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UW Religion Today: Ministers and Their Communities: What a Difference Education Makes

May 25, 2016
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By Paul V.M. Flesher

It is not often remembered these days, but some of the United States’ best (and earliest) universities were founded not as institutions of general education, but as seminaries for training ministers. Harvard and Princeton, just to name a couple, spent their early decades training clergy. 

When students graduated, they went out to serve a church, which, in the period before and just after 1776, usually was located in a village or small town. In this circumstance, the minister’s formal education far outstripped that of nearly every other member of the community. And that difference formed a key aspect of their relationship. The minister was respected not just as a man of God, but also as “the educated man.”

In the past century or so, the “education differential” of the relationship between minister and congregation has undergone a series of important changes, which has affected how the minister is seen by his (and now her) congregants.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, access to higher education began to broaden significantly. Many people began to attend colleges and universities, and earn bachelor’s degrees in a wide variety of subjects, from engineering to English literature. The minister was no longer THE educated man of his congregation, but only one of a growing group of educated people. 

It was during this time that ministerial training began to change. In the mainstream denominations, it moved from an undergraduate level to a graduate level. If the pastor was not THE educated man of the community, then he was the MOST educated person.

But, even this was not to last. With the G.I. Bill following World War II and the increase in the number of public universities and colleges, the mid-20th century saw a large growth in the number of people graduating with bachelor’s degrees, and many of them even began earning master’s degrees. 

With the usual ministerial degree now fixed as a Master of Divinity, ministers now no longer found themselves distinguished from their congregants by their amount of education. They were just one of the many, or even the majority, of the community’s adults with higher degrees. Instead of being the most educated, ministers now could claim only to be the most educated in religion.

But, even this was destined to change. In the 1960s, departments of religious studies began to spring up in colleges and universities throughout the U.S. It is not that departments of religion had never existed, but these had largely served as training grounds for students going on to ministerial training or missionary work, or supplied the courses for a school’s required course(s) in religion. 

These new departments taught comparative religions, or world religions, in addition to Christianity. They were not aimed at people wanting to become ministers, but toward students wishing a liberal arts degree, who might otherwise take majors such as history, literature or anthropology.

As people with religious studies majors have graduated and entered society at large, they have added a further dynamic to the education aspect of ministers’ relationships with their community. Now ministers are no longer the experts in religion in general, but only experts in their own religion.

None of this has affected ministers’ standing as people of God, as representatives of their churches, as effective community leaders or as people of moral authority. Indeed, as people’s general level of education has become more equivalent to the ministers’ level, ministers have found they have more in common with their parishioners. The gulf between them has lessened; they share more interests, and can better understand and empathize with each other.

Flesher is a professor in the University of Wyoming’s Religious Studies Department. Past columns and more information about the program can be found on the Web at www.uwyo.edu/RelStds. To comment on this column, visit http://religion-today.blogspot.com.


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