Category Archives: Seminaries

More Thoughts on Seminary and Graduate School


I have been mulling over the various responses on Facebook and in the comments on this blog regarding my last post, “Seminary is not Graduate School.” They have been thoughtful and I have enjoyed the give and take in the discussions. I want to offer three points as a general response.

First, when I argue that seminary is not graduate school, I am not advocating for the absence of rigor or critical thinking. A proper formation for ministry requires deep learning and critically reflective engagement with the tradition. As one commenter put it, perhaps the emphasis should be less on “graduate” and more on “school.” This fits with my reference to the Rule of Benedict — preparation for ministry is about preparing in a school for the Lord’s service.

When I think about the kind of ministers the church needs (and here I first am thinking about priests), I believe seminaries need to help form effective catechists and pastors. Students do need theological formation, they need to express the teachings of Scripture and the church well in teaching and preaching, and they need to be spiritually astute and grounded, skilled in the discernment of spirits. They do not need to be excellent according to the standards of the academy. But they need to be adept in the care of the people of God, which does require a discerning mind and an ability to think critically. Seminary is meant to help accomplish that.

Second, while I think academic rigor is absolutely necessary, my concern with labeling seminary as graduate school is that it then locates the work of seminary in the life of the academy rather than in the church. I greatly value the work of humanities based education and the perspectives it offers to our common life. But the academy is dedicated to universal humanist values which downplay the commitments of religious particularity. While I think this is crucial for civil society, it is less helpful for the life of the church. Being a Chrisitan in the contemporary West means a kind of dual citizenship, toggling between sacred and secular values that do not always align well. I believe seminary training is a time to dive deep into ecclesial commitments and be shaped by them before returning back to the dual citizenship that contemporary ministry requires. Seminary is a time apart, not unlike many other cultural initiation processes that precede entry into a new role.

Finally, while it might be possible for university religious studies departments to offer much of the academic training there is something deeply formational and important about time at a residential seminary. (Here I am bracketing the university divinity school, largely because I think this is a separate topic.) I want to return to the topic of spirituality and discernment in my first point. I think one of the most important things one should learn in seminary is how to pray and how to teach others to pray. That is, seminary ought to be the time when one begins to be a skilled spiritual practitioner. One ought to be in spiritual direction, one ought to be developing the spiritual gift of discernment of spirits, and one ought to be developing a spiritual vocabulary and narrative of the Christian life that is easily shared with others. This is not the realm of graduate school. But it is the work of spiritual formation found in the school of the service of the Lord.

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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.)


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CPE and the Seminary Professor


I spent the majority of this summer working as a chaplain intern in the Clinical Pastoral Education program at Seton Medical Center Austin. This was an unusual departure from my typical summers, which involve catching up on writing projects, researching, preparing for the new academic year, and vacation time with my family. None of those were in the offing this summer. Instead, as part of my ordination process I worked on the oncology and intermediate care floors. True to its purpose, this CPE program provided me with opportunities to minister, to reflect, to learn, and to grow.

I was also in an unusual situation. While the rest of my cohort, save one, were seminary students, I was a seminary professor. On top of that, about a third of the group were current students at my school. For the sake of my own learning and growth, I bracketed my role as professor in the context of CPE. At the same time, since I am pursuing ordination while remaining in a seminary community, I often reflected on how CPE was informing my understanding of my dual vocation of professor and priest.

I had many important experiences during CPE. I gained greater confidence in my role as a pastoral caregiver. I learned how to be present in the face of physical, emotional, and mental suffering. I thought a lot about family systems and their effects on all facets of one’s life, including health. As a former evangelical and a devoted Episcopalian, I dove into praying extemporaneously and learned a great deal about the nature of prayer.

About halfway through CPE I had an insight about why it was important for my own vocational journey: All seminary professors ought to take CPE.

First, some context for this insight. In my world of Episcopal seminaries it is fair to estimate that about half to two-thirds of faculty are clergy in the Episcopal Church. For virtually all of them, CPE was a requirement of their ordination process. (While the canons do not require CPE, I don’t know of a diocese that doesn’t). That means about a half to a third are lay faculty. Most are Episcopalian. I would guess this proportion holds for most other accredited seminaries. One surprise to me was that not all denominations require CPE for ordination. What this means is that there can be a healthy number of faculty in seminary who have never taken CPE.

So why do I think that the CPE experience matters for all seminary faculty?

Because faculty are in the vocation business and CPE is a critical means of discerning vocation.

I don’t think seminary is best understood as graduate school. That view provides a distorting effect on training for ministry since it places so much emphasis on intellectual achievement. Rather, I view seminary as a vocational training school. It is a place where people go who have discerned a call in community and where they learn the concepts and skills they need to live into their vocation. Seminary is also a place for ongoing and sustained discernment about the shape of a person’s vocation to ordained ministry. As they learn the content for effective ministerial leadership (biblical studies, theology, history) they also are learning how to apply that content in ethical, pastoral, liturgical, and administrative patterns. But so much of this learning process can seem abstracted and students too often have a hard time imagining themselves as ordained leaders. As a result, they often can’t imagine how their learning links to their vocation. This is where CPE comes in as a place where students concretely exercise their vocational identity and work through how that maps onto their personal identity, the formation they have received up to that point, and what they have learned in seminary.

So how do seminary professors fit into all this?

I would argue that the benefit of CPE for faculty who have not done it before is that it helps them to better understand the experience of their students. (Here I have in mind especially my own Episcopal context.) In particular, it provides an up close view of how formation for ministry and continued vocational discernment is happening to students during their seminary careers. I would argue it puts faculty into a more compassionate space and provides an opportunity to see the integrative work going on in the lives of students.

But this is not just about understanding student experiences. The genius of CPE is that it requires one to do integrative work and come to greater self-knowledge. One gains greater insight about one’s own behaviors, assumptions, and relational patterns. And this in turn provides insight into why one has chosen one’s vocational path. In short, I would argue that CPE offers the seminary professor a way of moving out of some of the deficits of university-based doctoral training that emphasizes intellectual achievement as the greatest good. CPE helps one pivot towards the vocational and formational focus that is proper to seminary-based education. This pivot enables faculty to better shape curricula, courses, and assignments towards the vocational goals towards which students are moving. On top of this, a unit of CPE can allow faculty to reconnect with their own vocational path. They can gain deeper self-knowledge about what ministry means for them in a seminary context and as a result live into a fuller calling as a seminary professor.

I realize that doing a summer of CPE is a sacrifice. It means a summer with no research, writing, or class prep. Vacation time is basically eliminated. Seminaries expect some sort of productivity during the summer, so doing CPE requires working with deans and presidents. But I believe the sacrifices are worth it.

I have also been blessed by the fact that at Seminary of the Southwest we as a faculty have been in sustained conversations over the course of the past year about what formation and vocation means. As a result, our own patterns of teaching and course design have changed and will continue to for the next several years. Not all institutions are in the same place. But I am grateful to be in a place where I can pivot from a focus on the university based model of intellectual achievement to a model of integrative preparation for a life-long vocation.


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