The case for apprenticeship

Why an M.Div should not be essential to a career in ministry

Can I tell you about my mother?

My mother is the most loving, compassionate badass I know. When I was a child, she taught me that everyone around me was a person, and that every person was worthy of love and kindness, because God had carefully, thoughtfully created each one.

My mom, Kären, and me.

She showed me this, as I grew older, by reaching time and again for forgiveness in the face of cruelty, by giving time and energy she already had so little of to people in need, and by fighting tooth and nail for the things she knew were right.

For the last 20+ years, my mother has served the church, first as the Director of Christian Education at a Lutheran church for 7 years, and then as the Minister of Youth and Families for a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregation for the last 13 years.

With the Lutheran church, she completed 30 hours of seminary coursework and became an Associate in Ministry, an educated lay leader with the ability to fulfill any function within the church, short of leading the Sacraments.

Today, she is a Commissioned minister with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). She has taken courses and workshops, attended conferences, and written essays to supplement her work experience and expand her skill set. And, although she has been ministering to children, their parents, and the church at large for two decades now, she has been deemed ineligible for Ordination within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), because she does not have a Master of Divinity, or an M.Div.

I’m a little upset.

For one, there’s the very personal matter of my mother’s disappointment. That distresses me, for obvious reasons.

Beyond that, though, I am shocked, bewildered, and disgusted that the regional Commission on Ministry, the body that made this decision, has chosen to subscribe to the idea that a Master of Divinity — formal education, administered by a seminary — is required for a person to become an Ordained minister.

I am not, as a rule, against formal education. I’m almost finished with my second masters degree, and I work for a university. Higher education is a valuable endeavor for many people and should certainly be mandatory for many vocations.

I argue that ministry is not one of them.

“Apostle Paul,” Rembrandt

Jesus did not recruit scholars to be the leaders of the church. His first followers, the people he chose to follow him, the people who went on to found the church and lay the foundation for Christianity as a religion, were laborers. Yes, he had Paul, who was very much a scholar, but look at the rest of the bunch. Look at the people Jesus and his followers focused on teaching and training to be leaders. They were not, by and large, academics.

And yet, the church today is led almost entirely by academics, people who devote large swathes of their lives to the intense study of theology, history, and divinity.

I’m not saying that studying these things is bad. I’m not suggesting for a moment that these are not worthwhile areas of study, or that the church doesn’t need people who are well-versed in these areas. Scholars are invaluable to the development of our understanding of Scripture, especially to our knowledge and interpretation of the language and context of the texts. Many other spiritual gifts — nurturing, compassion, and service, for example — are also essential.

What I am saying is that being a scholar is not a prerequisite to the art of ministry, and, what’s more, it’s very possible to be an educated, articulate scholar of divinity without ever having attended seminary.

My biggest problem with requiring a Master of Divinity is the amount of privilege that is inherently involved in the pursuit of an advanced degree. An M.Div, in particular, is a huge commitment of both time and money.

But, Amanda, there are online seminaries! There’s funding for seminary students!

Yes, that is true. But the funding that is available cannot hold a candle to actually working, and, if you have a family? Forget it. And even online seminaries require time. The typical amount of time it takes for a full-time student to complete an M.Div is 3 years.

So, if you’re pursuing an M.Div, in all likelihood, you’re going to be putting off a real, living wage for 3 years while you complete your degree. For so many people, that simply isn’t feasible. How many talented ministers could we miss out on because we demand 3 years of no real income with which they can support themselves and their families?

I just don’t believe for a moment that an M.Div is essential to the ministerial vocation. It’s a valid path, but I argue that it is not the only valid path. Apprenticeship — working in the ministry field and supplementing that work with some topical studies — is just as valid and must treated as such, or the church may well miss out on some of its greatest leaders.

(Like my mom.)