Yes Church, We Still Need Seminaries
But not the way we think we do.

Here on PARSE a couple months ago, Skye asked "Do We Still Need Seminaries?" He described how on one hand enrollment in seminaries is dropping and on the other many of his peers are not formally trained in the classic (and helpful/necessary) preacher's tool kit of Greek, Hebrew, Exegesis, Preaching, etc. But the decline of traditional pastoral education presents us with an opportunity to re-examine why we go to seminary in the first place.

I did a graduate program in theology myself. I've benefited from it as a lay leader and engaged Christian. But I'm also troubled by the feeling that, if the truth we told, we go to seminary to become professional Christians.

A normal scenario includes a young person realizing (at about 14 or 15) that serving God is best done in formal ministry. They are zealous and become a leader in youth group, organize bible studies, play in the worship band, etc. When high school ends, our budding servant of God goes to a Bible or Christian Liberal Arts school. They attend seminary after that, then begin casting about for professional ministry jobs, likely working with a youth group. (Youth ministry is usually code for "Entry Level Pastor".)

I know personally that this model is both common and terrible. I was that kid.

I was (to paraphrase Paul's famous Phil. 3 pedigree) a future leader of future leaders.

"Raised without television, home schooled, in church attendance perfect, in ministry participation a pastor's kid, in education a BA in Church History and a Master's in Theology."

If I had ended up where I thought I'd be, I'd be wrapping up a Master's of Divinity at the University of Chicago this year. But the Lord chose me for a path of sales and lay leadership.

Even though I was on the track to be a professional Christian, I am troubled by our idea that this path of education should be the norm. It subtly reinforces the hierarchy in the church, the idea that "real" ministry happens up front, from the in-pulpit experts. "Real ministry" is what you go to school for: preaching, pastoring, counseling. Maybe if God has an extra special call on your life you'll be a senior pastor or a missionary. With this mindset, we struggle to articulate how the daily tasks of parenting, hospitality, and faithfulness to employer and family are not less important than preaching, teaching, and leading a congregation. Our ability to understand our vocations as ministry suffers.

June 20, 2013

Displaying 1–10 of 10 comments

Kate Lewis

July 02, 2013  2:44pm

The author described the InMinistry program at Bethel that I graduated from four years ago really well. We all had our lives, our families, our professions either in or out of the church setting. Many of us were older than the traditional seminary student who enters right after undergrad – my group was diverse in age, experience, training and geographical location. Seminary matters quite a lot, but not necessarily as a feeder-program into some type of "professional Christian" context. The only major drawback I've seen of a seminary education for someone not in a pulpit ministry is hearing really bad sermons with really shallow or non-existent theology. My hermeneutics professor was right – he ruined us for ever listening to a sermon the same again. However, I get a pretty good idea of how seriously the person preaching has taken his or her calling – I may not agree with some of their conclusions but I can very much tell when someone has done their due diligence in their study of scripture and how to teach it effectively. In fact, I would say that the only pastors I've encountered in my 47+ years that have made much of an impact in my life are the ones who weren't groomed for such positions from the cradle. They were normal people doing normal things and then God asked them to consider a different role. I am troubled by some of the arrogance I have seen among the "professional Christians" I have known. The school of hard knocks teaches humility well – it should be a prerequisite to any kind of professional parish ministry in my opinion.

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June 22, 2013  4:22pm

Jerry- There are plenty of folks who disagree with me in my church, and they aren't afraid to share it (that I am aware of). As far as I am aware, my style of leadership leaves open space for disagreement, and for acknowledging the work of our board of elders to lead our congregation. I actually don't always fully agree with the decisions made, and I am okay with that. It's not my way or the highway, I hope. I come from a confessional tradition, and so the "lines" are drawn by ancient creeds and significantly-less-ancient confessions, but even then there is great room for theological disagreement and ministry strategy disagreement. I am coming to appreciate my role less as the "real elder in the midst of temporary elders" and more as a spiritual director to help others find their Spirit-given voice. I know that I by no means have all the answers, nor do I seek to take away the tension of being a "professional Christian," but I for sure don't want to fall into the trap of clericalism at it has been historically understood. Thank you for your thoughtful response.

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June 21, 2013  7:20pm

Sorry Reader - I actually agree with most of the idea of what you have written. I'm not sure how you can support clericalism and the priesthood of all believers simultaneously. If everyone has an equal voice - then doesn't that slap the elitism of the cleric in the face? Everyone has a voice until they disagree with the pastor? I think what I was trying to say is that seminary is no substitute for the School of Hard Knocks. I think ELDER is OLD by definition - not sure how it came to mean the most educated.

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June 21, 2013  3:03pm

Jerry, As a young pastor (under 30)... seriously? I will admit that I have a lot to learn, and hopefully and growing in my capacity to learn what needs to happen, but you have severely missed the mark in claiming that the young are incapable of having sufficient wisdom from God to participate in church leadership. Jeremiah and Timothy would certainly disagree with your assessment. To a bigger issue, whoever said that we need to depend on professional paid clergy to provide God's wisdom? I often see my role as holding up a process where God's people can discern God's voice to move forward, a process that includes all sorts of folks. I think if Tim, a frequent commenter on this site, enters this conversation, he will probably go farther than I have and say that a system that increasingly relies on one paid person (or a paid team) is going to miss out on the wisdom of God (an idea of which I share a ton of agreement). I regret that the reaction against clericalism is that college students/recent grads should have no voice. When can we stop this roller coaster and get to the place where all God's people have a voice? I think the prophet Joel, who looked forward to a day when young and old would speak God's wisdom, would agree.

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June 21, 2013  11:01am

The Greeks know Greek very well - it hasn't seemed to have helped them much! No one in the Bible is arguing what advantage it is to be Greek. Spiritual words are discerned spiritually - not intellectually. The old guy that's been a Christian for 50 years has way more wisdom to offer than the kid coming out of seminary. But ... look who becomes the chief elder.... The KID. By definition the fresh seminary graduate is not an elder (old), but somehow we expect him/her to be filled with the wisdom of God??? We've pretty much traded the wisdom of God (old age) for the knowledge of this world (college grads) and it hasn't worked out well for us. We need to get back to honoring our old people and giving them a place to help us thru this mess.

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June 21, 2013  9:44am

I could see how preparing a person for a title that no one pocesses in scripture ("The Pastor") would be a daunting task. I mean, how do you establish the criteria to know if you succeeded in your training? How much more irrelevant can you get? Isn't that always the argument about formal education - how relevant is it in the real world? I'm not against education - why not do a school of prophets? Now that's scriptural. Or, how about a 'The School of Tyrannus' - a hands on training for apostles?

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Bonnie Garcia

June 20, 2013  11:09pm

I am a seminary graduate. The problem I saw was that most people seemed to think a seminary degree made them a minister and, in my opinion, people are "ministers" only with God's calling, anointing, and gifts. I happen to be "ministering" in a public school-quite the mission field. I believe ministry is like teaching, a degree in education does not make someone a teacher, either.

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June 20, 2013  7:50pm

The biggest issues seminaries face is the in-progress bursting of the higher education bubble, which is affecting many (perhaps all) forms of higher education right now. The spread of student loans enabled colleges of all types to greatly increase tuition over time: tuition has increased at a rate many times the rate of inflation over the past 30 years. This pattern held true for seminaries as well, nearly all of which have taken a very academic/university-style approach to their function. And this was fine for quite a while, because college is generally a fantastic investment: graduates make far more money, which lets them pay even high loans back over time. But in many fields, including theology, times are changing. Tuition costs are higher than ever, but the demand just isn't there to let all these graduates pay their loans back. Better and more pervasive IT technology is decreasing the number of white collar jobs much like factory automation decreased the number of blue collar jobs a generation ago. And the very accessibility to education that widespread student loans offers has had the side effect of greatly increasing the competition in most fields. In short, in virtually all non-engineering/science fields, there are far more qualified applicants fighting for far fewer jobs. For seminaries, the above problem is compounded by the fact that the American mainline is disappearing, decreasing the number of available pastorates for seminary grads. The only health Protestant branch is evangelicalism. Unfortunately, IMO, evangelical seminaries will always struggle with the contrast between the deep study of theology and the more emotional nature of evangelicalism. To paraphrase Yeats, many of the best students will lack all conviction, while many of the worst students will be full of passionate intensity. And so I don't think there will ever come a time when evangelical seminaries will ever be able to replace the Mainline seminaries of yesteryear. So, seminaries are caught in a dilemma: squeezed by changing times in higher education on one hand, and by a dying Mainline and non-academic evangelicalism on the other. What are possible solutions? Well, one thing that would help Mainline seminaries is a revitalization of Mainline churches—but that is a bigger problem. For both Mainline and evangelical seminaries, the time may have come to rethink what seminary should be. Rather than a traditional graduate program that one takes after college after weighing other career options, it might make more sense to take seminary in a more a la carte direction. Take advantage of online education to make seminary courses available to all lay church members, rather than just young college grads. Work together to create accreditation standards so that a layperson can take an online class here, a low-residency class there, and a weekly night class after those—and still have all of it count toward something bigger. Let people slowly work their way into full-time ministry while still holding down other employment (or staying at home as a full-time parent!). Mid-career changes are far more common than they used to be. And also be ready for people who might retire and then take up ministry thereafter—again, people are retiring earlier and living longer, so second (or third, or fourth) careers within ministry should be made possible. This kind of variety could not only increase seminary attendance, it might also increase church vitality by putting more people in ministry who have wider life experience than the typical grad student. Changing times might be hurting seminaries now, but if seminaries change with the times, they might be able to come back with a more vital role than ever.

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June 20, 2013  10:04am

You bring up an interesting idea about nroadening the cirriculum. We also need to consider changes for pastoral training that better reflect ministry realities

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nate s.

June 20, 2013  8:54am

part of the 'problem' with seminary is that it comes too late. where are the 3rd grade programs? 10th grade advanced studies? who says we can't "Master" theology without a Masters program? what if we kept teaching, but stopped trying to make the taught into 'professionals'? maybe seminary shouldn't be post-graduate only.

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