The future of ministry leadership is not “in” seminary

Rev. Alan Rudnick

February 19, 2020

The future of ministry is not going to be found in the traditional 90-credit seminary degree, but in modified virtual centers of learning.


Churches must find alternative avenues for finding ministers other than the traditional college and seminary educated pastor. The full-time professional clergy person is becoming a problematic and unsustainable goal to achieve for many churches. The Atlantic highlighted the state of middle-class clergy carrying a seminary degree: high debt, low wages, vanishing churches, and part-time pastor positions.

The traditional mainline church track for full-time pastors followed like this: 4 years of college, 3 years of graduate seminary education, and ordination. This process launched a generation of pastors into their ministry in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. The traditional 90-credit seminary degree, the master of divinity, became the mark of an intellectual, professional, and full-time pastor. Churches had the people and money to support such a model. The pastor typically could raise a family and even buy a house (if one was not provided).

Those days are gone.

Now, because of the cost of graduate education, many seminary graduates are saddled with debt in the $40,000 to $60,000 range (on top of college debt). The pace of the rise in the cost of education has exceeded the rate of inflation: to the tune of 500% since 1985. Usually, when a professional incurs such a debt, their boss gives them a raise because of their higher degree. Not the case with pastors. Many pastors have the same credit hours as school administrators but are paid much less.

With this current reality of shrinking churches, downsized church budgets, fewer full-time pastor positions, and the need for a generation of clergy to lead churches into a new culture, a shorter, more focused, distance-modified seminary degree is needed. A distance-modified 45-credit degree could shake up this bleak future for pastors and churches. Seminaries like Northern and Palmer are introducing these types of programs.

Here’s what the 45-credit “seminary” degree could look like:

  • 12 credits – Bible (Learning the story of God’s people)
  • 9 credits – Theology (Learning who God is and how God works)
  • 12 credits – Leadership (Learning how to lead through conflict and change)
  • 12 credits – Mission (Learning how to put into practice the entrepreneur mission of the Gospel in the community)

If an online distance-modified program were introduced, it would cut debt and cost. If denominations and seminaries realized they are training pastors for a religious world that does not exist anymore, then this proposal would help churches revitalize. Seminaries were so busy training and educating biblically and theologically grounded graduates that seminaries did not see the need to train individuals in how to help churches write the next chapter of their ministry. Currently, seminarians are not being trained in how to respond to the challenges of aging congregations, respond to the lament of downsized churches, understand how to revitalize aged buildings, help loss of congregational creativity, and address lack of interest in organized religion.

The case for the 45-credit seminary degree makes the track for pastoral ministry more attainable. Seminary programs need to produce ministers that are ready to step into a church on day one and meet the church’s challenges. More training in leadership is required. The 45-credit distance-modified seminary degree needs to replace the on-site 90-credit master of divinity. Indeed, there will always be students who can move on-site but the number of those students have decreased.

A smaller graduate-level seminary degree geared more towards training people in how to lead and serve rather than how to think will fundamentally change the way people hear and experience Jesus Christ.

The Rev. Alan Rudnick is an American Baptist minister, author and Th.D. student at La Salle University, Philadelphia. He is a former member of the board of directors for American Baptist Home Mission Societies, Board of General Ministries and Mission Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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