The Seminary-Industrial Complex and the Crisis of Value

Originally published on social media 27 September 2017.

Saint Andrew’s Chapel is a model church. But is there a model seminary?

In North America, the Christian church’s understandable goal of recruiting ministers is complicated by institutional inertia that favors a certain stagnation, inflexible rigidity, and anachronism in how priests, pastors, deacons, and missionaries are trained. Seminaries in the semblance of the secular academy’s Ph.D. model have an inherent pyramid scheme logic, one fueled by the fiat monetary system’s insistence on debt finance of virtually everything. The number of newly minted M.Div. graduates far exceeds those who become ordained ministers. The same can be said of Ph.D. grads desirous of becoming professors.

An opportunity cost is the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen. The opportunity cost increasingly doesn’t justify the time investment nor the lost potential income nor debt. The end product of these seminaries is a mishmash of dropouts and graduates who are left cynical, in debt and they do not follow through with any perceived ministerial calling, between an elite cadre who obtain ordination into holy orders.

Problems posed by the status quo

Liberty University was built around Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary founded in 1971, and evolved into a $1.1 billion endowed institution fueled by the federal student loan program. Whereas it formerly subsidized seminary programs from revenues derived from the secular curricula, it now countenances divinity, missions, theology, and apologetics programs that produce graduates with $50-120K debt. A pastor or missionary in such debt peonage loses a certain efficacy. From the turn of the millennium to 2017, its tuition inflation in the seminary has been dramatic.

A major problem would be rigid seminary schedules that impede one from holding down a reliable steady salaried job. This itself becomes the rationale for borrowing money. Though a few programs have been built around the idea of in-residence evening coursework or intensives.

One of the smartest and most well-read theologues I know, name withheld, actually dropped out of Reformed Theological Seminary. I would hold up his erudition against Th.D.’s. He’s explored Christianity inside and out from low church to high church, from apologetics to patristics to the end times. His inability to complete the program of study shouldn’t be viewed as intellectual in nature but circumstantial misfortune. I think you get my point. He withdrew from RTS under duress and they overcharged him fraudulently. RTS like many seminaries have become an indifferent sweatshop, which is not invested in their students’ success. My experience has been similar. When I lost a graduate fellowship due to a miscommunication and bureaucratic indifference in a secular program, I then succumb to the prior investment trap and rationalized finishing a master by borrowing. The ROI was never there. I should have walked away from it, right then and there.

Scholarships themselves have become teases that have liabilities and strings attached, such as a low grade or an early withdrawal of any portion of the program resulting in a loss of scholarship and tuition bill coming due. As a result, the academy has a proclivity for Indian Giver games, where something of apparent value is given, i.e., funding for coursework towards a degree, under the church’s subsidy, but the seminary has a conflicting interest in extracting monies from the pupils. What’s the result? They stack the deck for their students. 19 graduate hours of Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Bible, Liturgy, Preaching Practicums, and virtual course overload. Exorbitant fees for overdue library books, parking fees, administrative fees, and surcharges. Stiff fees and penalties are posted for withdrawal of classes, and in some cases, a rigorous model of compulsion exists based on the course-load by default as a condition of participation in the program. When these duties are balanced out against work duties, conflict and stress emerge. It becomes a fool’s errand of sacrificing things and inevitably seeking administrative withdrawals to function or risking academic failure.

Other common seminarian experiences are transferring sometimes 2-3 times between institutions and suffering loss of time and money with only a portion of their completed credits accepted on transfer.

Cynicism and Stress

Stress is designed into the system needlessly. Full scholarships are reduced to partial scholarships. They ask for the impossible in many circumstances given the constraints of time in the day, and impediments to working an ideal job successfully. The institutions, of course, reason many have endured the Crucible before them, so why reform it? It’s a rite of passage. But this Crucible tends to cultivate more cynics than priests, pastors, missionaries and theologians.

Many seminaries have a high turnover rate, yet some drop-outs persist in the pursuit of their perceived calling, going elsewhere, or even pursuing ordination absent the seminary degree. Diligent and capable seminarians are coaxed into foolishly borrowing avalanches of money when faced with the hardship of concurrently working and studying full-time. Seminaries like the willingness to borrow as student debt balances are more capable of producing immediate cash flow than waiting on the trickle of revenues from students in odd jobs.

Leadership Deficit

The Apostle Paul listed one of the qualifications of an overseer in the church: “He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect” (1 Timothy 3:4). Yet the Seminary-Industrial Complex produces such absurdity as seminarians seeking welfare and food stamps, and Medicaid out of desperation. The notion of disciples embracing such dependence is contrary to apostolic teaching (c.f. 2 Thessalonians 3:12). When a Seminarian’s duty conflicts with His duty to His Creator, they should remember Simon Peter’s words: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). The church has an interest in compensating vocational ministers and even ministerial candidates in training granted (1 Timothy 5:17-18).

Another glaring problem of the status quo model is its proclivity for ignoring class—as in the upper and upper middle class—as an instrument of evangelization and discipleship. The early church grew rapidly when it secured the support of wealthy patrons. Christian men who demonstrate leadership in business and military often demonstrate leadership capacity for roles in the church. Yet many prominent business professionals find the established seminary model too cumbersome and inflexible in scheduling to balance out with family and career, which in turn leads to leadership recruitment problems for the church. This corresponds to a problem with the current model as it tends to attract candidates who never really merited any great success in their professional lives, and simply cannot find anything better to do, so they embrace the cloth. This was manifest in the virtual disintegration of the mainline Protestant churches from the 1970s onward, given the absurdity that emerged from pastors who don’t believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible, embraced Open Theism, and allow pop psychology lessons on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs to supplant Gospel preaching. Seminaries counting nickels and noses had a profound disconnect from the local church in ascertaining qualifications of seminary candidates.

A Solution? The Apprenticed Free Seminary Model

To be tongue in cheek, the Apostle Paul attended a Free Seminary Model. Despite notoriety as being the architect of the Great Commission under the influence of the Holy Spirit, he never attended an accredited seminary, nor did he obtain a Masters of Divinity, nor a Masters of Sacred Theology, nor a Doctorate of Divinity, nor a Doctorate of Philosophy, nor a Doctorate of Theology.

When the Apostle Paul exhorts the faithful, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world. . .,” why should we as Christians presume that a costly, debt-fueled worldly model of higher education should be applied to the training of disciples? In a world that fails to submit itself the Lordship of Jesus Christ, much fraud and debt-serfdom abounds. The fiat monetary system itself is conducive to debt peonage and it deprives people of the value of their earnings and savings. Bubble sectors develop in housing, higher education and health care (i.e., the three H’s, which lack the market’s full discipline of freely allocated prices since non-market coercion from state intervention changes the rules of the game, for the worst.) “The LORD detests dishonest scales, but accurate weights find favor with him” (Proverbs 11:1). “The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7). The church should forsake debt-financed education models. “Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law,” proclaimed Paul in Romans 13:8.

One solution would be the church and certain communions legitimizing ‘Apprenticed Free Seminary’ models. They could be based on a self-paced distance / correspondence education model of apprenticeship where graduates become future instructors, mentors, and exam proctors; incidental to working regular day jobs, they volunteer. Some critics may claim the quality would be compromised. I would contend when people have the opportunity to lead more holistic and disciplined lives, rather than being rushed to cobble inferior research products together on short deadlines, they can actually learn and retain knowledge better. Hence ‘Free Seminarians’ could be attentive to their studies and less stressed. Pedagogy research also points to the utility of studying one subject at a time, particularly among men and boys. It doesn’t have to be outcome-based nor have low-standards, but could be reduced to simple pass, fail or incomplete marks.

Men who have answered the call to ministry can still be held accountable to quality standards in research, examinations of knowledge retention and so on. Such programs could still be challenging but rewarding. These Free Seminarians would have to sacrifice things like entertainment and free time, but they could have the dignity of a traditional bread-earning job by day-light, avoiding debt altogether, with this Apprentice model.

Many disciples are faced with the challenge of being bi-vocational anyway. Many disciples don’t earn money for their evangelism and discipleship, and many embrace this reality without complaint as their Heavenly Father will perceptively reward them in due season.

Presently most of these ‘Free Seminary’ models are not accredited or if they’re accredited it is by an organization outside of the U.S. Department of Education recognized accreditation agencies, such as an institutional church communion. The positive note is that certain ordination bodies with various denominations and communions recognize the credentials awarded by these seminaries as perfectly valid. People have assumed full vocational and bi-vocational ministerial roles with credentials from a ‘Free Seminary.’ It may not offer employment at an accredited traditional seminary, but that’s beside the point. Rather it offers a model of getting through seminary without a mountain of outrageous debt to feed the present Seminary-Industrial Complex. The ‘Free Seminary Model’ produces disciples in other words, not jaded serfs and debtors.

The other consideration is of the nature of the apprentice model. It embraces servant leadership. Many able men with theological training have sacrificially given their time and effort to help grow these ‘Free Seminary’ educational models, which thrive on donations and a spirit of Christian service.

Who doesn’t like this? Perhaps the established seminaries. Adam Smith famously penned, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.” The established seminaries’ interests are wrapped up in the status quo. They will have all kind of rationales about why there’s virtue in their seminary model. But the reality is full-time vocational seminary instructors cost a lot of money to feed, clothe, and house, and that burden can be negated by an Apprentice Model. They old guard don’t starve. The division of labor would reallocate their labor if the Free Seminary model posed strong competitive and disruptive market pressures. The old model would be dealt a coup de grâce in much the same way Netflix buried brick-and-mortar video stores like Blockbuster. A few well-funded brick and mortar seminaries would continue on by virtue of their endowments.

If the ‘Free Seminary’ model catches on, then congregations, presbyteries and dioceses are free to grant their own accreditation to these innovative new institutions of Apprentice Model education. Capital from donations could fuel accreditation, standardization, purchase of textbooks, and market assessments such as third party reviews and independent assessments.

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