Seminary is Not Graduate School

dsc_0035When I first began teaching in seminary a decade ago, I sometimes said to a student who complained of the workload: “Welcome to graduate school.” I myself was only recently out of graduate school. In my mind, the work expected for those pursuing a master’s degree was all about learning academic disciplines, synthesizing knowledge, and moving to even deeper understanding, all in service of the life of the mind. I knew I was for the most part training people for ordained ministry and I was very happy to do that. But my orientation was distinctly towards the type of learning found within the academy.

But over the years, my mind has changed. I was reminded of this while reading an essay by Martyn Percy on clergy formation in Anglicanism. Martyn Percy was principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon when I was on sabbatical there and is now dean of Christ Church in Oxford. He is a friend and a mentor.

In reading his essay he made the argument that “a person who is perhaps not a good theologian or a fine preacher may, nonetheless, be an excellent priest.” What Martyn Percy was getting at is that in many professions, like medicine or law, the emphasis is on fully mastering skills and gaining knowledge. A doctor or lawyer deficient in either of those areas would not be a very good one at all. Yet a priest who is not a very good theologian or a middling preacher may still be a fine priest.

Such a situation is possible because of the importance of formation in the education of clergy. By formation, Martyn Percy has in mind “the partial setting aside of the skills and knowledge an individual candidate may have; and then the institution, together with the sponsoring or receiving bishop, engaging in the spiritual process of discernment of the vocation of the person who is offering for ministry.”

In a counter-intuitive way, the formation that happens within community is as (or even more) important than the knowledge and skills that are formally taught. In other words, what happens at seminary is the process by which the ethos of the community seeks to “infuse individuals with formational values.” But this is never a process that ought to be about the culture of the seminary itself but how the seminary has responded to the question “What kind of ministry does the church require?” The church might not need every priest to be a strong theologian or an excellent preacher, though competency here of some sort would be expected. What the church does need are priests who excel at being priests in their context.

Martyn Percy’s argument echoes much of my current thought about what kind of school a seminary is.

I think it is time to put the classification of seminary as graduate school to bed. Seminary is not graduate school because the term graduate school implies an institution that is shaped by the norms and expectations of the academy. But if we are shaping clergy, then we ought to be shaped by the norms and expectations of the church. Here I note the irony that the seminaries who are best weathering the storms besetting theological education are those housed at universities, and so most susceptible to being cast as graduate school. But I write from the view of an independently endowed denominational seminary.

But if seminary is not graduate school, what is it?

Let us look at the very word seminary to know what it is. It comes from the Latin seminarium meaning “seed bed.” Seminary is not graduate school. It is a garden, a plot land, a place where each student ought to be tended to and cultivated so that they might bear the fruit they are called to by God through the discernment of the community of believers, the church.

Seminary is a school, but much more in the spirit of the Rule of Benedict it is a school of service to God. Seminary is the place of vocation, discernment and learning. It is the place where by instruction one does gain the knowledge and skills needed to be a priest. But the learning is done in the spirit of cultivation and discernment. The question ought not to be, “how excellent a student is this person?” but “how does this person need to be cultivated to become the priest God has called them to be?” The faculty then move from being dispensers of information and assessors of skills (though that is retained as a feature) to being cultivators of vocation.
So the next time a student comes to me about the stresses of seminary, I will welcome them to the garden of their formation.

(Martyn Percy, “Context, Character, and Challenges: The Shaping of Ordination Training” in Mark D. Chapman, et al., The Oxford Handbook of Anglican Studies490-503.)


Filed under Seminaries

7 responses to “Seminary is Not Graduate School

  1. Flora Keshgegian

    Good to read your essay, Dan. And I agree that formation is a significant part of seminary education. The way you draw the lines, however, makes me nervous. You don’t actually define what a good priest is – other than not having to be great theologian or preacher. Having given the “seminary is graduate school” speech to students, I think the emphasis is more on school than graduate. My experience is that those attending seminary sometimes had difficulty being students and open to learning. The resistance to learning was sometimes accompanied by the idea that what was important was to be a good person. Of course, we need priests who are good people, but that is something we all should strive to be, so what is distinctive about the priestly vocation. I think being theologically literate and a good preacher are essential things for the church today.

  2. Rhian Jeong

    Thank you for this reflection. Your words ring truth to me and yet I still struggle with concept that seminary is not grad school. I’m biased – of course – since I continued to pursue higher education and now I work in the world of the academy. I am also particularly attuned to this conversation as Drew’s Theological School is beginning to combine our Admissions office with Caspersen, Drew’s Graduate School. But I mostly hold onto the idea that seminary is indeed graduate school because I think academia has the potential to positively shape and guide how we lead church faithfully and more ethically into the future. I love your question: “What kind of ministry does the church require?” But that does not necessarily mean that we rely on churches to shape the norms of our theological education and formation. Goes without out saying that we cannot envision seminary apart from the church and we will always need their weighty influence. But in practicality, the academy provides an invaluable interrogation of church “norms.”

    Furthermore, I appreciated the rigorous reading and writing of a theological graduate school. Does that make me a better pastor? Well, I kinda think it does. In your Christian history courses, if we were going to have a more global and inclusive gaze, then we couldn’t simply neglect good ‘ol white european history in exchange for more diverse stories; no, we simply had to read more. If we were going to be socially aware and responsible to the churches, then we needed to practice, practice, practice developing our consciousness. And so why does writing well matter? You taught us that if we were going to be public theologians, if we were going to be effective communicators, then we need to organize our thoughts. If we cannot do this with some measure of eloquence, then oft times, our attempts to communicate God’s message is in vain. I say this as your former student who did not get exclusively A’s… and this reply is probably not the most eloquent either. But I, for now, maintain a high regard for these abilities. I know you still appreciate these capacities too, and maybe your reflection emerges from a need to balance your own tendency to “overly” emphasize “academic” tools. IDK… what I do know is that I truly appreciate the impression you left on me. I will always keep trying to become a more astute theologian. Sending my love –

  3. Stephen Lahey

    Dan, I very much like your thoughtful take on this issue. I was pretty serious in my comment on Fb; why does our church not take advantage of the many, many M.A. offerings in Religious Studies and or Theology provided by almost all of the major universities and come up with a curriculum that students could use, leaving seminary for the formation of people who have already learned how to engage in specialized self-education in Scripture, Church History, ethics, and philosophical reasoning about religion? Speaking as grad faculty at a big 10 school, I can say with some certainty that just about every Religious Studies program in just about every land grant or large research university would be happy to tailor a pre-ministry curriculum for people wanting to get this knowledge without paying the absurd amount of $ seminary costs. All we would need would be evidence of a market to tell a dean that such a curriculum would bring in students. IN the meantime we have slapdash affairs like, in my area, the Kemper academy, that sometimes has specialists, but usually has amateurs teaching people in formation who can’t afford full time seminary. Graduate education is changing dramatically in the humanities, and this would be the ideal time for a church to challenge Religious STudies programs to step up and create a curriculum that would actually serve a need. We’re done creating PhDs in RS for the sake of creating PhDs; there are too many now. We need people from within PECUSA to tell us what it needs. Let me know what you think at if you have a mind. STeve Lahey

  4. Thanks for this, Dan. As a not-so-great theologian who definitely struggled with the academic rigor of my seminary years (as well you know!), I nevertheless seem to be in the proper vocation to which God has called me. However, I really did learn a lot more than I realized from professors who imparted their academic knowledge and community wisdom. So, thanks for that, too!

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