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Do seminary grads burn out quickly?

You often hear people lament the high dropout rate of those entering vocational ministry, particularly in their first few years.In a post earlier this week, John Ortberg repeated the statistic that “90 percent of people who enter vocational ministry will end up in another field.” I’ve heard similar comments to the effect that 50% of more of seminary grads will drop out of ministry within the first five years.

Those are pretty startling claims. If people are burning out of ministry that quickly, then we are doing something desperately wrong.

The problem is that it’s not true.

Actually, I can’t say for sure whether Ortberg’s statistic is true, since his comment refers to anyone who enters vocational ministry, not just seminary graduates. But, seminary graduates as a whole have a good track record for staying in ministry over the long haul. As Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, says:

Persons educated for ministry tend to end up in ministry, stay in ministry, and believe that their education provided good preparation for what they are doing.

Earthen Vessels: Hopeful Reflections on the Work and Future of Theological Schools (Eerdmans, 2008), p. 131.

Indeed, according to an Auburn Center study conducted in 2008, “nearly 90% of M.Div. graduates go immediately into some form of professional religious service,” only 5% of those will leave vocational ministry within the first 5 years, and only 10% within 10 years. So, the actual rate at which M.Div. graduates leave vocational ministry is only 1% per year on average.

The rates for women in ministry are somewhat different with fewer entering vocational ministry upon graduation and more dropping out in the first five years (the study suggested a number of possible reasons for this, but did not resolve the question). But even here the vast majority stay in vocational ministry for the long haul.

So, according to the numbers, at least, seminary grads fare very well in both the short term (5 years) and medium term (10 years). I haven’t seen any studies yet that go beyond 10 years, but I also haven’t seen anything to suggest a change in this pattern. So, it seems reasonable to conclude that seminary graduates as a whole tend to enter vocational ministry and remain in vocational ministry at very high rates.

So, although we still need to  pay close attention to how we’re preparing people to face the demands of ministry over the long haul, we can at least do so with more confidence than pessimism.

Eccentric Existence 7 (our everyday context)

The other context important for understanding human persons is that of our creaturely context – i.e. the world in which we find ourselves. And, since Kelsey prioritizes the wisdom literature, this means that he is going to analyze our creaturely context primarily by considering the everyday world of the wisdom writers.

He’s aware, though, that creaturely contexts vary wildly from one place to another and that it is, therefore, impossible to privilege one finite context as paradigmatic for all the others. So, rather than “absolutizing the quotidian” (193) of the wisdom literature, Kelsey instead seeks lessons from the wisdom literature applicable to all everyday realities. This means that our hermeneutic cannot move directly from the exhortations of the wisdom literature to specific practices in our own context. Instead, we have to understand why and how these constituted wise living in that creaturely context, so that we can be challenged to live similarly wisdom-shaped lives in our own context.

Our creaturely context also serves as the context for our most fundamental vocation. God created humans to live for the well being of one another and all creation. The “wisdom” of the wisdom literature, then, portrays primarily a way of living that seeks the well being of one’s whole environment. That is our vocation.

“This means that the very context into which we are born has the force of a vocation regarding our practices: human creatures are born into a vocation, called to be wise in their practices.” (194)

Once again, the literature provides more of a general shape for understanding that vocation than specific details regarding how vocation should be lived out.

Kelsey argues that emphasizing our creaturely context as viewed through the wisdom literature has three consequences.

1. Intrinsic limitations on anthropology

The fact that we can only understand humans as they exist in actual creaturely contexts means that there can be no absolute model for true humanity.

“the real and authentic human being is the ordinary, everyday human person….It is important because it warrants on theological grounds the abandonment of the notion of a perfect or the perfectly actualized human being.” (204)

Kelsey rejects the idea that even Adam/Eve and Jesus should be seen in this way. As we’ve seen, Kelsey does not believe that we should build our understanding of humanity from the Genesis narratives. And, while Jesus certainly modeled faithful humanity in his context, this is far different from being an almost platonic exemplar of perfect humanity. The other option for creating a more theoretical understanding of true humanity would be through the motif of the imago Dei. As we’ll see when we discuss the appendices to the work, though, Kelsey rejects this approach as well.

So, for Kelsey, we have no absolute model for true humanity. And, he thinks this frees us from an unhealthy attempt to strive toward some unrealizable, perfect standard.

“The idea that one might be a perfect human person who lacks nothing in regard to one’s human personhood presupposes that there is (a) a single scale of possible degrees of completeness which is (b) comprehensive of all the relevant respects in which a human person might be complete….and presupposes (c) that there is a ‘true’ self awaiting actualization, perhaps deep within, which serves as the norm by which to assess how fully self-actualization has occurred.” (205)

The intrinsic limits of a quotidian anthropology, then, constrict us to pursuing faithful humanity in our own everyday world, rather than pursuing an abstract and unachievable ideal.

2. Extrinsic limits on anthropology

I’ll say less about this, but Kelsey also points out that an emphasis on the everyday world means that we need to pay attention to the limitations that are placed upon us by our context. We are finite beings, bounded by the people and circumstances into which we are born. So, wise and faithful living will be shaped by our quotidian realities.

3. The ambiguous nature of our everyday existence

Finally, Kelsey contends that the wisdom literature portrays the quotidian as inherently ambiguous in several ways. At the very least it’s ambiguous because we’re finite beings living in diverse contexts. That means that discerning what “wise living” looks like in any given quotidian will be a challenging task. Further, humanity is ambiguous because we lack that abstract ideal that can show us what true humanity should look like. And, most significantly, the quotidian is ambiguous because of sin and evil.

This last point gets considerable attention from Kelsey. In a manner very similar to his discussion of creation, Kelsey argues that the wisdom literature makes no attempt at offering a theodicy. (He reads Job as dealing with the reality of sin, not explaining its existence.) Instead, it takes the reality of sin and evil for granted, and offers a way of living wisely in broken contexts. This means that the anthropology we have in the wisdom literature shows humans as acting in community, but in ways that often have correspondingly negative consequences for other people. For Kelsey, acting in the quotidian is always ambiguous because all such actions are embedded in broken realities and result in or contribute to sinful world structures.

The upshot of all this is that we are left without any clear picture of what it means to be truly human in any given quotidian. We can look at the life of Christ as model of what it looks like for one particular human to live a wise and faithful life in his everyday world, but that can only provide the shape and not the details of what it means for me to live a fully human life in my quotidian.

In the beginning, there was work. And it was good?

What are these goofy human creatures that God made? What does it mean to live a truly human life? How do human communities flourish and what does that look like? These are some of the questions that got me interested in studying theological anthropology in the first place. Along the way, I’ve looked at the significance of Jesus Christ for understanding true humanity, the nature of the mind/body relationship, free will, gender/sexuality, eschatology, and I’ve started looking at the ecclesial nature of humanity. Among the glaring absences in this sadly incomplete list is the nature of work. God gave us work to do in the Garden and he has work for us to do in the eschaton. Beyond teling us that eternity won’t be just harp solos and cloud sculpting competitions, what significance does this have for understanding humanity as God intended it?

That’s what I’m off to explore tomorrow. I’ll be attending the Acton University conference in Grand Rapids for the rest of the week. Although Acton tends to focus more on issues of economics and politics, there will be plenty to explore in my own areas of interest. Mostly I’ll be focusing on understanding economics, social justice, and environmental stewardship, hoping that they will all contribute to a better understanding of work and human flourishing in the world.

Here are the seminars that I’m considering at the moment. If I’m feeling really energetic, I’ll try to post some thoughts on the more interesting ones as the conference progresses. We’ll see how that goes.

  • Thoughts on Human Dignity
  • Christian Anthropology
  • Christianity and the Idea of Limited Government (not sure why this is on my list)
  • Economic Way of Thinking
  • Foundations of a Free and Virtuous Society (hoping for some thoughts on human flourishing here)
  • Evangelical Social Thought: Justice Grounded in Love
  • Social Justice: Fair and Victimless vs. Free and Virtuous
  • Biblical Theology and Environmental Ethics
  • Bonhoeffer’s Social Ethics
  • Environmental Sustainability: Creature Care beyond Stewardship

On the importance of taking theological sabbaths

In a recent post, Kyle Strobel offers an important reminder of three critical dangers that face anyone who pursues theology as a vocation. And, as a bonus, he uses John Cusack’s High Fidelity to do it. Although he says it quite well and I’d encourage you to read his post for yourself, I wanted to echo some of his thoughts here.

The first danger that Kyle mentions, and the one that undergirds the whole post, is that of adopting a ‘works’ approach to theology. All too easily we can get lost in the never-ending pursuit of more knowledge, more publications, more ‘stature’, etc. If we’re not careful, we can easily delude ourselves into thinking that we’re actually working our way closer to God with our academic prowess. As much as I want to affirm the importance of academic excellence, we must always keep it in perspective. At its heart, theology is doxological. If it does not result in worship in response to grace, we’re doing something desperately wrong.

Second, Kyle cautions against forgetting that theology has to be rooted in ecclesial community. If we find ourselves tempted to slip away from church so that we can do something really interesting, we’ve lost sight of what theology is all about. The theologian can quickly become incurvatus in se without a strong basis in the church.

Finally, and most creatively, Kyle connects all of this to our need for regular sabbaths – not out of duty or law, but because he recognizes that the purpose of the sabbath in the first place was to remind us of our creatureliness and dependence.

Sabbath rest is a practical corollary to the Creator-creature distinction, where creatures submit to their Creator through a wholesale acceptance of creaturliness. Sabbath rest, therefore, as a call to embrace our creatureliness, follows the contours of created reality through an imitatio Dei. It is being like God as a creature, rather than, as the temptation of Eden reveals, being like God as God. The embrace of the fruit of Eden is the continual rejection of creatureliness which fuels much theological endeavour, not the least of which is the temptation to cure our theological ineptitudes and anxieties through brute force and will.

And, this is an excellent place to bring in the role of prayer in the life of the theologian as well. As Barth said, “The first and basic act of theological work is prayer” (Evangelical Theology, p. 160). Whenever we forget that, our theology  becomes self-glorifying, self-justifying, and self-defeating.

So, and I realize how hard this is for many of us, I’m issuing a call for everyone reading this to take a theological sabbath some time this week. Stop pursuing, stop performing, stop pontificating. Just rest. And pray.