A Few Words About Issues with 'University' Seminaries
First, we must look at historical reality and political reality.
The Constitution and laws of the United States dictate clearly the following:
First Amendment: An Overview
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression from government interference. It prohibits any laws that establish a national religion, impede the free exercise of religion, abridge the freedom of speech, infringe upon the freedom of the press, interfere with the right to peaceably assemble, or prohibit citizens from petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances. It was adopted into the Bill of Rights in 1791. The Supreme Court interprets the extent of the protection afforded to these rights. The First Amendment has been interpreted by the Court as applying to the entire federal government even though it is only expressly applicable to Congress. Furthermore, the Court has interpreted the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as protecting the rights in the First Amendment from interference by state governments.
Freedom of Religion
Two clauses in the First Amendment guarantee freedom of religion. The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from passing legislation to establish an official religion or preferring one religion over another. It enforces the "separation of church and state." However, some governmental activity related to religion has been declared constitutional by the Supreme Court. For example, providing bus transportation for parochial school students and the enforcement of “blue laws" is not prohibited. The Free Exercise Clause prohibits the government, in most instances, from interfering with a person's practice of their religion.
Taking this is simple context, you may extrapolate that by requiring “oversight” of religious training of clergy is an exercise that may impede the free exercise of religion.
Under the laws on the United Stated Code 26 501 (c3) and 26 508 (c1a):
Churches (including integrated auxiliaries and conventions or associations of churches) that meet the requirements of section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code are automatically considered tax exempt and are not required to apply for and obtain recognition of exempt status from the IRS. Donors are allowed to claim a charitable deduction for donations to a church that meets the section 501(c)(3) requirements even though the church has neither sought nor received IRS recognition that it is tax exempt. In addition, because churches and certain other religious organizations are not required to file an annual return or notice with the IRS, they are not subject to automatic revocation of exemption for failure to file.
This section of United States code clearly states that the Federal Government considers a church or subsidiaries totally exempt from all Federal requirements. If we take this in context of regional and national accreditation associations, that REPORT to the Federal Government, it may be extrapolated this oversight of a seminary may impede the free exercise of religion.
This is supported by 26 508 (c1a). With the passing of the Johnson Act in 1954, the IRS Code 508 is an extension to IRS Code 501 and specifically calls out exceptions:
(1)Mandatory exceptions Subsections (a) and (b) (previous) shall not apply to—
churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of churches, or
any organization which is not a private foundation (as defined in section 509(a)) and the gross receipts of which in each taxable year are normally not more than $5,000.
The 508 Code verifies that churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of churches are exempt from Federal Government interference, and my infer that regional or national accreditation associates reporting to the Federal Government and performing oversight of a seminary may impede the free exercise of religion.
Issues Regarding Accreditation
Much of the following information is taken from various sources including The History of Seminary Education and Theological Accreditation and Problems Observed in Seminaries based on writings of Gregg and Krejcir.
Mainstream accredited seminaries have been pricing themselves out of the market for decades. No small part of that issue is accreditation is not an inexpensive task. Even for small to medium scale seminaries, the initial cost of accreditation can be in the 10’s of thousands and into the 100’s of thousands of dollars in overhead investment. That does not account for ‘membership’ fees that run in the high four digits of overhead cost. There any many (far too many) incidental costs per year or per accreditation to list here.
The cost of seminary has kept pace with secular university costs. The issue at hand here is two fold;
Accredited seminaries do have access to federal direct loans by virtue of accreditation. The issue is this binds the seminary to the government, which violates the churches right (and seminary) to operate without governmental oversight or intervention.
Along with the seminaries structured similar to a secular university, accreditation costs/overhead, and other factors it is no longer unusual for per credit costs of $650.00 or even higher to achieve a Bachelors of Theology. This does NOT include living costs. And many churches (sadly) are requiring a Masters. The underlying issue is the church monies to support scholarships is drying up at an alarming rate. Very few seminarians can afford 4-6 years of seminary and pay off the loan on the wages most clergy make in their first church assignment. Many churches facing financial issues themselves, are actually no longer paying some of their clergy, they must seek secular employment. While this is how Independent Churches Operate, the mainstream churches operate as businesses, and the situation for them is a hard pill to swallow.
Far too many seminaries seek to conform to secular universities and focus on new and "career scholarship" to the detriment of training students correctly. Most offer little encouragement for growing in the faith, either watering down theology or making it so overly scholarly that it is un-practical, un-touchable, and un-teachable in a local church.
Most seminary courses are seen as irrelevant to the type of ministry the students, who are in the ministry now, face. They see doctrine as dry and unfulfilling or unrelated to faith and practice when in fact, doctrine is thrilling because it means learning about our Lord and Savior!
Many seminaries offer little encouragement for growing in the faith, either watering down theology or making it so overly scholarly that it is un-practical, un-touchable, and un-teachable in a local church.
Ministry preparation is lacking in theological education! Graduates leave seminary with little to no application on how to lead and manage a church, council a person in distress, or relate Bible doctrine to the everyday ongoing of their own lives and congregations.
Most seminary students are finding their theological instructions, books, and curriculum to be pragmatically vacuous and irrelevant to them and/or their congregation's life; for them, seminary is not practical.
Many graduates of seminary think that there is a "double-consciousness" of being a theologian and a Christian disciple, that the two cannot be related. Thus, the result is being unwilling or unknowing of how to build a congregation up in love towards Christ and one another.
The emphasis in seminaries is so scholarly now, there is disconnect between effectual faith and academic knowledge. Thus, students cannot put together faith and reason or lead themselves or others deeper in real, authentic Christian formation. They graduate without the tools to be pastors and leaders for today's churches.
Seminaries have left behind the requirement for logical sermon preparation and especially delivery. Far too many clergy today simple cannot write an understandable sermon and have negligible speaking skills.
There is an increasing lack of practicum in the seminaries. Most have become so institutionalized in the ‘secular’ format of book learning and rote memorization, there is little or no time to actually practice being clergy. Practicing the liturgies, offices, writing sermons, delivering sermons, interactions with the public, proper Altar Guild Techniques – all are lacking.
Far to many of the teaching staff perform their tasks as theologians. They no longer desire to provoke free thought, demand spirituality as part of a seminaries individuality, how to pray, how to pay reverence, how look for the deeper faith. Teaching as theologians has an adverse effect; the seminarians bogged down in deep debate, rather than searching for deep faith.
Far too many accreditation associations have members of the board of directors that are actually from the seminaries that are being accredited. Hence, a school is accrediting itself, and that becomes an issue of ethics.
The Scholastic Focus of the Seminaries. Unfortunately, the scholastic, academic framework that God used to bring revival to the Church in the Reformation became a scholastic bottleneck that choked the life of God from seminaries and seminarians. Seminary leaders became enamored with scholarship more than practical ministry training.
Seminaries often turn a deaf ear to the needs of the local church and arrogantly defend scholarly education
The narrow focus on scholasticism in seminary education left no room for the Holy Spirit to move or guide the learning process.
Whitefield characterized the schools as “not far superior to our
Seminary does not facilitate spiritual growth; it frequently lacks a deep spiritual base
There is a gap between the education provided and the pastors’ duties as performed.
Modern training is primarily intellectual.
Schools which are separated from the local church are very apt also to be separated from that real world where the future minister must labor.
According to the Murdock Trust: In the pastors forums those who were seminary graduates reported that they found 70% to 80% of their seminary education did not apply to the duties they were expected to perform in the churches they served as ministers.
Pastors are highly educated but generally feel poorly prepared for the job they hold.
John Woodyard: Currently, major rewards for the seminary professor are research-based, academically and intellectually-based affirmations from published books and articles. Unless different spiritual, emotional, economic, and social rewards for the professor can be created, little or no change can be expected in seminary operations, relationships with the churches, or instruction for the students.
Murdock Trust: Authority for the seminary rests in the control of accreditation associations. Evaluation is built around the shrouds of academic freedom and tenure as defined by their peers in the accreditation process.
Seminaries are denominational based. This creates a real issue with respect to accreditation. One of the major point of the accreditation process is credit the capability of transfer. That process fails across denominational lines.
Accreditation Associations disagree with one another on standards
There is much discussion of the logic of seminaries on secular campuses. Secular events of dubious morality creates a haven for clergy morality shortfalls.
Issues regarding Operations of Accredited Seminaries
Operations of Seminaries today is based totally on University Models. This creates a myriad of issues that may not be immediately apparent. Some examples:
The seminaries are surrounded by a purely secular environment that is not conducive to to the moral substance of any religious studies.
One of the biggest complaints by seminarians is too much of the curriculum is rote memorization and finite question/answer testing. This does not and cannot work in a ‘denomination’ based religious environment.
With concentration on ‘university academics’ as an outcome, hands on training on how to perform the duties of clergy is minimalist (nearing non-existent).
Public speaking (sermons/homilies) are not a major part of accredited seminary curriculum. This is a major portion of the duties of clergy. Far too many clergy have tragic outcomes on the pulpit via this omission of training.
Far to many Bachelors degrees contain secular ‘components’ in the curriculum. Most have no relationship to the religious environment.
Accreditation lends itself to ‘forcing’ seminaries into a University Model. Some examples of the issues:
Increases the likelihood that far to many ‘secular’ activities and curriculum will hinder the religious aspect of the seminarians experience.
Raises costs due to the relatively high cost of accreditation.
Accreditation cannot take into account ‘denominational’ differences and requirements.
Private accreditation agencies have far to many Seminary/University staff that sit on the Board of Directors of the Accreditation Agencies. Therefore, these seminaries are being accredited by their own staff.
Accreditation stresses academics and not seeking true theology or the search for the divine, which is the basis for the existence of clergy and their practice.
Cost of seminaries is out of control and beyond the reach of seminarians.
One of the main reasons for seminaries to accredit is to provide scholarship assistance. This is very misleading as scholarships traditionally over cover 10-19% of the overall cost.
In many of the accredited seminaries accepted by the top four (4) mainstream churches the credit hour costs range from $400.00 to $700.00 for the two main degree programs – Bachelors and Masters
A bachelors degree is normally 120 credit hours and takes 3.5 to 4 years to complete. The tuition alone may approach or exceed $84,000.
The average book costs nationwide can exceed $3000.00
Incidental charges can approach $2000.00
If the seminarian MUST live on campus, the cost per year for lodging ranges from $14,000 to $20,000 per year. That equates to $56,000 to $80,000 for housing. If they have a family and wish to live off campus, that costs rises substantially.
Masters degree with a nominal 60 credits comes in at approximately $42,000 or more. This excluded book costs and incidental costs.
If the seminarian for the masters must live on campus as describes above, a typical masters is two (2) years and that adds $28,000 to $40,000 in housing costs
Most mainstream churches require a masters. If we assume a seminarian can complete both degrees in 5.5 years, the total costs floats around $200,000.
If we assume that the seminarian obtains the ‘normal’ scholarship assistance (we will use 19%) 5 the seminarian must pony up $162,000. Only 7% of all scholarships are awarded across all universities and seminaries in response to student aid requests.
Assuming the seminarian obtains a 3.8% student loan with a term of 20 years, the monthly payment alone is $1500 per month.
The median wage of a starting clergy sits roughly in the range of $35,000 to $50,000 per year. Keep in mind many small churches can no longer afford ‘free housing’, and even if the clergy obtains free housing, the payments on the student loan brings them down to near the poverty level.
We must keep in mind the seminaries that have endowments provide ‘minimal’ financial assistance. The total endowments in the United States sits at approximately $30 Billion. The seminaries use the interest money made on the endowment to provide financial assistance, and is in the mere millions. This covers only a small percentage of seminarians. The rest of the endowment goes for wages, operations and property.
Time is one of the critical issues related to bringing clergy into the church.
Normal seminary to obtain the masters requirements of our mainstream churches is optimally 5.5 year (sometimes more). Most seminarians do not have active employment, or a simple low wage part time employee, during this period.
Many mainstream churches require a ‘minimum’ formation period as a deacon of one (1) year (sometimes more).
Some mainstream churches require a further formation period beyond these requirements and varies widely (2-4 years).
Deacons are usually unpaid
Total time without meaningful employment can be 6-8 years or more.
Monastic or non-Accredited Seminary Training
For 1800+ years of church history, ‘university’ training of clergy was reserved only in special cases of clergy who desired to ‘debate or research’ topics with theology or divinity.
Clergy who desired to ‘practice’ as priests were trained in a more monastic environment. These clergy were trained not only in theology and divinity, morals and ethics, but they had to ‘practice’ all of the hands on required in the daily duties of a priest.
The example that brings this into context was the Roman Catholic clergy member by the name of Martin Luther. Luther was trained in monastery, NOT university, predominately by von Staupitz. He was ordained a priest and was ‘practicing’ a full calendar year before von Staupitz suggested Luther enter university training so that he could ‘debate and research’.
Future of the Seminary in the Christian Religion
The day is long past that seminary training would benefit from being removed from the university environment, and held aloof of the restrictions, costs and secular issues presented by accreditation.
Non-Accredited Seminaries and Monastic training produces working clergy. Accredited Seminaries produce theologians, debaters, researchers and scholars.
The world today needs clergy, those individuals who bring the word the people and are trained to be shepherds.
1 Glazier, Michael; Hellwig, Monika, eds. (2004). "Ecumenical Councils to Trent".
2 Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand: a Life of Martin Luther. New York: Penguin, 1995, 44–45.
3 Higher Education Accredidation and the federal Government – Kelchen 2017
4 Higher Education Accredidation and the federal Government – Kelchen 2017
5 US and Worldwide Data - 2022 Scholarship Data