My position on the issue of education and ministry grows out of my origins as a minister's kid. In fact, my earliest memories are of life on a seminary campus where I lived with my father as he completed his graduate work. In my world, professional ministry was not something one took on until one had completed both undergraduate school and three years of graduate training. Those men and women who began serving churches in anything other than in the roles of student and assistant before they completed this necessary education were irresponsible- like public school teachers without grad degrees in education, like bus drivers without licenses, like psychotherapists without clinical training. How can one possibly accept a paycheck for professional ministry until one has the educational background and preparation in biblical scholarship and ministerial skills? Following are reasons why you should have a graduate degree before you become a professional member of the clergy.
Reason #1 Your religion and its sacred texts are more complicated than you think.
Despite what many people apparently believe, you actually can't interpret the Bible just by reading it "spiritually." As it turns out, there are methodologies with which one should first become familiar before speaking authoritatively on biblical texts. When interpreting ancient readings, it helps to know just a little about biblical criticism and history- unless, of course, you want to believe that God created all other civilizations to be helpful tools for our spiritual revelation. I tend to believe that other civilizations weren't thinking, writing, and behaving for our benefit but for theirs. Therefore, to interpret their literature, I find it helpful and respectful to acknowledge that it is possible that one cannot directly translate their motivations without first knowing something about their culture. But that's just me...and every other responsibly educated social scientist out there.
That's not to say that one has to be entirely academic when reading spiritual texts. I do believe there are human and spiritual commonalities across time that transcend cultural difference. I also believe that one can receive amazing wisdom in very non-linear, emotional, and inexplicable ways. It is sometimes beneficial to read the Bible "spiritually". Hell, I once received an important message from a fortune cookie. You just never know. So, I have nothing against spiritual interpretation per se. It has a role to play, but a hell of a lot of the the nonsense I've read and heard from many Christians might be eliminated if they had clergy who knew that a pericope was not some kind of exotic fruit.
Reason #2 Churches are full of human beings with complicated needs. They need people with expertise and training not a Pollyanna with a Christ complex.
You can't just go into a church, which is a financial and social body as well as a religious one, without being prepared to deal with the fiscal, emotional, psychological and business needs of that community. A Masters of Divinity is a three year graduate program that prepares professionals to encounter these difficulties. It probably should be a longer program but that's what we've got now. One hopes that those who possess this graduate education will continue to discipline themselves with continuing education and experiential learning. My own father did post-graduate work in clinical psychology after he earned his Masters of Divinity. Education is not a catch-all or a cure-all but it certainly does minimize the number of potential clergical dick decisions such as when my friend's untrained "Pastor" advised exorcism for her children. Being all revved up in the spirit of Jesus ain't going to cut it when you find yourself facing a budget shortfall or a case of child abuse.
I'm still floored whenever I hear about anyone in the paid ministry who has not completed a graduate education. How does that work, exactly? With a graduate degree, one can justify asking for a salary. A qualified minister has undergone coursework in topics such as biblical scholarship, theology, hymnity, and pastoral counseling. Their parishioners can expect a level of expertise, discipline, and access to information that will enhance the well-being of the community. But what if they just show up for work filled with the Spirit of the Lord but pretty light on credentials? What gives them the right to dispense religious teaching any more than the next person? Because they want to? Because they have a special interest? I'd like to teach anthropology to grad students. I've taken two introductory classes in community college. That should qualify me, right? My husband would like to fly a helicopter. He does own a model that actually flies. Maybe that's enough. I say we let him wing it. My father used to assist in autopsies. I say he should give surgery a shot.
Sure, some people are called to the ministry. Fine. So minister. But when you get paid to do that work, you set yourself up as one with authority to whom people in really serious trouble will turn. People respect that authority and they can be hurt by that authority. Badly hurt. I've seen it happen far too many times. This is why responsible people insist upon certain protocols in determining which individuals may provide which services and under what circumstances. Professional clergy must be responsible to a set of standards to which they are held not only by their congregations but also by a governing body outside the congregation.
I see the role of professional clergy as educators, advisors, and administrators. Their usefulness rests in their training and they should be trained to execute the tasks of research, counsel, and business. Their spiritual authority should not exceed that of any other member of the congregation. We should not hire clergy primarily because of their enthusiasm for their faith any more than we should hire college presidents for their enthusiasm for academics. How would that look, anyway?
"And why do you think you would make a good college president?"
"Well, I like to boss people around and I've visited several colleges.I know where the bathrooms are, and I look good in a suit. I'm an excellent bullshit artist and I really want this institution to succeed."
"Well, then, you're hired! What more could we want? I predict that under your unqualified but enthusiastic leadership, we'll achieve all the goals of our five year plan!"
Let me be clear. I am not against emotion, faith, and enthusiasm, but I do differentiate between professional clergy and faith-led ministry undertaken as a spiritual endeavor. As a Friend and as a spiritual person in general, I believe that all are called to ministry. I do not believe that any one person's calling, no matter how fancy or famous, is intrinsically superior to any other person's calling. For some of us, our ministry is obviously traditionally spiritual. For others not so much. We're all precious snowflakes that way, relying on each other to collectively express the fullness of humanity none of us can achieve on our own. We all have something to bring to the community which is why I so appreciate unprogramed Friends' meetings. None of us has authority beyond that borrowed from the community itself in the process of corporate decision making. We recognize that certain members have certain strengths, gifts, training, and talents that will serve us powerfully in specific situations, but do not assume that such gifts qualify them to dominate the discussion or the community in general. I recognize the unique wisdom others can bring to a community but I reject that anyone's wisdom is so unique that they, without any kind of academic or professional training, is better qualified to interpret scripture, advise others in distress, or make executive decisions. I believe we are all spiritual equals. No one has the right to assert any personal authority over any other human being.
We would expect that in addition to that enthusiasm, professionals and community leaders should have the training and background to justify giving them so much access to power. So this is why I am baffled when congregations hire clergy without educational and experiential backgrounds designed to prepare them for them for the position. Enthusiasm alone does not qualify anyone for practical authority. Or maybe I've missed something. Is there a religious wisdom meter out there of which I am not yet familiar? Is there some kind of spirit breathalyzer that can indicate when a person is drunk on the Lord and ready to lead a group of people in their religious life? What gives them the right to assume leadership in a community of potentially endangered, vulnerable human beings? Are they at least given a list of emergency numbers to call when some twenty year old "minister" first comes across a domestic violence victim or a pedophile in their congregation? Are they prepared to deal with it when the parking lot needs paving or the belfry has bats? Mightn't it make a teensy bit of sense to actually require that before someone takes on the role of leadership that they have taken just a few classes, at least, to prepare themselves for the professional clergy? It seems to me that a congregation that hires a minister with less than a graduate degree is like a family that hires a thirteen year old for a babysitting job. The kid's probably a great sitter so long as absolutely nothing unexpected happens while you are away. Likewise, a minister without training will probably do a great job so long as they are placed in a church without any problems. Have you ever been to one of those churches? Me neither.