We have to find a way, or else we’ll continue the decline we’ve become so accustomed to lately.   –MH
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