Classism and Contemporary Pastoral Training

seminaryI am the product of a particular kind of culture, a culture of academics and education. I went to college and was trained by a well-educated pastor. I went to a strong academic seminary and was friends with PhD candidates and professors. I have been shaped and influenced by this highly academic culture. I am thankful for it, but not everyone has these same experiences. I have been wondering lately what this means for pastoral-training. There is a growing fear in me that we are creating an unhealthy trend in the church by means of our present models of pastoral training.  The present model of pastoral training utilized in much of the west perpetuates a kind of classism within the church.

A great many churches in America are pastored by middle-class males. That’s largely because Seminaries attract and equip middle-class males. The result has been a view of ministerial leadership that is largely middle-class male. This is in large part due to the cost and location of seminary education, which is often deemed essential for ministerial placement. Seminary is not cheap! David Briggs noted in 2012 that the rising cost of seminary education has led many ministers into bankruptcy.

National data from the The Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary indicates both the number of students entering seminary with debt and the amounts they have to pay back upon entering the workforce are increasing substantially. (“Seminary Debt Rising,” Huffington Post Religion, 2012)

Some leading research suggests that it’s not uncommon for students to graduate from seminary with upwards of $80,000 in debt. Most will never be able to overcome that financial handicap. Add to that the residential requirements to many institutions and you quickly observe that seminary simply isn’t feasible for everyone. It requires, generally, a certain socio-economic status, creating, then, a certain kind of pastorate upon graduation. Particularly it creates a middle-class pastorate.

The expectation for many is that they will need to attend seminary in order to be fit for pastoral ministry, and churches expect as much. They want to see a degree. There are a myriad of problems with this approach, but perhaps chief among them is the assumption that leadership means degree, and degree means leadership is limited to people of certain socio-economic situations. The long-term results mean that our churches are dominated by middle-class men whose life experiences, education, and style of ministry will make it harder for them to reach working-class or poor individuals. As Tim Chester and Steve Timmis have put it:

Most church leaders today are middle-class graduates who were trained in college and whose qualification for ministry is a degree…One of the reasons we have middle-class churches that are failing to reach working-class people is that we have middle-class leaders. And we have middle-class leaders because our expectations of what constitutes leadership and our training methods are middle-class. (Total Church, 120)

This should be a burden and a concern to the contemporary church. Resolving this problem is not easy for it means, an overall shift in how we think about pastoral training.

We tend to think of pastoral training in terms of seminary education and degrees. That, however, is a modern phenomena, a model developed late in history. It certainly wasn’t Jesus’ model. When we read the New Testament we see a wide range of social classes and educational backgrounds represented among the disciples. While Paul was certainly well-trained and educated, Peter and John were not. Acts 4:13, reads:

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.

Pastoral training had a long history as an apprenticeship. Pastors took in students who learned to do pastoral care, preach sermons, and study the Word by observing, partnering with, and learning from seasoned ministers. In fact in 1848, Gardiner Spring, then on the board of Princeton Seminary, bemoaned the shift to academic training for pastoral candidates. He compared and contrasted the seminary-trained ministers and the pastorally-trained ministers and found the former lacking significantly. It’s not that Christian scholarship is unimportant, far from it, and while there is overlap we must nonetheless emphasize that there is a difference between Christian scholarship and pastoral ministry. Reminding ourselves of this difference and seeking to equip and train-up ministers within congregations and under the tutelage of pastors may mean that we open the door to more class diversity within our churches and particularly within our leadership.

I don’t believe that this classism has been intentional, and there are wonderful exceptions. There are great working-class pastors and working-class churches. I fear, however, that we have been on a trend for a long time that will result in serious failures for the church. That trend has been towards an ever-increasing production of middle-class pastors who, for a variety of reasons, will struggle to reach working-class and poor people. We need to shift our focus in seminary education and train up men wherever they are to serve the church. We need to break down the class-divide that exists in much of modern church leadership, and we need start at the level of training pastors.


  1. Reblogged this on Theory of The Phil.


  1. […] apply Scripture is going to be different and yet may be still be helpful for me. I have written elsewhere about the dangers of developing a middle-class white male theology. A hermeneutic of finitude can […]

  2. […] will continue to empower, assist, and support its pastors. I think the answer begins in rethinking seminary […]

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