Academic disciplines — biblical studies, philosophy, languages, ethics, history, and theology — form a major part of the core graduate study curriculum. But theological schools also teach practical skills for ministry in the church and in society. Both theological and professional skills are needed in order to be an effective pastor.
Theology School Provides Broad Base of Knowledge for Ministers
Theological education provides a broad base of knowledge for ministers. Most seminarians are enrolled in the Master of Divinity (M.Div.) program. This curriculum includes study of the Bible, theology, church history, ethics, and practical skills for ministry such as preaching, pastoral care, and Christian education. Some schools offer Greek and/or Hebrew. A Master of Divinity degree requires three to four years to complete, depending on the structure of the particular school’s program.
The Association of Theological Schools is the most widely recognized accrediting agency for theological institutions. Schools may be divinity schools, which are parts of universities or seminaries, which are free-standing and usually associated with a particular denomination.
In addition, the University Senate of The United Methodist Church approves graduate theological schools. Criteria used to approve the schools include institutional integrity, well-structured programs, clearly defined church relationships, and strong management. These schools also must also affirm an “Education Covenant for Partnership” from the 2000 General Conference.
Quality of Leadership
Seminaries are committed to educating quality leaders for the church. Rigorous academics, along with care for spiritual formation and community service are all geared toward building quality of character and quality of leadership.
Understanding of Call
Even after enrollment in seminary, the need to question and clarify a call continues. God moves and guides people — sometimes through professors, sometimes through course work, sometimes through friendships – in the faith community at seminary. It’s important to take advantage of all the learning experiences offered at a seminary — both those in the classroom and those outside it.
Financial Implications of a Seminary Education
A seminary education can be expensive. Recruiting the best students to lead the church requires substantial financial support from the church. The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry has added an additional $1 million to its Special Seminary Scholarship Fund to provide scholarships for seminarians under age 35. Other loans and scholarships are also available through the Board’s Office of Loans and Scholarships.
The Ministerial Education Fund is a critical piece of the denomination’s financial investment in leadership. It represents the church’s affirmation that it shares the responsibility for education of clergy. Seminary students need the support of their annual conferences and congregations, plus help from the MEF — a critical part of the circle of support for ministry. For most of our seminaries, MEF support represents between 12 percent and 20 percent of their annual budget – a big piece of keeping tuition and other costs lower for the clergy we need. Twenty-five percent of the MEF money stays in the annual conferences to provide scholarships to seminarians.
Political Science, Art History Abandoned for Ministry
Moonyoung Lee says no one was more surprised than she was when she answered the call to ministry.
“During my undergraduate years I had been a political science major, and after graduation I decided I’d pursue a degree and work as an art historian. Instead, I ended up at Claremont School of Theology. No one was more surprised than I!”
Lee quickly discovered that she loved seminary. “From the first, I enjoyed the challenge of my classes. To use my mind this way was exciting, and I kept discovering new things about myself. Also, even though I was born in Korea and spent nine years there as a child, I had grown up in Claremont [a suburb of Los Angeles], where there was not much diversity. When I got to Claremont School of Theology, I discovered the most diverse place I had ever been. I grew as the result of being with people ‘different’ from me — geographically, such as those from the Midwest and the Northeast, but also ethnically — African Americans, other Asians, Hispanics. It was a rich experience, both inside and outside the classroom,” she said.
She also had her first ministry experience after starting seminary. She was hired as children’s minister at a church . . . and quickly decided this was not for her. She knew nothing about ministry with children and thought everything was going wrong. Deciding she was “not cut out for this,” Lee was about to quit when she got a message — a quiet, strong message — during her prayer time one day: “Why are you so worried? Of course you do not know everything. Don’t you realize that this is your time to learn?”
“After that, I did understand. I think my call is something like Balaam and his donkey. The donkey tried three times to convince Balaam something important was happening, but Balaam didn’t get it. I think it took God several attempts to get through to me, too. The experience of God’s calling me taught me one important thing: We are not pieces of puzzles to be somehow fit together. We are clay, pliant and ever ready to be molded, all our lives.”
For Lee, seminary has been a rich time, a challenging time, and a time of pure pleasure in learning. “I am so grateful that I responded to the call to go to seminary. It has been an exciting way for God to continue molding me.
Seminary Enrollment Up, Fewer Graduates Enter Local Church Ministry
The church faces major challenges in educating its leaders. And John Wesley’s vision of a disciplined, educated clergy is at stake.
Enrollment is up at Protestant seminaries, but a shrinking portion of these graduates will enter local church ministry. According to the Rev. Daniel O. Aleshire of the Association of Theological Schools in the U.S. and Canada, only about half of those graduating with a Master of Divinity degree now enter parish ministry. And, he says, that percent has dropped sharply in just one generation. This challenge — to form and maintain disciplined and educated clergy leadership for the church — is among the first that must be addressed.
Another challenge is financial. A seminary education is expensive. Most seminaries are tuition driven. That is, they are dependent in large part for their existence on tuition to fund their budgets, pay their staff and professors, and maintain their buildings.
The United Methodist Church has to decide if it is willing to invest in its seminaries to a point that truly lessens the financial dependence on tuition. This would dictate a major investment by the denomination. The church must also consider whether it is willing to invest financially in seminarians themselves to lessen the costly burden of their education. Right now, the Ministerial Education Fund is the main way the denomination supports seminaries. MEF support represents between 12 percent and 20 percent of the annual budget of seminaries.
The curriculum of theological schools — what is taught and how it is taught — is another issue.
“The church is asking much more of seminaries than these schools are capable of sustaining,” says the Rev. Mary Ann Moman, associate general secretary of the Division of Ordained Ministry, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. Annual conferences are increasing the educational requirements for ministry candidates, reducing the seminaries’ ability to provide more in-depth, advanced courses. “We need to find a balance, to decide what we need most from pastoral leadership. The practical part of theological education is important. But so is in-depth knowledge of the Bible, church history, and ethics. These two sometimes represent competing claims on the curriculum, and we need to be careful as we sort these out.
“All these challenges seem daunting, but I believe that we as a church can address them,” said Moman. “And, I believe we must.”
Steps Into Seminary
If you are interested in exploring and learning more about a theological education and ministry, there are several things you can do. The Fund for Theological Education, along with the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, recommend these:
- Talk with your local church pastor, your campus minister or chaplain, or someone else whose faith and life you admire. Tell them that you’re thinking about seminary and ministry. Share your dreams with them and tell them your fears or hesitations. Conversations and prayer with these people can be a source of guidance and direction.
- You will find many helpful resources on this Web site. Also, you may want to visit other Web sites – some sponsored by the denomination, some funded by other organizations – that address issues of call, vocation, and seminary. These include
- Contact an admissions counselor at a theological school. There will be someone in the admissions office trained to answer your questions about ministry. Many seminaries offer events on campus when you can learn more about theological education by visiting classes and talking with current students. For a list of United Methodist theological schools approved by the University Senate, click here. For a list of non-United Methodist theological schools approved by the University Senate, click here.
- Search out some hands-on experience. There are many church-related internships and programs especially for people to participate actively in ministry and then have an opportunity to reflect on it. Explore Ministry’s Web site has an area listing several of the organizations.