Indulge me for a bit in a visionary exercise. What could clergy formation look like if we moved out of the residential seminary paradigm? How could we make it more effective? What might it look like? I offer a collection of related thoughts—by no means a fully conceptualized system—that would take a very Anglican/Episcopal approach to the problem. I submit it here for your thoughts and reflections, less for your agreement; more to prime your own thoughts about what the Church needs and will need from her clergy in the coming years and how theological education can provide it. This is my vision—what’s yours—and how can we build on them to reach what’s next (or what could be next)?
I begin from a set of 6 premises that I will upgrade to the state of being axiomatic.
1. Bishops are responsible for the seminarians and clergy of their dioceses.
2. The cathedral is intended to be the house of worship and spiritual center of a diocese.
3. Seminary student debt is a huge problem, especially for younger students.
4. Seminaries are having financial difficulties, lacking the endowment income and denominational support to substantially reduce tuition costs.
5. The Internet and associated distance learning technologies have the capacity to revolutionize how education content is communicated.
6. The best clergy formation is a balance of academic learning, practical experience and liturgical formation.
Has anyone wondered recently what the Church did before seminaries existed? Think about it–the whole seminary model is a relatively recent phenomenon. St Peter didn’t go to one; neither did Benedict, Bede, or Cranmer. That’s not to say they didn’t get educated, it’s just to say that our current model isn’t the only viable one out there.
In the early medieval church, clergy and clergy-to-be were made members of the bishop’s household. There were nine ecclesiastical grades through which a priest-in-training progressed and the canons stipulated that the ninth–priest–could not be attained before the age of 30. (Our transitional diaconate is the last remaining vestige of this system and that is about to go the way of the dodo from what I hear…) As a result, someone wanting to be a priest properly had to spend a fair amount of time hanging around the bishop and the bishop’s court in order to become a priest. Priestly learning came from a combination of academic learning from the cathedral school, observing priests and other ministers in action, and participating in the on-going quotidian life of the cathedral.
My suggestion is a return to the core strategies of this system. The heart of the vision is to intentionally and clearly place mimesis or education through imitation and modeling at the center of the educational process That is, postulants and aspirants would no longer go to a seminary “place” but would, instead, attach themselves to their cathedral and would serve the bishop and diocese directly. Academic learning would still necessarily remain a part of this process, but its place would be different from what it is now; it would be placed in direct relation to its practical and theoretical applications in combination with the rota of the liturgical life of a cathedral. I shall now flesh out this brief outline by focusing on particular aspects of the formation process.
II. Liturgical Formation
My occasional and hardly scientific survey of local cathedrals reveals that most of them serve as little more than over-sized churches, liturgically speaking; the Sunday morning paradigm remains dominant. Location-wise, many of them are located in downtown areas of major metropolitan areas. These days few of the faithful live in the neighborhood—but a certain number work in the neighborhood. I propose that cathedrals return to their classical rota with modifications for our age and situation.
Cathedrals would offer Morning Prayer, a noon Mass, Evening Prayer, and an evening Mass (perhaps the Sunday evening service could be a Solemn Evensong). These services would be timed for the convenience of the business people who live and work in the surrounding environs and would be staffed and run primarily by the aspirants (Using that as a general term to replace “seminarians”; I know it has a technical meaning smaller in scope from this use but…bear with me.). [And yes, I’m using Smokey Mary as a conscious model here with both the selection of services and their timing…] They would serve as the acolytes, the servers, would lead the Offices, and the second and third year aspirants would assist the priests in delivering the homilies at the Masses (perhaps as often as once a week per aspirant). Even if they served no other function in the service, they would be expected to vest and sit in the choir. Naturally, they would also assist at Sunday and Holy Day services.
The liturgical pedagogy would therefore be a matter of observation and kinesthetic repetition. Worshiping day in and day out with a gathered community in the traditional Anglican forms would not only aid their theological, liturgical, and biblical studies–for the discipline of the Offices and Mass bolsters these–but would ingrain within the aspirants their principle role of leading the people of God in the worship of God.
So that they might experience a variety of liturgical styles, second and third year students might attend and/or serve in a variety of parishes within the diocese as directed. Perhaps a semester or year-long Sunday placement in a particular parish in the second year might be beneficial.
III. Diocesan Responsibilities
I propose that Dioceses cut their staff by two-thirds across the board (this would vary a bit based on number of staff and allocations, of course). The aspirants would then fill in on a rotating basis, cycling between various committees or areas of work in increments stretching from months to years depending on interest, aptitude, and growing edges. Guided by experienced personnel, they would assist in all stages of diocesan planning and administration in addition to answering phones and scrubbing toilets.
As a result of their work, they would gain a sense of just what diocesan officials can and cannot accomplish. They would develop a feel for the strengths and weaknesses of their local situation. Too, they would get to know the clergy and parishes across the diocese through daily interaction as they seek to implement diocesan goals.
In addition to diocese level projects, senior students could also work on convocation level projects that would bring aspirants from several neighboring dioceses together to concentrate on regional problems.
While some readers might feel hesitant about unleashing complete newbies on the diocese, I will remind you that the seminarians of today are unlike those of twenty or thirty years ago. Many are second-career people entering from the business world. A blend of energy, new perspectives, and corporate experience might be more of an asset than a liability to the diocese despite the inevitable complications. (Besides, non-profits tend to have a fairly high turnover rate anyway—I don’t know if the same is true for dioceses but I wouldn’t be surprised. If so, this amount of turnover might not be a real change.)
IV. Academic Preparation
The various tasks of administering the diocese, running workshops for clergy, advancing developmental goals, and conducting business period would be the context for the academic studies. Instead of occurring in a university model that privileges ideas and often lacks connection to application, application would take a front seat.
Specific learning projects would take place in service of various practical goals. For instance, a group of aspirants and permanent staff might be charged with developing a curriculum for a major diocesan youth event. The group might spend a period of four months planning in conjunction with a professor of Christian education at the Austin seminary and a professor of biblical studies at General, communicating view the Internet and distance learning tools like video conferencing and such. A variety of research projects grounding various aspects of the project would be collected and hosted in a central data repository like the Rev. Dr. AKMA’s Disseminary. Video files of selected presentations or portions could also be uploaded along with post-event analyses by the planning group, the faculty directors and the participants themselves (for projects where there are participants…). The diocese would pay a fee to the professor’s seminary for the time and expertise given to the project.
In addition to these projects that would grow directly from diocesan needs, certain core academic competencies would still be satisfied through coursework. Biblical studies, languages, and Patristics in particular might well require more traditional classes albeit taught through distance learning, collaborative blogging and other technological strategies to minimize the problem of geography. Of course, students from different diocese could participate in the classes at the same time enabling extra diocesan connections to form.
In addition to specific academic projects, a limited number of more traditional academic courses, CPE would not only continue to be required but would hopefully be expanded. For those not in the business, CPE is short for Clinical Pastoral Education. It consists of a student putting in 300 hours of direct pastoral care usually as a hospital chaplain-in-training with an additional 100 hours of group processing and group didactics with six to eight other students, and one-on-one meetings with the supervisor. This is usually completed during an emotionally grueling full-time summer unit of 3 months; it’s like an extended live-fire drill–but for spiritual care. Currently, one unit is required by the national canons. The usual one unit could be completed in one of the hospitals within the diocesan boundaries, but I would also like to see an additional extended unit (so the 400 hours would be spread over 9 months) in a community or non-traditional setting like a homeless shelter, rehab program, or other non-profit service organization.
V. The Bishop’s Role
Because the aspirants would be in the geographical area, serving in the cathedral, and intimately related with diocesan functions, bishops could and would take a more active role with their aspirants–after all, the aspirants would be important members of the bishop’s staff. In addition to usual work-related meetings and such, Chapter would be reinstated. Twice a week, an hour and a half (or so) would be set aside for the bishop to meet with the aspirants to discuss in community–well, most anything–so that the bishop could get to know and follow the progress of the aspirants.
Ideally, one of these would take place on Monday or Tuesday and would be involve the translation and discussion of the Gospel pericope for the upcoming Sunday. The bishop, the aspirants, and any member of the bishop’s staff who would be preaching the following Sunday will have a jump on the week’s work and such discussions would inevitably touch on a host of areas beyond exegesis–theology, pastoral care, life in general would filter in. The aspirants would see their bishop and senior staff modeling how to read and reflect theologically on our central texts.
Through these meetings, the bishop would learn each of the aspirants, and would guide their development. While the aspirants would receive the inevitable liturgical and the limited required academic program, the bishop would be responsible for assigning aspirants to various committees or projects to round them out or focus them to develop their skills for ministry.
This direction would be supplemented and checked by the diocesan Commission on Ministry. Since the bishop would already be in close contact with the aspirants, the traditional “letter home” on the Ember Days could be replaced by meetings with the Commission on Ministry that would serve as a third-party observer to make sure that aspirants are receiving well-rounded formation.
Under this model, seminaries would still exist but would have an altered role. Professors would still be teaching students on a regular basis in the core curriculum classes and in diocesan projects. The students just would not be residential. If anything, professors might well interact with more students than under the current model, but for shorter lengths of time.
Locating professors together in an academic environment would still be important. Academic work occurs best in an academic environment. The seminaries would maintain libraries and resource centers. The line between libraries, research centers, and even IT would blur, however, as dissemination of data, digitization of rare or unique resources, collection of Internet resources, and the identification of pertinent blog clusters (like bibliobloggers, for example) would be their main role. Again, the Disseminary represents a prototype of what this could look like.
In essence, the physical environment of the seminary would shift to more of a think-tank model than the current residential university model. That having been said, the seminaries may well continue to offer advanced degrees for more or less residential students.
With the decrease of residential students, seminary structures and the use of space would need to be reconsidered. Current student housing could be converted into rental/apartment properties as an additional source of income (I’m thinking in particular of buildings like General’s 422–spacious rooms in a very high-rent area…).
There are a variety of advantages to this particular proposal. Returning to the six axioms stated above, three and four are both financial. The financial implications have not been fully drawn out in the above sections, so let me say a few words about them here. Under this model, aspirants would not have to move to a different area of the country, displacing families and disrupting spouse careers. Furthermore, they would not have to pay tuition. The main financial burden would be that they would not be able to engage in full-time work. However, part-time work would still fall within the realm of possibilities, and this model might even be able to be tweaked to encourage bivocational clergy.
According to my current envisioning of this process, the diocese would not pay the aspirants for their work. The savings from diocesan staff costs would be redirected towards the seminaries as payments for project assistance. This would, in turn, offset some of the seminary costs from the loss of tuition dollars. The conversion of current student housing to rental properties would also help to offset this loss.
I’ll just say right now that I haven’t run the numbers on this and have no idea if this financial juggling would work or not.
Imitation of worthy models, the bishop, the senior diocesan staff, and the senior clergy of the diocese encountered throughout the course of work, would be at the forefront of this model. Furthermore, actual work on practical projects would emphasize the administrative skills needed to order ecclesial communities and would help reify and provide an on-the-ground context for academic learning that, in isolation, can seem far removed from parish and diocesan realities.
This model should also help dioceses in their hiring decisions. Clergy would get to know the aspirants, their strengths and weaknesses, because they would have a much higher visibility around the diocese. They would be working in and around the parishes, rather than living several states away.
There are a number of disadvantages to this system too–some because it’s more an off-the-cuff envisioning than a full-fleshed out proposal.
One complaint could be that it puts too much emphasis on the bishop. Do we really want a bishop to have so much influence in the formation of future clergy? I, for one, would certainly like to hope so. If we’re concerned about this point, maybe we need to think long and hard about our bishoping process. However, in these days of division and power politics, it is entirely possible that aspirants could find themselves at odds theologically with their bishop. This is one of the reasons why I have suggested that the aspirants meet with the Commission on Ministry so much–they may provide a check against bishops who insist to much on one line of thought–whatever that might be.
An additional check that I thought of including was that all aspirants must have a spiritual director…of a different denomination. And therefore outside of the bishop’s jurisdiction. The spiritual director would report to the Commission on Ministry about the aspirant’s readiness for ministry separately from the bishop. Since the Commission on Ministry, not the bishop, is the body that both admits aspirants to the process and certifies their readiness for ordination, a theologically sensitive (and hopefully diverse) Commission could mitigate the bishop’s power to a degree.
I also realize that I have spoken here as if a diocese only has one bishop. Most don’t, of course. Coadjutors, Suffragans and Retired Bishops could all play a role here too.
Finances are another problem. First, I haven’t run the numbers to see if this scheme would actually work. Second, the aspirants wouldn’t have to displace their families and their families’ jobs nor pay tuition, but living expenses are often the kicker more so than tuition costs. Loans might still be necessary for some–but that requires being in school full-time. Aspirants might have to be more formally associated with a seminary than suggested up to this point.
And seminaries comes to another issue: accreditation. What would be a result of this process? Graduation in three years with an MDiv? I’m not so sure… I doubt that this kind of curriculum would meet accreditation requirements required to certify an MDiv program. The real goal, though, is to produce effective educated clergy, not people with Master’s degrees. That having been said, if a priest educated under this system wanted to go on for doctoral work, how would it be received by PhD programs?
I’m suggesting a new paradigm quite different from what we have now. Some of the problems that I have noted exist because this paradigm is entrenched. Breaking it free might give rise to more and different options.
As I said at the beginning and throughout–this is an experimental vision. It’s an attempt to kick-start thinking about clergy formation that works outside of the seminary box. Things are going to be changing. The Internet, distance learning, blogging, and technologies that we don’t even have yet have the potential to reconfigure our approach to education. The future will revel itself in its own good time.
What are your thoughts?