So Far So Good:The Mid-Degree Consult

William Goettler

My office at the edge of the Yale Divinity Quad is crowded this morning. An anxious second-year Master of Divinity student sits surrounded by the group that she has invited to join her for the mid-degree consultation.

Each guest is important to the student’s efforts to discern her vocational path. To her left is her college chaplain, who made a side trip to Connecticut to be here while visiting the Northeast from the Midwest. To her right is her academic advisor, a Yale New Testament professor. Across the room sits the director of the community agency where the student is now interning. Finally, on a small table, a laptop computer via Skype connects us to a denominational committee person a thousand miles away, a person the student doesn’t know well but who is important in her ordination process.

I begin the meeting with a prayer, and then proceed with open-ended questions about the student’s divinity school experience thus far. Everyone begins to relax. The conversation begins to flow.

A Changing Culture

I’ve been part of these conversations involving every second-year M.Div. student at YDS for five years now, developing a model for student self-reflection that meets both the Association of Theological Schools’ assessment requirements and the Yale faculty’s expectations for strong vocational and academic advising. I’ve been able to see how such a process shapes the students’ quest for purposeful work in a new century that is upending traditional patterns of vocation and calling.

Divinity schools and seminaries have long provided an important place – a safe place – to ask serious questions about faith and life within the framework of intellectual pursuit and vocational possibility. But conditions have changed in the culture of church life and theological education. Until recently, a student’s time of personal and theological wandering within Master of Divinity degree studies led dependably to a well-defined career path: students left their seminary years ready to enter either parish ministry in a mainline Protestant denomination or begin a teaching career. A few in every class forged less predictable routes, entering fields like social work or journalism or business.

But in the last couple of decades, there are far fewer full-time parishes, and far fewer full-time teaching positions, awaiting seminary graduates. At the same time, more and more students no longer fit neatly into denominational boxes. Fewer are willing to rely on either the existing support structures or the fallback professions of previous generations. It’s not unusual that the ordination committee member Skyping into our morning meeting is the one least engaged with the student’s growth until now. Were he the only participant in this mid-degree consultation, there wouldn’t be much to talk about.

At this point in her life, the student in my office is only now finding her voice, trying out ideas. This morning, she listens carefully to the responses offered by her chaplain, internship supervisor, academic advisor, and ordination committee member. Together, they reflect on coursework completed, ministry experiences hoped for, and the challenges still ahead.

Those who know her best report that she is an able scholar who shows the kinds of pastoral gifts that the church longs for. But this morning she admits to weariness with denominational requirements and a wariness about a life within the institutional church. Hearing affirmation about both her gifts and her questions, she wonders aloud where else those abilities might lead her. Suggestions are made about various possible career paths, from campus-based ministry to new models of church development. The student is feeling pushed a bit, and emotions rise. “Don’t talk to me about what I will do,” she exclaims. “Talk to me about who I will be.”

Doubts and Discoveries

So we do. We talk together about what formation means as a person of faith and as a religious professional within society. The wise souls gathered here care not just for the church but also for this woman’s story as sojourner who longs to find her place. Her portfolio, a collection of personal reflective essays she has written as a YDS student, guides the conversation now. We talk about the discoveries, the doubts, the places of strength and points of vulnerability arising during these years of study and praxis.

No conclusions are reached, though moments of insight emerge. Most of all, this student halfway through divinity school finds that she is being taken seriously as a scholar, as a person of faith, and as one whose vocational discoveries matter. There is no unspoken agenda to move her toward or away from ordination, no insistence that she fill one professional role or another.

Rather, at the core of this conversation is the beginning of a personal theology of work: what does it mean to take seriously the gifts with which you have been blessed and the sense of call that you believe yourself to be hearing?

Simply naming these questions is an important act. Addressing them with a student at such a pivotal point in her life, surrounded not by peers but by teachers, ministry models, and figures in authority, is a profound step in her theological sojourn.

The story of the student in my office is redefining theological education these days. Bright and motivated students arrive at divinity school eager to find their calling. They are comfortable locating the work of vocational discernment in the language of faith. They long for holy direction. Yet they are not quite convinced that direction will be found through their work with denominational committees. If the student feels a denominational commitment at all, it is often mingled with anxiety that she is virtually unknown by those who are important to the ordination procedure.

It is true that they are doing theological study because someone has sent them this way. A pastor or a campus minister, a youth group leader or a professor has encouraged them to see that they are capable of graduate work in religion and that the endeavor is a promising venue for deep reflection and vocational exploration.

But ministry students today generally feel very alone in the process of figuring out their calling. There was a time when the important conversation that followed such periods of private self-discovery was entirely the responsibility of ordination committees. Divinity students returned home to meet with ordained clergy who listened to their struggles and gave direction for their future. Bishops and ordination committees were the overseers of such discernment and postulancy or candidacy, with an eye toward ordination.

Longing for Mentors

Those committees still control the ordination process for students who come to them, but they have become far less available in recent years for the work of advice and nurture, with members overwhelmed by the complexity or uncertain prospects of their own church contexts. Students lucky enough to land meetings with ordination committees seldom hear encouragement on vocational questions. Over and over again, I hear instead of diffident denominational liaisons and unworkable systems. Though many students are still enrolled in such processes, others are not so engaged. This is a serious disconnect. For almost every professional degree student, the opportunity to participate in structured vocational advising is an important part of theological education.

It is little wonder that students long for mentors, for wise counsel in the midst of such self-searching. Yet it is hard to see how the institutional picture will change in the near future, since the state of the institutional, post-denominational church has become even more complex and vocational opportunities appear to remain limited.

The decision to spend so much group time with each student is time-consuming and labor-intensive; I convene about forty such meetings during the academic year. But this Yale model for assessment and discernment is compelling – an integration of faith and intellect, personal story, meaningful vocational direction, and academic discipline. Interestingly, it is a model that is drawing interest from other schools of theological education.

It seems increasingly clear that the work of discernment must now find a home in the life of theological schools. Perhaps it should always have belonged here. Indeed, formational discussion is always mutually beneficial. YDS faculty regularly tell me that such rich conversations with students inform their own teaching. Assessment runs both ways.

And the benefits of vocational nurture are dramatic. As the conversation in my office draws to a close, a few tears have been shed, some dreams shared, and some hard edges acknowledged. Everyone in the room leaves enriched by the experience. A professor is reflecting anew on the nature of teaching the Biblical text. A college chaplain is already framing new questions for exploring issues of faith with younger students. An internship supervisor has gained perspective on the importance of that placement experience in the life of a seminarian. And a student enters the second half of her degree program aware not only that she has companions and supporters in the journey, but that her direction is worthy, her questions important, and her calling perhaps even holy. 

William Goettler is Assistant Dean for Assessment and Ministerial Studies at YDS. An ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), he has been co-pastor at First Presbyterian Church in New Haven since 1998. His writing has appeared in the Feasting on the Word lectionary series, Christian Centuryand other publications.