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By Sarah Kye Price
Whenever two or three seminarians are gathered, just as many stories of call are in our midst. The stories are varied, but often include the roadblocks and challenges, as well as moments of grace which mark turning points in the journey. For some people, the fierce persistence of their call took decades to materialize because of economic circumstances, family commitments, or bewilderment about what the process of formation might look like. Others have a more straightforward path, sometimes paved by a mentor who helped them make the right connections, or a seminary willing to offer financial assistance. Even in our digital world, information about options, funding and support can be hard to come by without the right connections.
Now, more than ever, we are compelled to pay attention to diversity among our clergy and in our ministry contexts. As we yearn to offer culturally and contextually relevant ministries in all corners of our Church, the stories I’ve heard bear witness to issues of access and justice in the ways in which call, discernment and formation take place across the Church.
Still, some stories have yet to be told because of the barriers presented by distance, finances, family caregiving and other practical needs in the lives of those who are called to serve.
GC79 is considering several pieces of legislation relevant to those seeking information about non-traditional theological education options, including centralizing the clearinghouse of information about non-traditional seminary education options (A022), and creating a task force for the development of a scholarship fund that would serve those in non-traditional paths of formation (A027). The common theme among these proposals is a more centralized understanding and access to the various methods of formation available for laity, deacons and priests so that the formational needs of those called to serve the Church will guide program selection, rather than proximity to assets and resources.
I spoke with the Rev. Dr. Susanna Singer, who has guided the development of the proposals initiated by the Task Force on Clergy Leadership in Small Congregations. Our conversation crystalized the ways in which these seemingly minor proposals reflect much larger issues of access and justice faced by seminarians and the Church. “People who are called to serve should not be dissuaded by the process of seeking options to fulfill their call,” Singer asserted. She went on to explain that, while traditional, residential seminary education has been normative for many years, the rise of highly adaptive virtual classrooms allowing for low-residency education, as well as expanded options for local formation mixed with seminary study, now offer a larger range of opportunities with expanded access.
While seminary leaders at public hearings have expressed both optimism and caution regarding this shift in theological education, the justice issue remains. Culturally and contextually situated leaders cannot always pick up and move, nor would it necessarily be best for them to do so. (For me, relocating would have meant severing a tie with one of the vocations in my bi-vocational call.) And yet, these leaders crave theological formation and wish to respond authentically to vocational call. Currently, it is the purview of seminaries to offer assistance and/or the ability of dioceses to supplement expenses for either seminary or local formation programs, which determine formation options in situations of resource scarcity. It becomes an issue of economic justice: “If we don’t do anything, then privilege will reign,” said Singer.
When I have a chance to tell my own story of call and formation in those seminary circles, it is with gratitude and awareness of the privilege it has been to remain in my secular employment while studying in a low-residency format at an Episcopal seminary. Allowing others to have access to the information and resources needed to discern in community what will ultimately help them form and serve the Church is a significant step forward in removing structural barriers to theological formation. Yes, these are moments of grace, but also, a commitment to justice.
Sarah Kye Price is a professor of social work at Virginia Commonwealth University and a seminarian in the low-residency M.Div. program at Church Divinity School of the Pacific. She was recently awarded a grant by the Episcopal Evangelism Society for her project, Faith from the Margins to the Web, a blog and Gospel commentary co-written by people living with homelessness, poverty or food insecurity. She’s a mild-mannered professor by day, and a multi-tasking superhero by, well, also by day.