Monday, January 27, 2014

Five Reasons Not To Go To Seminary

I know, I know--a blog post from a parish pastor in active service (especially one who loves his job as much as I do) that tells people not to go to seminary?!

Well, not exactly.

I love my work, but I also recognize that it is emphatically *not* for everyone.  Statistics vary, but the consensus seems to be that about half of all newly-minted pastors will no longer be pastors five years from now.  Clearly some of this has to do with how some congregations treat their new pastors, but I have to imagine there is some self-selection (or Spirit-led-selection) that needs to occur on our end as well.  To be brutally honest, while I had lots of exceptionally loving, spiritual, and compassionate classmates at seminary who I thought would make--and have made--great pastors, I also saw some people who made me wonder to myself, "Why are you here?!"  (Although, to be brutally honest once more, I am sure that some folks thought the same about me, too.  Until Nadia Bolz-Weber's stratospheric rise to widespread fame last year--which, by the by, I'm pretty damn sure means a hell of a lot--I can't imagine that the snarky, potty-mouthed crank archetype was quite so fashionable a look for ministers.)

But I digress.  Here are my five reasons for why seminary may not be for someone, and if you are applying to or considering seminary, my hope is that you will take these reasons to heart--not as a means to discourage, but as a means to discern if you love ministry so much and your sense of calling is so strong that being told about these obstacles simply does not matter to you.  And if that is the case, then seminary may in fact be just right for you!

1. Seminaries these days cost a LOT of money. Name-brand seminaries cost even more.  Tuition at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where I almost decided to attend, currently costs nearly $30,000 per three-quarter academic year ($29,190 to be precise). If you cannot get your school, church, family, or a leprechaun’s a pot of gold to float you, you’re taking on over $87,000 (plus interest) in debt...and that's *just* for tuition--we haven't even gotten to books and living expenses yet.  Even at my alma mater, the Pacific School of Religion, tuition for a full-time courseload of an M.Div. student adds up to $18,360 per year.  That is still a lot more than in-state tuition at almost any public university, and the San Francisco Bay Area happens to have one of the highest costs of living anywhere in the country.  I was lucky--between scholarships from my alma mater and my denomination, my tuition and books were paid for.  I should be the rule, though, not be the exception.  And I still graduated with nearly five figures worth of debt in the form of credit cards and a car loan.

2. You don’t learn many practical things in seminary outside of your field education experience. Currently, seminary education teaches you how to think like a minister, but not actually how to do ministry.  Which is fine, but ultimately incomplete when you consider that the M.Div. is a professional, rather than an academic, degree.  And yet to that end, your professors (especially if they themselves were never pastors at one point in their careers) will likely care way more about teaching you about the systematic theology of eggplants during the papacy of Innocent III than teaching you about, say, how to run a churchwide capital campaign. You have to learn that stuff on the job, the hard way, with honestly very little preparation.

3. Once you do get out of seminary, you must be prepared for one of the longest job searches around, even in this torpid economy.  I was lucky--four months after my seminary graduation, I was starting work here at FCC at a job I love.  I have friends and colleagues whom I would consider very qualified for pastoral work who endured a year or more of "search and call" (church-ese for "job search"), and I can say from personal experience how nerve-wracking a process looking for a pastorate really is, because more than almost any other job I can think of, you are being weighed and measured as a person, not just an applicant or a potential employee (which, considering the nature of ministry is how it needs to be, but that doesn't necessarily make it any easier).

4. It is very difficult to save up money working in ministry. You may keep doctors’ hours and possess the educational equivalent of that doctor’s healthcare administrator, but you’ll likely start out making less than a public schoolteacher (most of whom are also underpaid as it is, but that's another kettle of fish).  After all the student loan debt you took on (see above), your long job search during which time you still have to eat and pay rent (again, see above) you will likely match with a pastorate that pays you, if you're the median pastor, $44,000 a year.  Many months, it may be all you can do to simply break even, much less to save up any sort of a rainy day fund or nest egg.  In fact, that is precisely what happened to me this month, and in part inspired me to write all of this--after having to sink over $500 into my car for repairs this month, plus my other bills, taxes, tithes, and expenses, I'll have made it to payday (today) with exactly six dollars remaining in my checking account.  Now, to be clear, this is an exceptional circumstance and I have savings I can tap into.  I am that median pastor whose gross income is about $44,000.  Relative to ministry's pay scale, my church pays me extremely fairly, especially considering what brand-new pastors like me are often paid.  But I'm also a middle-class American with a master's degree.  If you value money, please, find different work.

5. Doing ministry is emphatically not a 9-to-5, punch-the-clock type of gig. You work weekends. You work evenings. And you remain on call 24/7, even on your days off.  Not everyone can handle living with that sort of a mentality.  It creates a certain sort of stress that some people are equipped to handle and some people simply are not.  That doesn't make the latter category worse people, it simply means that the types of stress associated with ministry are exacerbated for them, much the same way stresses of other occupations would be exacerbated for someone like me who is not especially well-organized.  It's just who a person is.  There is A LOT about ministry that I have had to grow into simply because of my own emotional and, honestly, spiritual, limitations.  After all, I'm just a person in the end.

What do you think?  Are there other reasons you can think of that I neglected?  Did I go too far in my cautionary exhortations?

Yours in Christ,


  1. Hey Eric, I agree with all your reasons, not as someone who went to seminary, but as someone who decided not to.
    I appreciate taking the conversation into these practical realms. I am fairly frequently asked if I am considering a call to ordained ministry, both by people who knew me when I was, and people who have just meet me now. I often encounter a rejection of my reasons for not going to seminary as unimportant. People like to say things like, 'but if you really have a calling things like that won't matter' or 'I see that God is calling you to ministry so you need to pursue ordination' (a rough paraphrase of what is said in longer words).
    Well, I see God calling me to ministry too. But not all ministry is ordained ministry. I'm a part time youth minister right now. Yes, there are things that I could learn in seminary that could help me in my role, but there would also be a whole lot that would not relate or still not address my real questions.

    There are two other reasons that I really considered in my decision making process.
    1. At least in the Episcopal church, there is beginning to be a shift towards part time pastors. We are told to expect that it is very likely that we will need to have an outside job in addition to our part-time ministry work. So that means that the stress of the 'on-call' nature of pastoral work is combined with the potential rigidity of a pay-per hour job or the financial uncertainty of running your own business.
    2. The kind of worship and spiritual discussion that feeds me is very progressive. Many churches are not in that place yet. To me, the questions was: Would I be able to handle running services where I was not spiritually fully engaged? Would I be able to create for myself the an individual spiritually fulfilling practice separate from the worship of the congregation? This is one question I still haven't answered fully for myself, but which I thought about a lot in my considerations.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Hey Chris--thanks for your thoughtful response. I completely agree that not all ministry is ordained ministry, and I think that Jesus would agree as well...after all, no religious body ever ordained Him, and His hometown synagogue tried to throw Him off a cliff after His first sermon! God calls people to a wide variety of ministries that may or may not include ordained work, but all of it contributes to the church.

    I will say that in the Disciples as well there are probably some more churches shifting to part-time pastorates, which I agree makes it more difficult for all the reasons you list. I will also say, though, that my congregation runs the gamut from very conservative to very progressive, and they have embraced and affirmed me for who I am and what I do, even if they don't always agree with me. While I am sure that many congregations can be--and are--close-minded about who they want as their pastor, I think you might be surprised how open some can be!

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts too,

  3. Thanks, Eric, for such a thoughtful, engaging and important discussion about the call to ministry, seminary education and especially the challenges involved in the entry years of congregational ministry. You have added important issues/challenges into the discussion mix. The complexities of ministry today reflect the changing nature of the church and the radical cultural conditions in which we seek to do ministry. When I was ordained 57 years ago, prior to my seminary graduation I had four years undergraduate school in what would be termed a "Bible college". There were practical classes in Bible and a number of classes in "practical ministries" along with a full range of liberal arts classes. We learned and practiced skills that gave us some level of competence to be able to do "church work" AND because of that limited experience we were sought after for student pastorates while in seminary. I think the ELCA church has a good model of having ministerial candidates do two years in seminary, then one year full time in a congregational internship and then back to seminary for a final year. Seems like a good way to combine theoretical/academic with practical on-the-ground experience. I wish my seminary time had included some Intentional inner work to explore what were my deeper/inner motivations for going into the ministry in the first place. Those unexamined driving forces color so many things. Just "I am answering a call ..." in not enough reason! "What else is driving me?" "What's going on that I have not named?" "Who am I trying to please?" The provocative title of a short paper that continues to challenge me: "If God is my Father, and the church is my Mother, then Who Am I?" That's worth pondering, indeed! Thanks Eric for stirring my memory and giving me something fresh to think about. You do that well. And, Chris, thanks for your stimulating post. It would be great to continue this three-way conversation face to face.

  4. Hey Marvin--I completely agree that the complexity of ministry today is a reflection of the changing cultural and spiritual conditions of our world. I don't know a lot about the ELCA model of formation, I can definitely see how a full-time internship would benefit a vocational candidate, but what I would really like to see is further integration of practical skills and academic skills in the seminary environment itself, rather than outsourcing that to the field education site. Many of my classes, while helpful in perhaps other ways, are honestly not very useful at present for me.