Clergy Formation—Preparing for Ministry in Today’s World, or Yesterday’s? (Part 3)

What’s Taught, What’s Not in Seminary and Afterward

Christian ministers’ decisions about their time use and priorities do not come out of nowhere. When a pastor decides whether to join volunteers at the local food bank or spend the afternoon in her office polishing next Sunday’s sermon, the choice comes out of a particular situation and culture. This culture is passed on to future clergy through pre-seminary selection processes, the formal education and training they receive in seminary or divinity school, lessons taught and exemplified by mentors, and first experiences in ordained ministry.

As we explained in the two previous articles in this series (see Part 1 and Part 2), the findings of the Clergy Into Action Study indicate that new pastors and priests spend more time on and feel more confident about the areas of ministry that have long been established as traditional roles of clergy.

We wanted to assess whether seminaries and post-seminary training programs are reinforcing old models of ordained ministry or finding new ways to challenge students to broaden their capacities for leadership.

We started by asking more recently ordained pastors and priests across denominations how well seminary had prepared them for 18 areas of ministry and leadership. One group answering this question consisted of clergy (the “TiMs”) who completed post-seminary training and development programs funded by the Lilly Endowment (“Transition into Ministry” programs). The other group of approximately 600 clergy (the “non-TiMs”) did not benefit from such programs.

Both Transition into Ministry (TiM) participants and our control group of newer clergy rated preaching and proclamation as the area of ministry for which seminary had prepared them most completely:

  • 90% of TiM alumni said that seminary had prepared them either “quite a bit” or “completely.”
  • 84% of the “non-TiMs” said that seminary had prepared them either “quite a bit” or “completely.”


The next highest-rated areas of ministry were sacramental and liturgical ministries (70% of both groups selected “quite a bit” or “completely”) and pastoral care (70% of TiM alumni and 67% of other new clergy).


Click on image for larger view

Click on image for larger view

What’s missing from most seminary curriculum is an emphasis on developing individuals’ capacities in building and strengthening communities and organizations. Such courses are relegated to “elective” status in seminaries and divinity schools; such content is not typically emphasized as part of field education or assessed as part of ordination-related exams.

As a result, not all seminarians avail themselves of such “elective” courses. Then seminary graduates arrive in congregations, schools, and other settings ready to do what they have been trained to do, only to find themselves face to face with situations and systems they were not prepared to deal with. These include negative situations: financial disarray, deep conflict or latent hostility, organizational malaise, absence of evangelism and mission, detachment from surrounding neighborhoods and communities, deteriorating buildings, weak lay support of ministries.

Often new graduates are also not equipped to properly understand or move effectively into positive situations and systems, without falling into misplaced negative assumptions or feeling that they perhaps need to undo or redo what has been done previously in order to leave their mark. They have not learned about the realities of power and money, and of institutional habits, in human organizations and communities.

One of the goals of the Transition into Ministry programs has been to fill in some of these gaps in knowledge and experience post-seminary. We gave our TiM alumni the same list of 18 areas of ministry and leadership, asking them to rate how well their TiM programs had prepared them for each.

With the exception of self-development and self-management—an area of particular focus for many TiM programs—they reported that much of the emphasis was on the same skills that had already been thoroughly covered in seminary or divinity school:

  • 62% of TiM alumni said the programs prepared them “quite a bit” or “completely” in the areas of self-development and self-management.
  • 50% said they were well prepared in preaching and proclamation by the programs.
  • 48% said the programs prepared them “quite a bit” or “completely” to do pastoral care.


The Reverend Chris McKinney described these traditional responsibilities when we interviewed him about his Transition into Ministry program: “It almost seemed like being a senior pastor at [my TiM congregation] was defined for residents as preaching and pastoral care. Well, that is a part of it, but that’s not all of it.”


TiM chart - TiM preparation 18


Our survey respondents indicated that their formal training had not thoroughly prepared them for many of the responsibilities that today’s clergy take on. They rated the following as things that neither seminary nor their TiM programs had equipped them for:

  • Finances and administration
  • Supervising others and work
  • Youth work
  • Understanding and working with natural social networks


Clergy’s lack of competence and confidence in these areas may contribute to internal problems in many congregations.

Hartford Seminary’s 2000 FACT study of 14,301 American congregations found that a surprising high percentage of church conflicts involved organizational questions of leadership style (40%) and decision making (39%). These were factors in disagreements almost as frequently as norms of behavior among members (44%), the use and abuse of money (42%), and the style of worship (41%).1

In 2000 Leadership Journal asked U.S. pastors what were the top five things they thought, in retrospect, had been lacking in their seminary or bible college training. More than 30% answered conflict management; 24% said business administration/management, and 12% said leadership training.2

The findings of the Clergy Into Action Study do indicate that some areas of ministry traditionally neglected by seminaries are being effectively taught by Transition into Ministry programs.

As we have mentioned, self-development and self-management is a particularly strong area for TiMs. Approximately 62% said they were “quite a bit” or “completely” prepared by the post-seminary programs to succeed at tasks such as setting clear and practical priorities, managing emotional stress, continually improving their own skills, and exercising authority well.

While only 27% of TiM alumni said that seminary prepared them quite a bit or completely for organizational leadership, 44% said that their TiM programs prepared them to that extent. (For a detailed comparison of attention paid to these areas of ministry by seminaries vs. TiM programs, see our related article.)

This may sound like criticism directed at seminaries and at post-seminary training programs like those developed as part of Transition into Ministry. It’s important to remember that the pattern we describe is systemic. Seminaries do not distort the impulses and interests of innocent future clergy; neither do TiM programs. All of these types of clergy formation and development grow out of the culture of expectations of the Church.

Our findings indicate that seminaries and post-seminary training programs generally give their congregations, denominations, and church leadership what they say they want. But does the existing pattern represent what is best for the future of the Church?


For Your Consideration

  • What pastoral leadership skills are emphasized by the clergy training that your denomination or church leadership requires for members seeking ordination?
  • Are those the skills that churches seem to need most, in order to survive and thrive?

Continue Reading . . .




1 Carl Dudley, Theresa Zingery, and David Breeden, “Insights Into Congregational Conflict” (Hartford, CT: Faith Communities Today (FACT), The Hartford Institute for Religion Research, Hartford Seminary), This study was based on the Faith Communities Today 2000 national survey of 14,301 congregations.

2 John LaRue, “Profile of Today’s Pastor: How Prepared Were You for Ministry?” Leadership Journal, October 2000,