Seminary to Service: What Helps, Hinders

The idea goes something like this.

A small congregation, in need of a new pastor, looks at new seminary graduates -- a pastor seeking a first call would be just fine with them.

A student, eager to dive into ministry, is delighted with the idea too.

The congregation needs a pastor; the pastor needs a job.

A match is made.

Everybody's happy.

Except here's the problem: a lot of the time, it doesn't work like that at all.

People familiar with the system say there are multiple, serious problems with the path that students take during and after seminary -- problems that are often frustrating for students and churches alike.

Some students don't move into the inquirer and candidacy process quickly enough, or don't pass their ordination examinations, so when they graduate they're not ready to take a call to a church.

More than a few people go to seminary, but don't want to go into parish ministry, or don't want to serve the kinds of churches that have the most vacancies -- small congregations in rural areas or little towns.

The idea goes something like this.

A small congregation, in need of a new pastor, looks at new seminary graduates — a pastor seeking a first call would be just fine with them.

A student, eager to dive into ministry, is delighted with the idea too.

The congregation needs a pastor; the pastor needs a job.

A match is made.

Everybody’s happy.

Except here’s the problem: a lot of the time, it doesn’t work like that at all.

People familiar with the system say there are multiple, serious problems with the path that students take during and after seminary — problems that are often frustrating for students and churches alike.

Some students don’t move into the inquirer and candidacy process quickly enough, or don’t pass their ordination examinations, so when they graduate they’re not ready to take a call to a church.

More than a few people go to seminary, but don’t want to go into parish ministry, or don’t want to serve the kinds of churches that have the most vacancies — small congregations in rural areas or little towns.

Students may start off with pure excitement about the idea of going into ministry. But sometimes that excitement gets squelched along the way — by the realities of church conflict, by the prospect of isolation and low salaries, by Committees on Preparation for Ministry (CPM) that seem more interested in rules than nurturing.

“It’s one of those places where everyone’s finest hopes and dreams get expressed,” said Jeffrey O’Neill, pastor of First church in Alma, Michigan, and moderator of the Committee on Preparation for Ministry in Lake Huron Presbytery. “Then it comes up against the solid wall of reality.”

Some of the difficulties spring from the types of people who come to seminary — a somewhat changing demographic, to be sure. More than a few prospective ministers did not grow up in the Presbyterian church and aren’t familiar with either its governance structure or connectional nature — nor do they always have very realistic ideas about what life in the ministry actually will be like, said Marcia Clark Myers, associate director for leadership and vocation for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “Then they get on this conveyor belt which takes them into ministry, and they’re depressed and ineffective,” Myers said.

Myers recently got an E-mail, for example, from a lifelong Methodist who wrote that “she’s heard Presbyterians are like Methodists, she thinks being a pastor would be cool and how does she do that? But she’s never been in a Presbyterian pew,” Myers said, and has no idea about the differences between Presbyterian and Methodist theology and polity.

It used to be that more people went to seminary after being immersed in Presbyterian life — often they were preacher’s kids, or people who started going to Presbyterian churches as babies. They understood how the system worked.

“The people who are coming now, they’re coming from Youth for Christ” or non-denominational settings, Myers said. “They’re coming from ‘Gosh, I’ve heard about the Presbyterian church, somebody said I should give ministry a spin. My therapist said so. Church people are caring people, I want to be part of a group that’s nurturing.’ But you find out when you become a minister it’s not very nurturing at all.”

And some who come to seminary, even if they do come from Presbyterian backgrounds, don’t get in touch quickly enough with the two-phase process that Presbyterian polity requires. It includes moving from the inquirer phase to actual candidacy for ministry, with specific requirements along the way, including supervision from the CPM in the presbytery to which the student is formally related.

This can be a tricky relationship — because part of the call to ministry does involve discernment, the idea in Reformed theology that a person is called by God to ministry, they don’t just show up, and that that call is discerned not as a private matter, (“not just you and Jesus,” Myers said) but by both the individual and by the broader church.

Ideally, Myers said, people would enter the inquiry phase before they come to seminary — perhaps taking advantage of programs such as Burning Bush or Presbyterian Pastoral Leadership Search Effort, known as PLSE, both of which encourage young adults to consider the idea of going into ministry and provide them with opportunities to actively consider whether that is their calling. The home church and presbytery can also be involved — with people there speaking up and nurturing someone if they see an individual who might have gifts for ordained pastoral ministry.

But it doesn’t always happen that way — sometimes discernment takes its own path.  Some don’t think about the ministry at all until they’re older. Some have encounters with God well outside the Presbyterian church. Some students don’t start the paperwork. Some have figured out they might be eligible for financial aid in seminary if they declare themselves to be an inquirer — whether or not they’re sure they want to enter the ministry, Myers said. Some have trouble passing the required ordination exams. Sometimes CPMs get busy and get behind. And all this can mean that certain students will finish seminary, pass their classes and take their exams, but still might not be considered eligible to become a pastor at a church or even to begin exploratory discussions with search committees — in technical terms, they aren’t “certified ready to take a call.”

That can make life hard, both for a seminary graduate who needs a job to pay the bills and for a congregation that’s looking hard for a pastor and can’t find one.

“What we’re dealing with goes back to reunion issues,” to things discussed when the northern and southern branches of the Presbyterian church reunited in 1983, said John R. Evans, vocational and placement officer at Austin Theological Seminary in Texas. Evans said he served on the committee that wrote the initial manual at reunion for candidates for ministry — a document called “A New Day in Candidacy” — and “you could almost predict. Where we were vague and uncertain there is either so much vagueness (now), or it has been tightened so much” that there’s little wiggle room.

“The screws seem to be tighter, especially related to timing issues,” Evans said.

Twenty years ago, if a candidate passed all but one of the ordination exams, often “the presbytery would be a bit more open and graceful” and might allow that person to circulate paperwork seeking a job in ministry, along with a cover letter explaining the situation, he said. “That is not the case any longer,” Evans said.  The trend he’s seen: that presbyteries are “moving from grace to law.”

Myers said when she graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1979, it was considered “unusual and shameful if you didn’t have a call by the time you graduated.” That’s not true anymore.

“It’s been a phenomenon of the 1990s and beyond that our folks are not getting through the whole process (simultaneously) and people are looking at the two-phase process as the problem,” she said.

Congregations don’t always understand — especially if they urgently need a pastor.  They may see the student’s profile on the seminary’s website, listed among the recent graduates — or might even show up on campus to meet with people, and have a hard time understanding why they can’t just call up a graduating student and see if they might be interested.

Sometimes students who are getting close to graduation can see they won’t finish all the requirements for ordination in time. “By December they are in a total state of panic,” Evans said.

And there are good reasons for that. Many students lose their seminary housing when they graduate. They need to figure out where they’re going to live. To pay the rent, they need a job. The process of examination and ordination takes time, often involving more than one presbytery.  “If you don’t get in under the wire,” with all the approvals by the June presbytery meetings, Evans said, “you’re hanging out there until November sometimes.”

Meanwhile, school starts, and families with children need to make plans. Evans said he knows one single father with a son who has graduated from seminary, and “he’s literally living in a motel with a fictitious address” so his son won’t have to switch schools while the father tries to complete the process of accepting a call. In another case, a married couple with children is living in two households — he in one city, she with the children in another — while she tries to find a call in a town where he can land a job too.

And Evans said he sees increasing numbers of clergy couples — men and women who both become ministers and get married — and who are trying to find a situation where they can both find jobs in ministry close together. “Austin seminary is like a shoe factory — we’re turning them out in pairs,” Evans joked. But many smaller congregations have only one position to offer, and maybe not at a salary that can support a family if the other spouse can’t find work.

The PC(USA) educates about 2,800 people each year at its seminaries, but ordains only about 350 a year, Myers said.

Students who start the formal candidacy process around the time they begin seminary usually finish by the time they graduate, she said. But those who don’t can end up feeling frustrated and in limbo.

She knows one woman, for example, who will graduate from seminary in December, but just became an inquirer. “She wasn’t ready, she wasn’t sure,” Myers said. “Inquiry is about not being sure. Inquiry is a good thing. We need to somehow get that to happen before they go to seminary. But the church is not connecting with our people until they’re already in seminary. We kind of lose them after high school, when they go to college, then when they pop up in seminary again and they want financial aid, we connect again.”

So Myers would like to see a better system for keeping in touch with promising students — for giving them internships and volunteer experiences that might give them a better understanding of what a life in ministry could be like. Ideally, she said, congregations would offer programs in discernment so that all Presbyterians, regardless of their jobs, would be challenged to think about their spiritual gifts and how God might be calling them to serve.

And through that process some people might figure out, she said, that they while they do want to work in ministry — perhaps in community ministry or with social justice groups, maybe even going to seminary for theological training — they might not need to be ordained.

Sometimes, students perceive that presbytery CPMs pile on additional requirements mid-stream — particularly if they have doubts about whether a candidate is a good match for ministry. And many candidates have basically an arms-length relationship with their committees. They may be in different states — and that can seem both geographically and emotionally far away.

“There are CPMs who really see it as caring and guidance through the process, and there are some CPMs who see it as gate-keeping,” said Gini Norris-Lake, a minister who works for the PLSE program. “Some young people feel the process is too cumbersome and too bureaucratic. They say that these people are supposed to be guiding them through the process, but the students don’t know CPM members and the CPM members don’t know them.

Sheldon Sorge, of the PC(USA)s Office of Theology and Worship, works with the Company of New Pastors, a program funded by the Lilly Endowment for seminary students, introducing them to spiritual disciplines that will serve them well as pastors, then following them through their first few years in ministry.

“There are some real problems” with the way that CPMs interact with candidates, Sorge said. “There are too many disparate stakeholders and it becomes too much of a checklist,” monitoring to see whether all requirements have been met, rather than a building of relationships. The idea that CPMs “really are communities of spiritual care for the candidates, which is what’s on the books, which is what we aspire to, is a fiction.”

Sorge said the Company of New Pastors asks its seminarians to tell them who on their CPM really knows them well, “and half of them say, `Nobody.’ “

Partly, that may be a function of geography.  “There is a remarkable, I think new pattern emerging,” Sorge said. More and more, instead of going to the seminary closest to home, students pick a seminary they think will best match their interests and theological leanings, so seminaries become “niche schools,” Sorge said. “If you want to be a rural pastor, you go to Dubuque. If you want to be an urban pastor, you go to McCormick.”

And even though a candidate may be geographically far away, “you’re incredibly vulnerable to this committee,” Norris-Lake said.

Pen Peery, an associate pastor at Second Presbyterian church in Richmond, graduated from Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia in the spring of 2003. He was able to take a call right away — both his parents are Presbyterian ministers, so he understood the system and knew “you have to be really intentional” to finish on time.

The CPM to which he related, in Western North Carolina presbytery, was a half-day’s drive away.  “I saw them once a year,” Peery said, and because he did not know the people well, the experience of sharing his faith with them — of opening up his heart — felt somewhat awkward and contrived. “You’re walking on eggshells,” Peery said. “Because of the political nature of the church these days, you know what the buzzwords are. You’re constantly aware of your language . . . You can be authentic in the process. But you’re not as free.”

In a divided church,  “they’re worried they will say something that will betray where they are on the theological scale,” said Ruth Hicks, associate executive presbyter for ministry with Greater Atlanta Presbytery.

Peery said he now serves on a CPM committee himself, so “I’m seeing behind the curtain” — he’s been in some of those “marathon meetings filled with details” — and he understands the pressures those committees face.

Some presbyteries near bigger cities have 50 to 100 candidates at a time. With that many, “how can you take the time to really help discern with these students?” Norris-Lake asked. “And how do you pastorally say to some of them, “we’re not really sure you’re called into ordained ministry. Let’s talk about how your gifts might be used (in other ways).’ In my experience, the church is reticent to do that. That’s a hard conversation to have.”

Some people come to seminary with a sense of entitlement, with “an inner sense of call,” Evans said. And “all of a sudden it becomes this larger system, this community-of-believers system, that they’re not accustomed to thinking of.” If questions arise about whether they really are being called to become a minister, “they’d rather sit in a chapel and pray about it themselves than go talk to a committee about it,” Evans said.

Some presbyteries are trying innovative ways of getting to know students better, during both the inquirer and candidacy phases. This year the denomination sponsored a gathering before the General Assembly called “Who will be our Future Pastors?” bringing together representatives of seminaries and presbytery committees to brainstorm about the problems and about “best practices.”

The three presbyteries in Puerto Rico, for example, require inquirers and candidates to participate in a rotation of supervised pastoral work experiences throughout their years in seminary — doing everything from hospital visits to mission work to preaching — to give them a chance to explore their call to ministry in different settings.

Greater Atlanta presbytery supervises about 110 candidates at a time — one of the biggest loads in the denomination — with the help of a crackerjack administrative assistant and a CPM of 36. The CPM meets with at least six candidates a month, and has worked hard to overcome the impression that “Greater Atlanta was tough, they didn’t care,” Hicks said. The issues are difficult. Some candidates are borderline students and struggle to pass the ordination exams. Some disappear for years to marry and have children, or to reconsider whether they want to be a pastor after all.

Lake Huron presbytery, which has relatively few candidates, keeps in touch with candidates by e-mail and holds a retreat once a year where inquirers and candidates meet with committee members — but also with pastors from first-call churches, who come and share with those in seminary “what they wish they had known” a little sooner, said O’Neill, moderator of the presbytery’s CPM.

Almost all of the candidates who’ve come through Lake Huron presbytery went to seminary in a city  — big ones such as Chicago or Boston or smaller ones such as Richmond or Louisville — and many would love to find a job in an urban area, O’Neill said. But many of jobs available in the PC(USA) are solo pastors in small towns, at churches that can’t afford a big salary.

And each of these churches has its own culture, its own political realities. From the first-call pastors, “what they hear is they thought they were being ordained to peach, teach and provide pastoral care for people,” O’Neill said. “They didn’t know they were being ordained as chief executive of a complex institution.”

Some critics of the system now say the PC(USA) should change its constitution — to change the candidacy system — but Myers said the denomination’s own political realities make that not likely to happen.

“The church is not ready for it,” she said. “There’s not enough trust around who do we ordain and how do we prepare them?”

So Myers argues for practical rather than constitutional changes. She wants people to look comprehensively at the system — to figure out what’s working and what is not and why. And Myers wants the PC(USA) “to get away from the checklist” and to work on building relationships in this connectional church that will nurture strong new pastors from the beginning.