5 Ways Churches Can Support Seminary Graduates
When I graduated from seminary, I discovered another unexpected part of the journey. If seminary wasn’t challenging enough, I learned quickly that no one was waiting at the end of the platform to welcome me eagerly as a senior pastor. In fact, the journey to discover and discern where God was calling me stretched me as much as the coursework.
This year, seminaries across North America will graduate over 6,000 students. Many will already be serving in congregations, and still others will be looking to fulfill their calling in a variety of ministry settings. Despite a variety of callings and contexts, most seminarians today share several characteristics. They were called before they attended class. They didn’t use seminary to answer a call; seminary became the seedbed to cultivate the call. Most were adult learners, already serving in a church or nonprofit setting before they started taking classes. More than likely they have worked multiple jobs to support themselves and their families, and they’ve borrowed on average $36,000 in federal student loan. African American students on average borrowed $46,300. At Northern, the average graduate will still need to repay $24,500 in federal loan debt. Despite how affordable seminary is compared to most professional graduate schools, seminary students are also very dependent on student loans. They have discovered the adventure of ministry is not what they expected.
How can a church support the class of 2019?
1. Acknowledge and Affirm their Work and Calling
No two callings are alike. Seminary opens doors to multiple forms of ministry—and multiple ways to minister. For those called to serve the church, many today prefer to work for a congregation part time while living on mission in another occupation. Take the time to listen, ask questions, and affirm what God is calling these graduates to do. If you have a seminary graduate in your congregation, acknowledge their accomplishments publicly. You’ll be surprised how many people in your church will say, “I didn’t know you were in graduate school.” Still others in the congregation will ask, “What is a seminary?” Graduation is educational for the church as well as the student.
2. Encourage to Persevere
For those currently in or seeking full time church ministry placement, the path to parish ministry is challenging. I interviewed with over 25 churches before being called to my first senior pastor position after seminary. My wife began to wonder if something was wrong with us. Encourage graduates who are experiencing closed doors to keep pressing, pushing, and working. It’s easy to get stuck after seminary, only to discover later that post-graduation is usually a wilderness to an unexpected promised land. Women especially face barriers that most men do not experience, and they need additional support along the way. In a recent study published by ATS in 2016, women were less likely than men to be offered positions following graduation. Remind seminary graduates that just like any other profession, closed doors are just another sign that God is opening a different door to ministry.
3. Invite their Expertise
Seminaries like Northern require a considerable amount of integrated learning and spiritual enrichment. We ask students to study scholars of the past and present, combining research with personal renewal and congregational ministry. Most people who attend seminary seek to deepen their walk with God. When they leave, they are closer to God by the end of their journey than ever before. Take the opportunity to ask these graduates what they’ve learned about themselves and their congregations. They know more about the Bible today than they will ever know the rest of their lives. Learn from them, and give them opportunities to share their knowledge.
In the case of Doctoral graduates, often the church they are serving has been used as a laboratory for their project. Invite the graduates to share what they know; and encourage them to publish their work. Many doctoral students view their projects as just the beginning of more work to come. Enriching the life of the mind only multiplies the ministry impact in the church and community.
Like any other graduate, seminarians love to celebrate. But there is something the church can offer beyond punch and cookies. We can offer resources. Because most graduates carry student loan debt, invite them to share that need with your congregation. Take a love offering to help students repay their student loans, and assist them with the next step of the journey. If your congregation has called a recent seminary graduate, or is in the call process with one, set up a loan forgiveness program that is tied in with their length of service to the church. Show your commitment to them through the financial generosity of your members.
5. Bless their Families and Friends
If a seminarian is married or has children, they have had to spend time away from family to complete their coursework. If they are single, they may be moving away from a friend network that has supported and nurtured them for the last few years. Graduates need time to renew and refresh with loved ones before jumping into the next ministry project. Find creative ways to encourage family renewal—a getaway weekend for spouses, an Air BNB with friends, or simply a reduced workload at church. All of these small gestures of kindness demonstrate to the seminarian that the church understands the strain and work that a person has undergone.
The months following graduation are significant times of transition. A church can pour life into the ones whom God has called and prepare them for the next chapter of the adventure.
For more information about the profile of seminary graduates, read this report from the Association of Theological Schools. If you would like to assist a seminary graduate celebrate, or to assist with placement of a graduate, please contact Northern’s Office of Advancement.