Too Few Jobs for Seminary Graduates?

Recently I had a note from a friend who is a leader in a fine theological school. He worries about the looming placement crisis facing American seminarians: “it won’t be too long before there will be very few full time positions available for seminary graduates.” This could be “the next big thing for seminaries,” he suggests.

My friend is probably correct, but I have a slightly different take on the issue.

One of the things I discovered while living and working on the West Coast for 14 years is that many of the assumptions we make about religion in America don’t apply there. One example is the idea that regular religious participation remains the norm. Sure, many people opt out of organized religious involvement and the numbers of people who do so is growing, but in large parts of the country weekend worship is still part of life. But it’s not true in the West (and never really has been) and it’s no longer true in many other parts of the US as well.

It once made sense to assume that seminaries would have to worry about “placing” their graduates in the religious marketplace. Placement implies a “market” of available workers (clergy seeking employment) and customers (churches or agencies with [ideally, full-time] jobs available). (For a long time some denominations in New England refused to use the language of placement, preferring to say they were responsible for ministerial “settlement.”)

It is time for some fresh thinking about placement and settlement.

Three or four times a year in my time as a seminary president I had the opportunity to say to new and prospective students the following words. “We’re in a time in which the church you dream of serving is probably one you will have to build yourself. Few of you will be called to the church of your dreams.”

I’m amazed at how many students at PSR took those words seriously. Every time I meet with a group of alums someone tells me they took my advice and shaped their seminary training in ways that would help lead them to where they are today. Often that’s in a ministerial position that didn’t exist 10 years ago and is one these graduates have invented for themselves.

Other alums tell me they now wish they had those words more seriously! They have come to realize that the church is no longer in a position to “place” them where they would like to be.

I hope seminaries are now recognizing that their job is no longer to simply produce graduates who can meet the current needs of existing churches. Our churches need ministerial leaders who can work with historic and emerging communities to shape a vision of the church appropriate to the present and the future and to marshal the necessary resources to bring that vision into being.

Seminaries need to discipline themselves to avoid creating dependency among students, which is hard to do when we’re accustomed to housing, feeding, providing financial aid and expanding support services such as counseling, spiritual direction and even financial planning. I’m not saying these are unimportant; in fact they are very important in the seminary experience and in most cases we need more rather than less attention to these forms of support.

But seminaries also need to prepare students for life in the real world and the real church where, like it or not, they will need to stand on their own two feet. Twenty years ago my friend Yvette Flunder, with colleagues, founded City of Refuge United Church of Christ, a remarkable church now located in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. Bishop Flunder has often said she started in ministry with three strikes against her: as a black, same-gender loving woman, few people expected her to succeed in ministry. Before long she began to see that with God’s help all things are possible. Her lack of advantages turned out to be a source of strength.

How can we help seminary students understand that part of maturation in ministry is breaking out of dependency cycles and learning to lean on God and not only on seminary support systems. That question needs to be on the list of the “next big things” for seminaries and religious leaders.

There are signs that people across the churches are beginning to think about ministry in new ways. One sign of hope is the Center for Progressive Renewal (www.progressiverenewal.org), which has the audacious notion that every church ought to be a growing church and that every minister ought to be in some respects an entrepreneurial leader!

It’s time for bold leaders for a bold church and for seminaries and others to realize it’s their job to help prepare those leaders.

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