In any social system, whether government or religion or family or just a neighborhood watch meeting, there’s always a tension between trusting someone and asking for further evidence. Neither extreme — pure trust or pure skepticism — serves the participants or the system. So how are we skeptics to temper our impulse to challenge? When it comes to criticizing social structures, my father always taught me that I needed to prove something better might be available, at least for the trying.
The one thing held in common by all the religions currently declining in this country is not their theology, but their educational structure. Positioning the M.Div./CPE/internship after four years of college puts ministry in the same group as western medicine: a huge body of knowledge that has to be mastered, within which the intending practitioner gradually sharpens a single focus. Even the intending family practitioner will, at some point, abandon the finer points of, say, abdominal surgery, to concentrate on how to separate various abdominal pains into potential surgery referrals. The abdominal surgeon will long since have given up on how to repair a compound fracture. In this country, doctors self-select, not only the profession, but the path they will follow within it. The basis of this educational model is a remunerative system which no longer serves either its funders or its patients: the most successful medical systems worldwide now emphasize preparation of large numbers of first-contact professionals — nurses and physician assistants — and sharp skepticism toward any statement that expensive treatment or medicine is required.
So if this educational model no longer serves the medical profession, why would it be suitable for ministry, for which, demonstrably, people are much less willing and able to pay large sums? Maybe it doesn’t. That suspicion is what fuels my belief that the problem at SKSM is only one part of a whole we need to consider.
And what would be the alternatives? In my previous post, I took the radical decentralized position, of ample faith-deepening education provided to congregational self-selectors in their regions, districts, clusters, or congregations. But the hallmark of any faith is its clergy, and in the Reformation, the call was not for less-educated clergy, but clergy with MORE education. (If we can blame someone for this problem, let’s blame Luther.)
i’m contemplating, as an appropriate model for this enhanced education, the five-year system used for engineering or architecture, that is, the professions whose hallmark is applied science rather than theoretical science. Of particular attraction to me is that this would open the way for younger people to enter the profession without completely destroying their family life and finances. Congregations would undoubtedly appreciate having a minister unbent with an unbearable student debt, even as the religions would benefit from a preparation path they could actually afford to subsidize.
Kim Hampton, in East of Midnight, asks us to wonder if the best candidate for the presidency of SKSM might have been an academic rather than a minister. While I tend to doubt that, I do celebrate the likelihood that the five year program would greatly shift the balance of leadership from former ministers toward active academics. The role of teaching ministers would then shift to the place it belongs, in mentoring, supervising, leading programs in continuing education. As ministers grow and change through their careers, they would have more opportunities to seek out appropriate — and, again, currently engaged — practitioners of ministry in a world where reality bites.
It behooves me to admit that this would be a structure in which I can see a career path for scholars like myself. Currently, anyone who can’t help devoting their spare hours to denominational studies must have a primary career, a spouse with a primary career, or family money. Because the desire for denominational identity comes only at particular places along the faith journey, UUs believe that fulfilling it is more suited for self-selecting continuing education than for foundational theory and skills. I do not agree with that, but it’s a disagreement I could live with — if our faith community were not crippled by the false god of the M.Div.