Carol Howard Merritt: The ties that bind churches and seminaries

How can we strengthen the relationship of pastors and churches with seminaries?

A seminary fundraiser recently complained to me that pastors do not give enough money to prepare our future leaders. "Why don't churches and pastors make giving to seminaries a priority?"

I'm not a pastor who begrudges her seminary. I loved my academic institution, had a wonderful experience, and hold immense gratitude for seminary education in general. It's vital and important and that's why I give money to my school.

Yet, when I hear comments like the one above, it seems like there's a breakdown in the relationships between pastors and seminaries, or at least it suggests they could be stronger.

Why should seminaries care? Pastors don't have much money. Seminaries probably don't get much cash from their alumni, and in turn, many seminaries don't seem to worry about what pastors think. Our concern can become an annoying far-away voice that's mixed in with all the other constituencies. It's easily ignored.

But we need each other. Seminaries are preparing people for our jobs. We know stuff, we send our members to particular institutions, and seminaries do ask us for money. If the church is to thrive in the years to come, the relationship between churches and those who train our leaders will need to strengthen.

I'd love to start a conversation between seminary leaders and pastors about this. If you serve a seminary and you're wondering what you could do about the relationship, here are a few ideas from my limited vantage point as a pastor.

1) Think about the seminary's organizational structure from the perspective of a pastor. From an outsider's viewpoint, it looks as if the administrative structures of some seminaries keep growing. Institutions add vice presidents, deans and secretaries, but student bodies are not increasing at the same rate as the management. To be sure, many seminaries had to make difficult cuts during the economic crisis, but the staffing realities of seminaries and churches are still worlds apart.

When we compare student bodies to church memberships, we know that many seminaries are only slightly larger than our congregations. Church staffs are decreasing. People are having to cut hours and benefits. So when a pastor compares the size and staffing structure of his or her church (which usually has a pastor, secretary and janitor) to the seminary's vast organizational chart, the inequities become shockingly clear. We wonder why our struggling church should give to an institution that seems to be able to afford so much more than we can.

2) Seminaries can communicate how they are helping relieve student debt. Many pastors who have graduated in the last 15 years know the reality of student loan debt. Unfortunately, they often serve churches that aren't able to adjust salaries for the additional hardship. Many pastors would love to give to seminaries, if they knew that the money would go to alleviating the burden on the student. But we become suspicious when the bureaucracy and endowments increase along with the student's debt load.

3) Seminaries can encourage faculty to publish for the larger church as well as for the academy. I recently picked up a theology book, giddy with excitement at the topic. I made it fifty pages in and realized that the book was written for (maybe) a hundred people. It was a group of theologians within the academy writing for another group of theologians within the academy. I love reading theology, but this was an insiders' club book and will have no lasting significance on the larger church.

Meanwhile, some professors do write books for the wider church and are scorned in the academy for doing so. Why is that? I understand the need for academic books, but often the audience only seems to be those who show up for AAR/SBL. Our pastors and congregations long to read, too. Could the faculty be encouraged to serve the whole church in their scholarship? Could they read books written by practitioners? That could go a long way in bridging the academic/professional divide.

Those are just a few thoughts, some which are not new but no less important. Pastors and churches are asked to give to seminaries, and seminaries are preparing our future leaders for our jobs. Are there other ties that bind us? How can we learn from each other in this important time? I hope seminary leaders will respond with their insights.