The Master of Divinity is Not Helping the Church Survive

Help WantedBecoming a pastor is competitive business. I had a solid seminary education, passed the Presbyterian (PCUSA) ordination exams on my first shot, passed the psychological evaluation, and was free to seek a call to be a pastor of a church.

But I didn’t go the route of a pastor and chose instead to pursue work in higher education.

Part of my reasoning was the job market for pastors. Maybe I was too picky with unrealistic expectations. I went to Princeton Seminary where graduates generally expect serve at big churches. I was not even thinking about the small church life. It was the data balanced by my expectations that switched my career path. I wanted to get in the pulpit to preach and organize education programs right out of the gate. I found that to be an unrealistic goal when I saw where most graduates were landing in their first positions. As someone who neither liked youth ministry nor the small church life – I had done both – I got out of the system.

There are many recent seminary graduates and current students who have the same expectations and experiences I did. They are accepted into M.Div. programs throughout the country and after earning a master’s degree they expect to be employed. The Master of Divinity is a professional degree. This means that you earn it as part of a training program in order to enter church leadership. In the latter half of the 19th century, higher education introduced professional degrees in law, business, and medicine. Charles Eliot, president of Harvard (1869-1909), sought to give the vocation of the pastor as much credibility and validation as these other professions in order to maintain and justify the divinity school at Harvard. It was this kind of thinking that transformed the Bachelor of Divinity, which had been the seat of training for ministry, into a professional graduate degree we now call the Master of Divinity (M.Div.).

It may have been a good idea at the time when the mainline churches were large and growing. But today, the degree has serious problems. The average time it takes to complete an M.Div. (90) is on par with or more than business (MBA – around 60 credit hours) or law school (Juris Doctor – around 85). A Master’s in Health Administration requires about 40 credit hours whereas the nursing profession requires a B.S.N. and a passing NCLEX score. Even then there are accelerated programs which take only 11-18 months to complete. Granted the cost of a degree like the MBA or J.D. is much higher than an M.Div., but so is the return on investment. Moreover, the M.Div. is also used as a gateway to doctorate degrees in theology and religion which means that the curriculum itself complicates academic programming outcomes at theological seminaries. Thus, a terminal degree in theology can take a longer time to earn than in some other fields.

Adding to all of these problems are denominational ordination requirements which seek the same rigor as other professional fields like law or nursing. These require candidates to endure multiple hoops of examinations both written and oral. The process can be very long, expensive, and arduous for a job that will offer a median income of around $35,000. This is just above the poverty level which in 2012 was about $23,000 correcting for location. M.Div. graduates can barely make payments on the interest of student loans acquired not only from undergraduate education, but from the M.Div. process. Undergraduate debt is now over $29,000. They have to eat and pay basic bills too. Carol Howard Merritt reflects on this burgeoning problem:

The truth is that it is very likely that you will go to seminary and never be able to get through the ordination process. I usually tell them my story. I graduated with great grades. I had been a Teacher’s Aid, Tutor and Research Assistant in Systematic Theology, Church History, Greek, Hebrew, and Practical Theology. My internship went well. The church hired me when the internship was over, because they wanted me to continue in the position. I had wonderful recommendations. But I couldn’t pass one of my Ordination Exams, so I couldn’t look for a job.

Some institutions have sought to cut down on some of the problems in the system with accelerated M.Div. programs. But the result is just not helpful enough. Liberty University’s accelerated program still requires 75 credit hours and a thesis. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary offers an Advanced Master of Divinity that requires undergraduate study in religion with a 3.3 minimum GPA. But even here, the M.Div. and still requires 79-80 credit hours to complete. The degree itself does not go below 80 credit hours as the standard. Thus, no amount of acceleration will give a student much of a break. This hardly compares with the other accelerated programs or innovative ideas to accelerate the Ph.D., especially in the humanities. American University’s Ph.D. in Communication is particularly “out-of-the-box.”

So where is the M.Div.? I don’t know. Mainline church membership is continuing to decline, there is a glut of candidates for the ministry, and M.Div programs along with the denominational requirements are putting unrealistic expectations and pressure on those just respond to a call to serve God and people in a small community. Where churches often face frustration levels so high that they pass over into resignation over declining numbers, the denominations and their seminaries are not moving enough to restructure the training requirements for prospective ministers. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Seminaries and denominations have got to innovate and restructure the educational requirements for the M.Div. and for ordination. Why this cannot be a 60 credit degree or a 2-year fast track is baffling. It’s time to stop asking questions and to start acting like the rest of graduate education that understand what and who they need to serve.

Are Natural Scientists Smarter and Therefore, Less Religious?


According to one study, the answer is yes.

In a survey of IQ measures in “elite” institutions, researchers argue that physical scientists (biology, physics, chemistry, etc.) have overall higher IQ’s than their social scientist counterparts. They then argue that the kind of reasoning in physical science is superior because of its reduced emotional influence.

“[Physical] scientists are overwhelmingly atheist,” Dutton said. “This is predicted by their high IQ, which allows you to rise above emotion and see through the fallacious, emotional arguments.” Arguments about God are all emotional arguments, he added.

There are very obvious problems in the research. First, it focuses on a particular sample of scholars where even if the data is true, science demands the method be tested to see if the conclusions are even valid. Second, the use of IQ as a measure of intelligence is suspect. Numerous papers have been published arguing the validity of IQ as a measure of intelligence or aptitude.

Finally, the claim that arguments about God are all emotional is made with no evidence to support it. It is hard to imagine that massive works of logic and reasoning about God such as St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, or Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, or the centuries of theological thinking are all emotional in nature. In fact, at one point theology was called “the mother of all sciences.” Therefore, this assumption perhaps reveals a hidden agenda that is ironically rooted in emotion. Similarly, Richard Dawkins likens theology to the study of leprechauns and that it has no business as a university discipline.

Research probes the truth, no matter how uncomfortable. It may be true that scholars of physical science have high IQ’s. However, it is an unscientific stretch to say that their reasoning is superior and such superior reasoning is why they are correlated with atheism. Good science means that we cannot confuse a correlation with causation. Thus, the research conducted here is unscientific and shoddy at best.

Lent Isn’t Depressing, Anymore

As one who has life-long issues with depression I resonate with the sentiment that Lent can be a time to feel even worse. As a Catholic and then a Presbyterian, Lent was a time to feel guilty. Guilty for consuming too much, loving too little, giving not enough, and reinforcing the idea that I am a bad person by some mysterious genetic seed given to me by God through the curse of Adam. It’s enough to drive the clinically depressed to madness – or defiant agnosticism. The latter was exactly what happened.

The reward was a ceremony to remember that God is angry with me for sins I have no real say in eradicating. Nothing I do is actually all that pleasing to God because none of it meets up to His standards. In fact, God can’t even look on me without some disdain for abusing the body and mind that are supposed to be in His image, but are so broken that it’s impossible to reflect it. The Good News is that Jesus stands in the way so that God can’t see me at all. Jesus is my protector from the Bully.

Now whether this is good theology or bad, it was what was the logical place that made sense with what I heard in the teaching I had been given. Jesus substituted his life and received the punishment I deserved for my sinful nature. It’s only because he rose from the dead that God is able to love me at all. Lent was about dwelling in that space of guilt that I cannot do anything to relieve since it is only my faith that Jesus is standing there between me and God that gives me hope I can get to heaven. So I prayed and crossed my fingers.

I entered the communion of the Eastern church a couple of years ago. For the first Lent in which I participated there, I learned that this was not a season to feel guilty, but a season to heal. It is true that I am broken. I have depression, I have been a hopeless drunk, I have a fantastic list of sins that could rival Martin Luther’s. I am imperfect and often feel an unbridgeable gap between my sometimes sordid state of mind and the source of my being in God.

Lent is now about accepting that I have these issues, but these issues are not me. Lent is about focus. It is about honesty and confession. It is about making my life transparent before God and practicing love, justice, and mercy in the world. It is a time to focus on being compassionate and patient towards even those I resent. In fact, it is a time to heal those resentments and apologize to those I may have harmed in the past year. All of these actions are actions of healing myself, my relationships with others, and my relationship with God. My work means something now. I participate in my salvation, rather than close my eyes and cross my fingers that I am not one of those predestined to hell.

The point is that I have a choice to squeeze through the briar patches of life to meet a God who continuously walks through them to meet me in the middle where there is a garden of life.

Lent is about life, not death.

As Monica Coleman writes in her reflection that inspired this post:

Lent gives me the chance to look for those opportunities.  It gives me a season – every year – to turn over rocks, crouch down and look under the bed, sweep together the remnants of my last year, of my life, of the current day in search of whatever beauty may be there.  It’s my chance to look for the life that can be found in the midst, or something after, death.

Breaking the Cycle of Addiction

Mary Elizabeth Winstead drinking in the shower in Smashed.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead drinking in the shower in Smashed.

We know that celebrities like Philip Seymour Hoffman die of addiction. He is not the first and sadly will not be the last. Addiction taken to the point just before the addict dies is a hopeless condition. Right at that breaking point before death is the best time to admit that he or she needs help.

There are millions of people in the world right now who are at that breaking point. I would not be surprised if the majority of people in the world at least know someone who has been an addict at some point. It is that ubiquitous. I was at that breaking point a few years ago. I stood at the turning point between death and doing something else. I chose to do something else. I stopped drinking.

But I want to qualify this a little.

I stopped drinking not because I believed I was an alcoholic. I believed alcohol was actually solving my problems on a daily basis.  Nothing in my life had become totally unmanageable to me. So what if I was unemployed, depressed, scared of life, lonely, morally bankrupt, and in debt. Everyone had those problems once in a while. So what if I drank a few glasses of wine (at least a bottle’s worth) followed by a couple of gin and tonics and maybe a couple of white Russians to cap a night off. Going to bed a little drunk helped me sleep. I hated myself, but I could always rely on alcohol to make me feel better when I needed it to. Normal stuff, right? Alcohol was my solution not my problem.

Until I stopped.

Two days after I stopped I was like a lion in a cage hungry for a steak. I paced around the house with anxious sweat hungry for a hit of my favorite juice. As the anxiety increased, I knew something was wrong. This was Wednesday. By Friday I was sitting in my first meeting shaking and holding back tears. I could barely hold a cup of coffee, and my mind raced faster than it had before. I knew that my drinking habit was not normal.

Most people can have a drink after a meal and put it down. Most people can drink half of a glass of wine or not finish a beer and be ok with that. Most alcoholics will drink until they can’t physically drink any more. The last time I got really wasted I was in Louisville, KY to celebrate with a good friend. Before we even got to the bar I secretly pounded two beers. I drank a pitcher at the bar. Everyone else left to go home. I hooked up with another group of people and collected all of the half consumed pitchers from my previous group and finished all of them. I then got back to my friend’s place where I drank three more beers and had two glasses of wine to cap off the night. To me this was a normal pattern. I drank like this when no one could see it. I drank with friends and then got drunk alone.

Upon waking the alcoholic will either have a drink to stop the craving, or will crave all day until the clock strikes “drinking time.” This craving is like drinking water in the blazing summer heat. Yet you always feel parched no matter how much water you put in your system. Even as your stomach can’t hold any more, you are still thirsty. Imagine stopping with that feeling in your mouth. It would drive you insane. That is kind of how an alcoholic feels after he or she comes full stop. It is agonizing.

The problem starts in the mind that says, “I must drink to feel normal.” Then it becomes physical where the body says, “I need to keep drinking because I cannot stop whether you like it or not.” Getting out of that cycle requires long-term re-wiring of the brain and that means approaching life in a totally different way. This is a chronic illness of the mind and body that requires ongoing treatment. But you have to want that continued treatment for it to work. As soon as the addict stops that treatment they are at risk of dropping back into the vicious, self-devouring cycle of the body and mind.

There are millions who are trapped in that cycle right now. Some are well aware they are in it and are either not sure how to break free or are too damn scared at the prospect of not getting the next hit. Some are using alcohol and drugs to subdue symptoms of mental illness they are unaware that they have. These are the people who want to stop, but are so trapped and broken they don’t even have a clue where to start.

Those who really don’t want to stop their addictions or who want an easy way out won’t stop feeding. It’s unfortunate, but we can’t expect everyone to walk into a 12 Step group and stay sober. Once in a while – it could be 22 years from the first day of sobriety – that thirst will creep back in and without a group of sober people to help ward off that feeling of needing a drink, the addict places him or herself in great danger. Staying connected with sober people on a regular basis is the path to continued sobriety.

I am glad that one death has sparked a national conversation about addiction. My fear is that after the media bump dies down, addiction will be a news story that bores us unless God forbid someone like Robert Downey, Jr. gets drunk again.

Here are some places to get information and lifelines if you think you or someone else needs them. Remember, this works only if you want it. Sobriety can’t be forced, it must be chosen.