Changing Culture Prompts Look at Clergy Formation
By Elliott Wright
April 15, 2013 — The cost and time it takes to equip clergy leadership were major concerns that surfaced at an early April consultation of seminary professors who teach Methodist study courses required for ordination in The United Methodist Church in the United States.
Another concern was changing demographics that require the recruitment and preparation of pastors from diverse cultures. Yet another was the aging of the current United Methodist clergy. Projections indicate a potential shortage of 5,000 elders (full clergy) by the year 2030.
“Our goal is to focus on the history and current state and the possible future of theological education,” said the Rev. Rex Matthews, explaining why the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, organized the consultation in collaboration with several United Methodist general agencies. This was the second such gathering.
The issues of cost, length of preparation, diversity and age were not themselves topics for formal papers but, rather, recurring issues in a range of seminars, panels and addresses. Consultation participants were mainly regular and adjunct professors from the 13 United Methodist theological seminaries in the United States and from ecumenical or other denominational schools that enroll enough Methodist students to offer special Methodist study. Such programs often are called “Wesleyan studies” in recognition of John Wesley, the 18th-century founder of Methodism.
Annual tuition and fees for the basic ministerial degree (beyond college) in 2012-13 average $16,913 at seminaries affiliated with universities and $13,737 at independent institutions, according to figures from the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada. The United Methodist Church has both kinds of schools, and both are represented in the non-United Methodist seminaries approved for United Methodist students. Even at these rates, lower than for some professional education, students often are left with substantial debt following the typical three-year program.
Recent research by church agencies indicated that the numbers of women and racial-ethnic pastors increased from 1997 through 2008 — 45 per cent for women and 22 per cent for ethnic pastors. However, these pastors are the most likely to drop out of the ordained ministry or spend their entire career in small congregations.
For elder’s orders, The United Methodist Church requires students to complete courses in denominational history, doctrine, polity (organization and governance), evangelism, mission and worship. Numerous small-group sessions in Atlanta dealt with each of these, allowing professors to exchange both academic and practical ideas about teaching their topics.
The United Methodist Church offers various pathways to clergy ordination. One involves seminary study beyond the college level; another is a route called the Course of Study, which does not require a seminary degree. To fill all of its pulpits, the denomination relies heavily on local pastors, who are not elders.
The gathering of professors comes as United Methodists attempt to deal with declining membership in the United States and with widespread debate on how best to structure the denomination to generate a greater number of vital congregations. The theme of the event was “The United Methodist Church After Tampa: Where Do We Go From Here?” This referred to the church’s 2012 General Conference. Tampa has become kind of a watershed for tugs-of-war over United Methodism’s future.
Two important General Conference actions affecting theological education authorized a $7 million fund for a Young Clergy Initiative and a $5 million fund for theological education in areas of the church outside the United States. The United Methodist Church has organic units in the United States, large regions of Africa, continental Europe and the Philippines. The Atlanta consultation focused in issues of clergy preparation in the United States.
The Rev. Kim Cape, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, said the Young Clergy Initiative would address the issue of indebtedness following seminary by increasing scholarships and grapple with the issue of distance learning using the Internet, which also can have implications for theological education outside the United States and for education in general.
“If we can put the entire theological library on an e-reader,” she asked, “why can’t we put the entire curriculum of kindergarten and elementary school on an e-reader? Ending illiteracy in the world would make (John) Wesley’s heart strangely warm.”
Cape’s agency was a sponsor of the consultation. The United Methodist boards of Discipleship and Global Ministries, Commission on Archives and History and Foundation for Evangelism were cosponsors.
The ways in which Methodism has handled ministerial formation since Wesley’s days were described and analyzed by Russell Richey, retired Candler dean and now affiliated with Duke University, The Divinity School, Durham, N.C. He charted the movement from Wesley’s actual counsel through emphases on books; tutelage; and course of study, college, seminary, professionalization and approach shaped by gender, race and context.
Richey wondered whether “after Tampa” and with the advent of digital education, the church might be back to the “counsel” style of the origins.
A central issue challenging United Methodists today is how various geographical parts of the church relate to one another in terms of culture, styles of ministry and structure. Thomas Kemper, who leads Global Ministries, addressed what some call “the global nature of the church.” He described decades of failed attempts to define and structure a global church, suggesting that United Methodists may have tried to apply structural remedies to non-structural issues.
Kemper said the Tampa General Conference provided a good opportunity to pause and look at the church’s mission rather than its structure.
A lively panel discussion focused on what did and did not happen in Tampa. While differences prevailed, there was a consensus that the 2012 General Conference, which meets every four years, raised more questions than answers for the denomination.
The General Conference adopted guidelines on sexual ethics and the practice and formation of ministerial leadership. These guidelines were presented to the seminary professors in a session in Atlanta led by Darryl W. Stephens of the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women.
Elliott Wright is an information consultant working with the General Board of Global Ministries.