Do We Still Need Seminaries?
Reports of declining seminaries raise many questions about the future of the church.

I graduated from seminary 12 years ago. At the time it seemed like seminary, or some kind of post-graduate theological education, was expected for those pursuing pastoral ministry. But after graduating and entering the "real (church) world," I discovered how few of my peers suffered through courses on Greek, Hebrew, systematic theology, hermeneutics, or ethics. This was especially true of pastors under 40. What I found instead were quite a few with undergraduate degrees in Bible or ministry, and a number with no formal training at all. Their informal theological reading or mentoring was their only preparation for leading a church apart from their success in the marketplace.

We all know how difficult it can be to carve out the time/funding for education once you are working and supporting a family. But what surprised me about many of these younger pastors was their complete lack of interest in seminary. "Why would I want to go to a cemetery?" one said to me. He was getting all of the ministry training he needed on the job, he argued. and the deep theological stuff he could pick up from books and blogs. Why incur the debt and bother learning languages he'd never use?

Apparently this pastor is not alone in his thinking. An article by Libby Nelson for Inside Higher Ed indicates seminaries are facing tough times. Enrollment is down, financial support from denominations is eroding, and the demand for seminary trained pastors is weakening.

Many colleges have been hit hard by the recession, but the article indicates seminaries are facing a perfect storm. As denominations see loyalty and support decline, they are offering fewer financial subsidies to seminaries. Therefore the costs are passed along to students. That means the cost for a pastor to get a seminary education is going up just as church budgets and pastor's salaries are going down. And the challenges didn't begin with the recession. Nelson reports:

Long-term challenges existed for theological schools before the economic downturn. The damage to seminary endowments in 2008 threw those problems into sharp relief, and there has been little overall improvement as the economy improved, said Stephen R. Graham, senior director of programs and services at the Association of Theological Schools.... The economic struggles of seminaries cut across the major divisions in American Christianity, affecting evangelical, mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic seminaries alike, Graham said.
Among the biggest factors causing the crisis: declining interest in attending seminaries. Seminary enrollment has been falling since 2005, and since many seminaries are small – the median head count for a member of the Association of Theological Schools is 155 students – the margin for error is small as well.
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April 01, 2013

Displaying 1–10 of 13 comments

JB

August 16, 2013  11:42am

It seems that the church is the only place where we are willing to accept leaders who are not formally educated. If I go to a doctor, I don't want one that learned medicine online on his own from a book. The important aspects of seminary are what seem to be losing respect and thus we have sermons that are dumb-downed on purpose or due to ignorance. Languages such as Greek, Hebrew can give great insight to the passage. Knowing how to do proper hermeneutics (without the emphasis on "her") is important in rightly dividing the Word. I think the attitude that education does not matter if you are "just" a pastor, is a serious problem, and may be indicative of an unhealthy future for the Church as a whole. It grieves me to think that the call to feed the sheep has become so unimportant in comparison to drawing in converts or selling Christianity. There are many hungry sheep waiting for a pastor who took the time to get educated, and as sheep we are at fault for not demanding it. We are willing to take junk food because it tastes good. We are not willing to pay for an educated pastor, so we are willing to feed on less not giving a thought to our spiritual health. We don't care about the days of teaching that corrected, filled, informed and expanded our understanding of the Word. It's our fault.

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Stephen Canfield

August 12, 2013  11:36pm

I think that seminary is a waste of money. Work as an Associate Pastor for a few years under a Senior Pastor you respect and who is knowledgeable. Learn on your own as well. I have been in the ministry for almost 10 years now and I am halfway through my MA in Theological Studies...if the church wasn't paying for it I wouldn't waste my money or time. Most of what I am learning is theoretical, impractical, and does not address the issues that are important to the spiritual maturity of GenX'rs or GenY'rs. Seminaries need a complete overhaul, but the people who could do it are too busy making a difference in the local church to disconnect and teach. I know that is the case for me! After three successful church plants I might be ready though...and attending Seminary is angering me to the point that I might just have to step in!

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Tom Connors

April 10, 2013  2:44am

There is a difference between secular education which relies on human understanding and Spirit-trained education which emphasizes the necessity for the Holy Spirit to gives us insight (1 Cor 2-3). AW Tozer and DL Moody had very limited theological training yet were highly effective in reaching their generation with the message of Christ. I really do believe that some seminaries and the curriculum that they have developed in preparing men and women for ministry, is unprofitable and even harmful. "The letter of the law (i.e., the inspired Scriptures) can bring death" when void of the Spirit and grace of Christ. This has been my experience in attending seminary and getting my graduate degree at an evangelical seminary, but ironically, attending a Bible College, I was deeply edified and better equipped for the ministry.

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pastor v

April 07, 2013  7:49pm

I agree with nate s.' conclusion: I think the idea is good, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. I have mixed feelings about my own seminary experience. On the one hand, I met some wonderful friends that I still keep in contact with and with whom I partner in ministry on occasion; I sat under some teachers who really stretched my thinking; and I was introduced to books and authors who continue to teach me still, almost nine years after leaving seminary. My biggest disappointment with seminary, however, is that the seminary environment–from my experience–is so far removed from the actual context of ministry that I serve in as pastor. There is very little point of contact between the two settings. I don't regret having gone to seminary, although I don't think I would've regretted NOT going to seminary, either! But I do think that if seminaries want to continue to be relevant, they need to figure a way to keep students from being isolated the majority of their time in classrooms and libraries, and give them far more exposure in an actual church setting.

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Jeff Martin

April 05, 2013  1:45pm

Seminary is necessary but it should be 72 credits max and focus in on the current issues of the day that people in the pews deal with, not the speculative musings of ivory tower theologians. It also should focus on those hard to interpret Scriptures and on the culture of the Ancient Near East. Books like Dr. Ehrman's "Jesus, Interrupted" should be part of the curriculum in conservative seminaries to gain perspective. most importantly it should be run out of a big church campus and taught by professors who are both a professor and pastor and the tuition should be low, since the teaching would be their side job.

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Mike Gaul

April 05, 2013  12:58pm

I think a good foundation in the Word is vital. Without a foundation it seems some gravitate to whatever comes to mind as 'from the Spirit of God.' We are getting a mixture of watered down garbage being taught in the churches these days, especially in the Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches (I am Pentecostal). Many Christians these days are without roots/foundation in the Word but think that are because they know no better. From my perspective there is a famine for the Word these days. Give us teachers as leaders, and not leaders with no scriptural depth. I am so thankful for my schooling as it prepared me for ministry in many ways. Take counseling - to take the untaught and put them in a position of counseling others often is dangerous and ends up becoming a mockery of ministry. On the other side of the coin are those well taught who are so into the intellect that they are full of dead-man's bones; or they have hobbyhorse doctrines they constantly harp on. Balance is needed, but first as leaders we need a solid foundation in the Word. I've heard from some older saints that say they want older pastors because of their ability to teach the Word. Without a foundation in the Word leaders seem to want to become Politically Correct in their teachings and not offend anyone; or compromise the worship or teaching to tickle the ears. When it comes to knowing Greek and Hebrew - these days those without a depth in those languages can be greatly helped with software packages like BibleWorks.

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elegance

April 01, 2013  5:43pm

Why should folks today bother going to church? "If we would destroy the Christian religion, we must first of all destroy man's belief in the Bible." Voltaire (French philosopher and former atheist 1694-1778) "More and more organizations and individuals historically committed to an infallible scripture have been embracing and propagating the view that the Bible has errors in it. This movement away from the historic standpoint has been most noticeable among those often labeled neo-evangelicals. This change of position with respect to the infallibility of the Bible is widespread and has occurred in evangelical denominations, Christian colleges, theological seminaries, publishing houses, and learned societies" (Harold Lindsell, former vice-president and professor Fuller Theological Seminary and Editor Emeritus of Christianity Today, The Battle for the Bible, 1976, p. 20)

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David Brush

April 01, 2013  2:27pm

This isn't just a seminary issue, it is a generational trend. You also see it in the tech industry where having a computer science or engineering degree isn't seen as necessary when anyone can contribute to the discipline out of their own self-guided interest and determination. It can also be argue that a seminary degree doesn't gaurantee a level of spiritual maturity or pastoral ability, only a statement of academic achievement. I have just finished a master's degree from Fuller and it was an extremely rewarding experience, but I did it out of a heart of passion for the work as well as following God's prompting. One of the specific reasons I chose Fuller was its ecumenical focus, something that usually doesn't happen to us when we self-study as we usually seek to fortify that which we already agree.

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Beau

April 01, 2013  2:16pm

I'm going to land in the middle on this one. I personally did not attend a seminary and am in my 4th year of full time ministry. Would I have gone if given the opportunity...Absolutely!!! But, unfortunately I am up to my eyeballs in student loan debt as it is and have 2 kids under 3 years old. While I understand the importance of a seminary education, I have also seen pastors that are highly educated and yet AWFUL pastors and preachers. I immediately think about the difference the disciples made without much educational background. While advanced education is important...the power of the Holy Spirit is what really changes lives! Again, tough to take a stance either way, I just look forward to future discussion about this! Blessings

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Brandon Smith

April 01, 2013  1:10pm

Very interesting. I think we tend to create a false dichotomy. Since there are strengths and weaknesses to both, Bible college/seminary and hands-on church ministry complement each other well. The easy way out is to say, "Well the apostles didn't have seminary so I don't need it!" Well, they had a 3-year M.Div. program with God in the flesh. I wouldn't presume for a moment that Jesus wasn't giving them hermeneutical and theological tools akin to what we learn in theological education today. I think a man can be a very good pastor without formal theological education. One can easily preach and teach the gospel well with Scripture alone, and you cannot fully "learn" in seminary how to minister and counsel grieving families unless you've sat across from them. But lack of training can lead to misrepresentations, doubt in the pulpit, proof-text preaching, shallow thinking, and even heresy. Likewise, the equipping and fellowship in the Bible college/seminary classroom is absolutely invaluable. If nothing else, the constant sharpening by professors and fellow students is worth the price of tuition by itself. Being forced to read and interact Scripture in an historical context creates habits and processes that benefit the congregation as much or more than the pastor. But, of course, seminary can also make you a pompous elitist that doesn't have a clue how to love people. I once heard a man preach a funeral and say, "I'm just a country preacher and never went to seminary, but..." and butchered the text beyond just theological preferences. He clearly didn't have the tools to exegete context properly, and probably would do well to have and to hear others in the classroom chewing on these things. While his message was moving and encouraging, it was not particularly helpful in the broad scheme of things. It needed a strong foundation. With the two together, he might have delivered a powerful message of pastoral care built on being solidly engaged in Scripture. I've also heard chapel sermons at seminary that were interesting, but didn't help practically at all. If I were a hurting person in the audience, it wouldn't sent me away encouraged in Christ.

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