Seminarians Opt Out of Church and What We Can Do To Change That


“Students don’t want to serve in the local church when they graduate; they want to do something more exciting.”Southern Baptist seminary administrator

A prominent seminary administrator made that comment to me several weeks ago.  I’ve been rolling it around in my head since then, disturbed and challenged by its implications.  If his comment had been the first I had heard, I might not be so concerned.  But several months ago, another seminary leader expressed the same sentiment — seminary students are not planning to serve local churches.

Of course, this might be their perception because they did not conduct a scientific survey.  But, let’s assume it’s true — that seminary students see themselves serving in more exciting settings than the local church.  If that is the case, then we have some serious work to do.

First, those of us in local churches have to ask ourselves, What signals are we sending that turn off seminarians? Some answers come to mind very quickly:

  • churches can be slow to change;
  • established congregations are typically older and certainly not cool;
  • most churches are single staff settings;
  • pastoral ministry isn’t viewed as cutting edge;
  • most church programs are inward-focused; and
  • denominational politics turns young adults off.

Those are the answers that popped in my head immediately.  I’m sure you and I could think of more if we really tried.

Second, the more pressing question is, How can we help seminarians in their quest for meaningful ministry? Here the answers come more slowly, but I have a few thoughts:

  • Embrace the age of change. I’ve written before that church as we know it is going to change dramatically and soon.  Those of us in churches need to recognize that trend and dialogue with seminarians about where they see church heading. After all, whatever future the church has is in their hands.
  • Underwrite experiments in ministry. Most of us in mid-life are not going to start a coffee shop church, or an arts enclave, or a neomonastic order.  But seminarians might, and they could try out those ideas under the sponsorship of existing churches who have the funds and resources to help make those ministry experiments happen.
  • Participate in reverse-mentoring. Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, had all his senior management reverse-mentored by younger employees.  The younger employees understood the value of the internet, mobile computing, and social networking and Welch wanted his senior managers to learn from them.  Churches and current church leaders need to do the same.  Seminaries could create space for reverse-mentoring workshops where local church pastors and denominational leaders could sit and listen and learn from the emerging generation of church leaders.
  • Provide seminarians opportunities for service. Seminarians need hands-on opportunities to minister at the local church level.  Most seminaries require field work, but I’m talking about a real position with real ministry responsibility.  The Lilly Endowment has offered grants for new seminary graduates to work full-time in a local church setting. While this is an encouraging approach, too few grants are available.  Churches and seminaries could figure out how to do this in a way that gives seminarians good church experiences, allowing them room for innovation in their area of responsibility.

Churches of all denominations are facing three converging crises — clergy shortage, declining church attendance, and aging congregations.  No wonder the current crop of seminary students wants to work any place but the local church.  Time will tell if current church leaders will engage with this new generation of church leaders to forge new expressions of church ministry.  That would be exciting.

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12 Comments

  1. A lot of seminarians take a “first whack” at church work and get burned. I had a first church experience where they loved having me, but I didn’t have the experience to deal with the systems at work within the church.

    This past fall, a fellow seminarian (at least in her 40’s) asked how my current church work was going and I said, “Oh, great. We love the church, and things are going really well.” She breathed a sigh of relief and said, “That’s such a good thing to hear. All I’ve heard are horror stories of people working in churches. I’m glad there are still some out there.”

    I received a lot of coaching after the fact. It would have worked much more smoothly if I had access to that coaching while I was still in the position. I might not have been so quick to leave.

  2. Personally, I have found that most churches I have had contact with do not recognize the area where my gifts as even needed. My gifts, passion, talent, and even calling are computer related. Most churches I have talked with say on we have a volunteer or the staff uses front page,however the website also looks very poor. Also, PowerPoint and other forms of communication are often poorly done.

    Another ministry idea I have had for years but have not been able to find a church who is equipped and willing to commit to is to offer computer training for those in the community.

  3. The decision to serve or not serve in the local church pastorate was an issue for me many years ago, apparently for some of the same reasons you write affecting seminarians today. At the root of the question is what we are called to do and, once called, how we serve. And you are correct that the forms of ministry must change. Back in the day this was an issue, too.

    I think the real crisis in ministy is role and function in the context of deep changes you identify in a changing church and society. What roles does a local church pastor fulfill in a world in which traditional institutions are being rejected–as denominations today–and authority is not recognized–as in post-modern de-construction?

    The models of success most widely publicized are megachurch pastors. But we are heading into a future in which it’s reasonable to ask if the megachurch model of community is sustainable and if the lead pastor role–pastor as preacher and chief executive–is replicable widely, or suitable for specific contexts.

    These organizational questions don’t begin to identify the theological questions, however, that truly define spiritual leadership and servanthood.

    Being a faithful Christian leader in our day and in the prevailing culture in the U.S. is the most difficult challenge anyone could take on.

    Thanks for this post. It opens the door to many important issues.
    Larry

  4. Just discovered your site and really like what you have to say.
    My idea is to have seminaries require time serving in churches. My wife is a teacher and for each of her education classes she was required to do 16 hours of in class work. She often just helped tutor students, grade papers, or actually lead a lesson. Why not have students serve in churches alongside a pastor for maybe 2-4 hours per semester per credit/hour they are taking? That way they can actually experience different churches and learn they are not all bad experiences.

  5. Aaron, I couldn’t agree with you more on the advance coaching idea. New Orleans Seminary has a plan, and I may post about that in the future.

    Dee, yeah, matching churches and gifts is a big problem. It does happen from time to time, and like Aaron’s idea, there ought to be some way to do this.

    Larry, you’re right — changing culture all around us is throwing challenges our way. It doesn’t help that denominations, and pastors, are so success-driven that megachurches are our main models.

    Kevin, Thanks for your comments and glad you stopped by. The mentor/intern idea is a good one. Most seminary field work requirements are inadequate — maybe we could borrow from your education model.

    Thanks to all for your comments. We’ll come back to this issue in the future, as I am looking for some real life examples of these ideas in practice. Let me know if you hear of any. Thanks, Chuck

  6. Kevin: For me it was called Field Education. I had at least 2 semesters of it. Served as a youth minister for one and did tech support for the church for the other.

  7. In my experience, there are many seminarians not going into churches because of their own church experience. Fighting, committees, and not spiritually life giving (among other things). Also in many of the mainline denominations the current “issues” are beyond frustrating. Are we really going to have ANOTHER committee to study LGBT rights and inclusion in our churches?

    It is a cycle. Many of us do not want to work in the church because of what we DIDN”T find there. So we aren’t going to go there. But we are the ones who are able and often called to bring exactly what we didn’t find. we don’t bring it and another generation is left wanting and searching.

  8. On the subject of Underwriting experiments in ministry: “Most of us in mid-life are not going to start a coffee shop church, or an arts enclave, or a neomonastic order. But seminarians might, and they could try out those ideas under the sponsorship of existing churches who have the funds and resources to help make those ministry experiments happen.”

    I went to seminary in my 40’s, served as a senior pastor in a church that was part of a major denomination for 9 years (this following more than 20 years of serving in part time church staff positions, and planned on planting a new church in the current standard forms in a hot spot.

    But a funny thing happened while in seminary, on the way to the magic formula church. God started rooting around in my life and mind and heart, I ended up writing a great deal on a different sort of urban ministry, and became convinced I could do nothing else. So upon graduation from seminary I moved to a new city with my wife and three teenagers, without a job or a place to live, to try to live out this ministry with people I didn’t know how to reach. The result is a ministry called LifeLine, and it involves coffee house church, arts community church, homeless people church – and all of it missional church. So I guess I’m one of the mid-life exceptions, now 52.

    My former denomination thought the idea was “too entrepreneurial,” and in these difficult economic times for churches decided they could not fund it. I had to walk away from all of the support I once enjoyed, and it has been a very challenging road since. I am currently in the process of affiliating with another denomination.

    These aren’t just changes for the sake of change; this is what God is doing in the world. God is doing doing it. One day, much of the church world is going to wake up in its nicely arranged camp, all groogy and sleepy-eyed, and wonder where the pillars of fire and cloud have gone. Risk is not big on most church or denominational wishlists, but the risk we run in not being open to underwriting radically new initiatives is much greater. Change is coming, and God is in it.

  9. If you love people, you love them with their flaws. So the fighting, the pettiness, the selfishness don’t get to me – they just show me why I’m needed. If they were already perfect Christians, they wouldn’t need me to come in and screw things up as their pastor. And I have a thick skin, so I don’t mind having a target on my back. I always say that a pastor needs to be a turtle: a soft exposed underbelly, a hard shell on your back, and the wisdom to withdraw when need be.

    But my main question is this: where is the sense of call in this discussion? Sure, my training could have been better (or worse), but it doesn’t matter in the end: I’ve been called to this. I had a perfectly good career before God called me. When people ask me why I switched from writing scientific research software to pastoral ministry, I answer: “I don’t know. Ask God. It wasn’t my idea.”

    So is the real issue training, or is the real issue DISCERNMENT?

    So maybe it’s a good thing that parish ministry is not “exciting”. It keeps the people who aren’t really called away from it. Doctors used to be better when medicine was a calling. Once it became perceived as a path to guaranteed material comfort, it drew a lot of the wrong people.

  10. There are many good thoughts here, making for an interesting conversation. I’m surprised, though, that no one has ventured into the hard realities of money. Many seminarians cannot afford to enter the pastorate, and many of the small congregations who need new pastors (especially with fresh ideas for ministry, cutting-edge theology, etc.) cannot afford to financially support their pastors. Seminaries are low on money –> seminarians take on greater student debt –> new graduates/candidates for the pastorate need higher income to sustain even a minimal payment of bills –> smaller, financially-struggling congregations cannot offer adequate financial support to attract new clergy. Underwriting “experiments in ministry” is an interesting idea…it leads me to think that we should be working on “underwriting”/supporting new ministers themselves (through denominational support for paying down student loans, for example) so that entering the pastorate is a financially viable option.

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