Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Should Denominational Pastors Always Come From Denominational Seminaries?

I've mentioned the Tribal Church blog before. Author Carol Howard Merritt is a fellow Presbyterian, serving a church in the Washington, DC area (and also, as of this past Monday, co-host of the new podcast, The God Complex). Although we differ in our opinions in a few respects, I find that most of what she writes is written with a great deal of care for how God's people are taken care of, especially by the institutional church. Even when I disagree with her assertions, I almost always find her writings thought-provoking. To judge from the number of comments some of her posts receive, I gather that I'm not the only one who thinks so.

A number of her posts over the past few months have generated discussion about whether or not the PC(USA) handles the process of ordination of its would-be pastors in the most appropriate way. Since I'm involved in this process, myself, and my wife is pursuing ordination within the Episcopal church (having recently been named a postulant), I obviously look at such discussions with a great deal of interest. Some (not, to the best of my recollection, CHM herself) have suggested that whatever is done in regard to such requirements as (for example) ordination exams, the PC(USA) should restrict ordination to only those who have attended PC(USA) seminaries. Naturally, as a graduate of an institution that is not explicitly PC(USA) affiliated (but which does graduate a large number of students who seek and achieve PC(USA) ordination), I tend to disagree with such a proposed solution (For the sake of expediency, I'll just talk about the PC(USA) here, but most of this seems to hold true when my wife and I converse about and to members of the Episcopal Church, as well. My expectation is that the same might be said of many denominations.).

That particular blog entry linked in the previous paragraph was written more than half a year ago, but some of that discussion has stayed with me for a while. I don't want to dismiss out-of-hand the idea that a denomination should require that its pastors attend one of their denominational institutions. Other denominations do, in fact, have such requirements. I certainly don't want to oppose such a solution only out of self-interest, if in fact it would be helpful for the denomination as it seeks to do God's will in regard to its pastoral leadership. But I still feel that barring non-PC(USA)-seminary graduates from PC(USA) ordination would be the wrong thing to do.

While reading Fuller Voices recently, I was reading the inaugural speech of Edward John Carnell, Fuller's second President, given in 1955. Although the world he was speaking to was radically different in many ways, I still can't help but think that his argument in regard to requiring that pastors graduate from denominational institutions would still apply today:
Those who resort to ecclesiastical legislation to solve the problem of ministerial training do not always appreciate the new difficulties they create. Once it is supposed that fitness for ministry can be decided by so mechanical a manner as the school where the candidate has taken his training, it is all the more likely that the Christian church will ultimately be controlled by clerics who, in fact, are more concerned with their ecclesiastical security than they are with preservation and propagation of the eternal gospel. Fitness for ordination should be decided by an organic approach to the candidate: call to the ministry, religious experience, purity of life, orthodoxy of theology, assent to denominational distinctives, attitude toward fellow ministers, and the total set of gifts and talents brought to the office. Unless both the theological seminary and the Christian church learn to hold the unity of their distinctives within the plurality of wider Christian efforts everywhere, church leadership will pass into the hands of professional holy men. The voice of the prophet will be heard no more; the reformer will be driven from the city; and the madness of daring individuality will be scorned.
When I was reading this, I found it especially ironic to reflect that a lot of the people who I was disagreeing with at Tribal Church were, themselves, arguing for theological diversity. This seems to be opposed, apparently, to what they think Fuller teaches. I find myself having to defend Fuller in many such instances where I am in conversation with my fellow PC(USA) members who happen to know Fuller only by reputation. I generally try to point out that, although Fuller (as an institution, or as represented by any one of its constituents) may have particular stances with which they may personally disagree, the school is not monolithic, and is in fact far more diverse than it is often given credit for. It is, very intentionally, multi-denominational (in fact, we prefer that label to "non-denominational"). Moreover, our core beliefs are very much in conformity with the core beliefs of the PC(USA) (and, so far as I can tell, the Episcopal Church, as well). So long as I can retain whatever denominational distinctives the PC(USA) requires (as demonstrated by ordination exams, and whatever other tasks I am required to complete before ordination), having graduated from such a diverse institution adds something that will help make me a unique and (I hope) valuable voice in denominational discussions. It doesn't detract from my PC(USA)-ness.

Although I certainly understand some of the suspicion that Fuller graduates may be more conservative on certain issues than PC(USA)-seminary graduates, on the whole, I would nonetheless ask that non-PC(USA)-seminary graduates not be barred from the possibility of PC(USA) ordination. I'm not saying this out of some feeling that "I'm right (about some theological disagreement or another) and they need to listen to me," however important it may be that such voices need not to be cut off from the conversation. I say this because I know that students do not always reflect all the attributes of the institution (especially those attributes that are unpopular). Give us a chance! You may be surprised at how much we agree with each other! And, for those areas where we still disagree... well, can we at least learn from each other?


  1. I'm a United Methodist pastor who attended a non-UM seminary (though the one that produces the most UM pastors) so I've been in this kind of discussion before. Back when I was still in seminary (over 20 years ago) a district superintendent told me that if I wanted to make it in the Conference I'd better go to the local official seminary. The conference as a whole, however, was more open.

    Not being PCUSA I don't know what your language is, but in the modern UMC we make much of pluralism and diversity. I have trouble believing it however, since it usually goes hand in hand with top-down bureaucratic power. I still remember reading an apologetic from years ago, arguing that UM churches ought only use official Sunday school literature. One of the arguments for using only this one kind was that we believe in pluralism.

    From what I've seen over the years, many pleas for diversity and pluralism, given the kinds of diversity they exclude, sound more like a mania for control.

  2. Thanks for your comments. My experience with the UMC is pretty sparse (I did work as a Youth Leader at a UMC church a number of years ago, but I can't say I was there long enough to really learn much about the denomination), but I'm sorry (if perhaps not surprised) to hear that a similar situation exists there.

  3. Hi, I am a Fuller grad who has been looking into the process of getting ordained in the ECUSA, and came across this post this morning.

    I was wondering what your wife's experience has been, or if she even knows how much of her prior study will go towards her training for ordination?

  4. My wife's experience is a bit atypical for the Episcopal Church (at least, as we've known it in the Diocese of Los Angeles), since generally they approve you for the ordination process before you start seminary. As I'm guessing is true with you (you don't mention your specific degree), she had already gotten her MDiv by then!

    However, when she was at the retreat to be interviewed for promotion to "postulant" status, she was actually one of three Fuller women being interviewed. All three were named postulants, so clearly the fact that they'd already started (in my wife's case, completed!) their MDivs wasn't a huge problem.

    I can't speak for the other two, but my wife is working on her PhD in liturgical studies, and has specifically taken classes on the Episcopal church and the Anglican tradition to ensure that any concerns they might have about her preparation for this particular denomination would be answered in advance. She hasn't been asked to take specific additional courses, but I certainly understand that they may want to ensure some kind of liturgical or ECUSA polity background if they don't see it already present.

    Naturally, the process is a little different for each person, depending on how those responsible for guiding would-be priests (in this case) discern that person's call, and the needs for preparation for that call.

    I hope that helps!

  5. That helps quite a bit thanks! I actually Graduated with an MA in Theology, so I know that there is definitely some more schooling ahead of me, but it is good to hear the experience of someone else.

    Thanks again :)



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