Revs. & Drs.

By Elizabeth Zivanov

I’ve found myself in the line of fire more than once for suggesting that those who feel called to Holy Orders should not go directly to seminary after graduating from college. My rationale has been that those who follow this track do not have the life experience necessary to pastor a parish. Of course, I’ve been challenged and even called a few names because of this approach, so I continue to reflect on my reasons for being so stubborn about this.

I am speaking in generalizations based on my own experience and based on anecdotal evidence. I do think this topic needs to be seriously addressed at many levels by dioceses and the national church. A study on this topic would probably be a fine thesis or term project for some earnest seminarian.

Fundamentally, there is a push across the board for young clergy in the Episcopal Church. It’s an image thing; it’s an assumption; it’s a cry for hope for the future of the church: young clergy will attract young people and we all want more of them! Or perhaps it’s because we need a visual symbol of hope for the Church, and 20-somethings in alb and stole provide one.

When I think of the needs of a pastoral or family-sized parish, there is, typically, a strong expectation that the rector or vicar is capable of handling just about anything that comes her way or, if not, then she at least knows her limits and will make a referral. (For this piece, I’ll use feminine pronouns as generic.) In fact, it’s thought by many (although erroneously) that once ordained a priest, the new cleric can easily live into this expectation of Mother Knows Best and can take care of everything and everyone. Young clerics sometimes actually buy into that identity.

So we have a 25-year-old with a seminary degree, maybe 10 weeks of basic Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), and some part-time field education work who is now faced with many levels of parish dynamics, deaths, marriage difficulties, drug problems, local politics, unruly children and adults, hidden agendas, triangulation, skeletons in the closets, the onset of terminal illnesses, and all the other problems that arise in parish communities. Can a 25-year-old with no practical life experience and no in-depth supervised training adequately handle being the person to whom Christians turn for their emotional, psychological, and spiritual health? Do three years of seminary provide adequate preparation?

Let’s compare this to the training of medical doctors. They have an undergraduate education and three years of medical school. So far, this is training similar to our seminarians. When they graduate, they are awarded an M.D. and are addressed as Doctor Whomever. When our seminarians graduate, they are awarded an MDiv and are ordained, thereafter being addressed as The Rev. Whomever. But once these degrees and titles are bestowed, there is a sudden shift in training and expectations. Doctors must endure another 3-7 years of highly supervised internship and residency; clergy are often assigned to parishes as vicars or to other parishes as assistants, and with questionable supervision. In some dioceses, they are assigned as vicar or rector immediately upon their ordination just because of the paucity of available ordained clergy. In relatively rare cases, these newly ordained clergy are assigned as curates, sometimes with the expectation that they will receive additional training and mentoring from the rector to whom they report. Sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn’t. But there is no consistency of training for newly ordained clerics in the Episcopal Church.

By the time doctors are able to go into private practice, they are in their late 20s or early 30s with extensive on-the-job training. The newly ordained cleric can ostensibly find herself as a vicar or rector as early as 24 years old.

Both medical and clerical professions muck around deeply in the lives of individuals – one physically, the other spiritually and emotionally. One is trained to know the professional limits of their training and skill; the other is not always trained to know these limits, thus using “skills” that they do not have and often causing more harm than good.

There is a perception that continues to exist on the part of parishioners, however, that clergy are trained to take care of many different personal and spiritual situations and crises that arise. They are not. They might have received a counseling class or two in seminary, but certainly nothing extensive that includes close and ongoing supervision over a sufficient period of time. Seminaries do not provide in-depth opportunities for learning and developing the soft skills, management skills, and group dynamics skills necessary for any leader of a group of diverse personalities.

A national parish clinical pastoral education program that is required of all seminary graduates could provide us with clergy who have had quality, reality-based, supervised training in parish ministry. Of course, this program would require funding from the national church and local dioceses; the willingness to commit such funding is an indication of the importance that we place on adequately training clergy for parish work. It might even be a canonical requirement that all seminary graduates experience parish CPE in the same depth and intensity as they do their hospital CPE. Instead of 10 weeks, though, it might be 9-12 months.

Or a potentially less popular option is to require a minimum age for those attending seminary – maybe 27 or higher to ensure that they have had at least some kind of real-life experience, and that there is a better chance that they have matured a little more than a 23- or 24-year old.

But to graduate and ordain young people who are not prepared for the enormous expectations of parish clergy is to put both young clergy and parishioners seriously at risk for their spiritual and emotional lives and to risk the systemic health of our parish communities.

The Rev. Liz Zivanov is rector of St. Clement’s Church in Honolulu, Hawai`i, a deputy to General Convention 2006, and president of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Hawai`i. Her sabbatical adventures can be followed on Stopping By Woods.

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