Is there a Seminary Education Bubble?

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Rural church from Libray of Congress files of WPA photos.

Jerry Bowyer has written a very popular pair of blog post at on what he sees as an overlooked piece of the education bubble he has written about for years: the Seminary Bubble (and part 2).

It’s interesting here because (1) it’s a bubble that because it has a restricted market illustrates the general problems for MBAs, law degrees, and other post-graduate education; and (2) several of you have mentioned going into full-time ministry in your faith as a possibility, so it may be relevant to you personally.

Bowyer’s article was widely republished in the Christian world and stimulated a lot of debate.

But not much change.Bowyer’s criticism is mostly that seminaries are bad ROI for future pastors because they cost a lot for a job that pays little and do a bad job in teaching. It’s not just the mainline denominations (rather than the Evangelicals, Pentecostals and Fundamentalists) that have this problem. The Christian Reformed Church seems to have the official stance to trick young men (mostly) into paying the massive costs of their seminary, with an estimated total seminary cost of over $75,000, so that their churches can be extra choosy about who pastors them. In my own denomination (Reformed Church in America) the cost of seminary is also about $75,000. The online option isn’t much better, clocking in at $54,000 if you do it quick. Most denominations aren’t as upfront as the CRC but one imagines it’s their goal. The Presbyterian Church (USA) mainline denomination has shrinking numbers of churches but is actually graduating increasingly larger numbers of seminarians.

But other groups have much cheaper seminaries.

If you are Southern Baptist, a seminary education can be had for less than $20,000 including at their flagship seminaries. Other Baptist seminaries are likewise inexpensive, as are some of the Pentecostal seminaries.

Then there’s innovative pastoral training programs like the one by the United Methodist Church. The UMC, probably the largest mainline denomination, has such a hard time getting ministers out to their rural churches that they created an emergency pastoring certificate much like the U.S. public schools’ emergency teaching certificate for people who will work in rural or inner-city schools. Their “local licensure” puts a Methodist wanting to enter the ministry later in life almost immediately into a small church. They have a subpar mentoring program and a pretty good education program that has to be completed. The pastor can only pastor at the local church where he’s currently working. As one of the local licensures pointed out to me recently, that really only comes into play when your niece wants you do her marriage ceremony at her home church. Which you can’t. It also limits your job opportunities since most larger churches will want a seminarian and apparently can get it. The program’s success bolsters Bowyer’s argument: you don’t need seminary to be a successful pastor.

But is the ROI on pastoring really that low? Bowyer doesn’t mention pay rates for ministers in any substantive form. I’ll cover my research into that later. If you are a church-goer you may be surprised to find out how pastors’ compensation compares to your own.

This post is also part of an occasional series on the organizational structure of Christian churches. Other parts include:

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