I recently received a fundraising letter from “Funding Future Leaders,” an organization that is attempting to address the seminarian debt crisis. The average debt, halfway through seminary, is nearly $40,000 a year. And the Episcopal Church “is the only major denomination in the United States that does not have a central funding source to support seminaries in their education and training.” This was the reason I went to the Divinity School rather than General. The Divinity School gave me a full scholarship.
Building an endowment will not solve the problem that churches can't pay clergy, and that the education clergy get is too expensive. What is missing is a comprehensive examination of what we can expect of clergy, many of whom are on their second career and have families; and a reconsideration of how we might educate them. Why should we have full-time clergy and education always done on location?
As churches become poorer, they will call bi-vocational clergy. These clergy may be, for example, social workers, academics, nurses, lawyers and businesspeople. They may work full or part time in other professions. This may be a blessing. Mormon elders, for example, typically have full time work, and I have heard that most Mormon services are shared by the members.
The diocesean staff will become consultants for congregational development depending on their area of expertise. The cathedral staff will provide a support role for these clergy, and some of them will share a parish with cathedral work. Currently, the diocese of New York has three congregational support officers who also work in parishes.
Training bi-vocational clergy implicitly anoints the holiness of their secular profession; and recognizes that their vocational gifts have an appropriate place in churches. We should not be shy or timid – this might be an overwhelmingly positive change for the church.
It does mean that we will have to train clergy differently.
The National Church should institute a rigorous on-line program. The seminarians would be expected to read during the year and participate in on-line forums regularly. But for four summers they would find themselves on a common campus for three weeks, where they would be praying, studying, and gathering. One year should be out of the country, and a pilgrimage would be required. Regional weekend meetings would be arranged.
During each of the four years they would have to have internships at different parishes and religious agencies, working with clergy recommended by the local bishop. By the end of four years, the student would get a wide variety of institutional experiences and have a better understanding of church work.
This would not supplant a three-year program. But our resources would be used
differently. Students who needed to
work could work, and pay for a much more affordable program within their budget
and without using scholarships (I estimate that such a program would be $5000 a
year each year). Bishops could then use
their resources for those students able and willing to spend three years on
site. And students who are
academically inclined can still compete for places in wealthier institutions.
who really have the talent to organize a full-time parish will be able to find
employment; churches that cannot afford these priests can hire those who have
other sources of income, instead offering them a rectory and benefits with
small stipends. These bi-vocational
priests will still have to have gifts of hospitality and preaching. But they will not always have to worry about
their salary. The work of keeping
the property stable will correctly be shared in the assembly.
Dioceses will have to make some
modifications to ensure their general health, strengthening attendance
requirements to encourage collegiality while simultaneously being more
flexible. Bi-coational clergy will weaken clerical power, while
possibly strengthening bishops and laity.
Liberating small churches from the challenge of supporting one person, upon whom all the responsibility of building a parish seems to lay, while still having talented clerical leadership, requires some thought about our institutional organization. One theory is that our need for full-time clergy in every small church inhibits the assembly from taking responsibility for its mission in Christ.