Transitions are hard.

Since the turbulent 1960s college and university education has undergone substantial change, and so have the students. Journals and news magazines have chronicled this progress. But what of seminary education? Have the programs changed? Have the students? Are they, as with university undergraduates, concerned more with vocational training and less with scholarship and academic pursuits? Is the ministry “the epicenter of the work that God does in the world,” as pastor and part-time Gordon-Conwell seminary teacher Gordon MacDonald believes? To answer such questions CHRISTIANITY TODAY interviewed more than a dozen seminary presidents, several pastors involved in seminary education, and some professors.

Students Change

A decade or more ago, the purpose of students was to rebel—or so it seemed to professors and administrators. They asserted their idealistic beliefs impatiently and became restive at any sign of authority. Today students seem more intellectually pliable, more willing to be taught. And Christian students show a greater loyalty to the church as the tool of God. Many of them have moved from social activism to personal piety and evangelistic fervor. Students now consider the pastoral ministry a career rather than a cause. They enter seminary with a sense of call and a stronger sense of purpose and direction. Seminary students want to work for and through the church rather than MacDonald to change it.

Many first-year seminary students have changed careers to enter seminary and are older than students ten years ago. They bring maturity, vocational experience, and an earnest attitude toward the classical disciplines that their counterparts a decade ago, who came directly from college, saw as less important. Students no longer need to have rigid doctrinal stands reinforced by the institution.

But these students also have a different set of problems, which demand that more spiritual growth take place during seminary. An increasing number of seminarians are relatively new Christians. They became Christians through InterVarsity, Campus Crusade, or some other para-church organization while studying at a secular college or graduate school. They don’t have the spiritual maturity or knowledge of the Bible that normally comes from a Christian upbringing. They view the church almost exclusively through the eyes of their seminary professors, and they often retain pre-conversion misconceptions. These students lack a basic grounding in Christian living and often struggle with habits formed as non-Christians. Dr. James McCord, president of Princeton seminary, says that “You just can’t accept the old adage that everybody who came to Princeton came straight from the knee of a Scottish mother and knew the Scriptures … and the shorter catechism. More time and more emphasis must be given to biblical studies.” At Gordon-Conwell entering students take a test of their basic knowledge of the Bible. Those students without basic biblical knowledge are enrolled in a Bible survey course.

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Many seminaries report a record number of applicants, and the schools now can be more selective in accepting students. Seminaries that train women are admitting them in increasing numbers. At some schools the proportion of women to men has doubled or tripled in the last ten years.

Many new students expect seminary to be a three year Christian camp—a constant spiritual high. They expect more of a discipling, nurturing community than they find. Dr. Harold Ockenga of Gordon-Conwell says that “some students keep thinking that seminary is going to be a pietistic haven much like a church. They don’t realize that it’s a place with great intellectual tensions.” According to Ockenga, many students become cynical when faced with the ambiguities of theological controversy. Dr. Joseph Shultz, vice-president of Ashland seminary, says students are “prone to believe that they don’t need all that Greek and Hebrew. They believe that they car just get up and preach.” Dr. Vernon Grounds, who heads Conservative Baptist seminary, says that students are not prepared to face all the “sanctified drudgery” of seminary education.

Reformed seminary president Samuel Patterson points to another disappointment among seminarians. They come expecting a more well-rounded preparation for the pastoral ministry than they get—and perhaps more than seminaries can give. They expect more practical training. Sometime during their second or third year they see that the seminary is offering too theoretical an approach to the ministry. And they fear the future. Dr. Russell Dilday, currently a pastor and president-elect of the world’s largest seminary, Southwestern, says: “Seminaries need to provide not only classical training but also practical instruction in such subjects as time planning, zero base budgeting, management by objectives, and counseling. I think that seminary students need to go into a hospital surgery suite, sit in on a divorce court proceeding, and go to a drug rehabilitation center. They need to know the problems they’ll be dealing with. And students need more experience in evangelism and witnessing.”

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Seminaries Change

Many seminaries have recently adjusted their curricula and extra-curricula programs. More emphasis is being placed on the advisor-advisee relationship between faculty and students. There is a heightened concern to foster the students’ “spiritual formation,” a contagious term in seminary circles. Programs have begun or are being developed to acquaint students with the basic way that a church functions. Bethel seminary president Carl Lundquist described a program called Introductions to Ministry in which incoming students spend several weeks of orientation studying the church, the world, and the school’s curriculum. Seminaries no longer take for granted the spiritual development of their students. Schools are formally encouraging chapel, worship, and prayer services. Bethel and other seminaries offer more courses than before on the spiritual, prayer, and devotional life. The student is encouraged to ask, “What kind of pastor and spiritual model do I want to be?”

Dr. David Hubbard describes an approach used at Fuller seminary, a course called Foundations for Ministry, where a specialist in either counseling, healing, scholarship, administration, or some other applied area is brought in for lectures each week. Students are encouraged to monitor their spiritual well-being as they go through each week of the course. They share their insights and responses to each aspect of the pastorate with fellow students and with a faculty member to whom they have committed themselves for the year.

Supervised field work has become an integral part of seminary education. Many schools have begun training seminars for field work supervisors, usually pastors or church staff, who work with the seminarians in local churches. Princeton seminary refers to “teaching churches,” whose pastors come to campus once a month to meet with students and their supervising professors. Other seminaries ask field supervisors to provide written reports and evaluations of the students’ performances. These evaluations can be helpful information for churches where students may be candidates after graduation. There are also some opportunities for students to serve as adjunct members of local church staff.

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Dallas seminary requires students to intern in a church for a summer full-time, or part-time for an entire year. During that time they are expected to get involved in every facet of the church’s ministry. President John Walvoord believes that it is the internship program that accounts for the higher percentage of Dallas graduates going into the pastorate than in many seminaries. Walvoord says that through internships “students really see how a church can operate in a creative way.” More than 200 churches cooperate with Dallas in the internship program.

Few seminaries require internships, though most of them considered it a desirable part of a seminary program. Practical considerations limit its use. Students who must have part-time jobs to earn their tuition would be unable to also hold part-time church jobs. And some schools have had difficulty finding enough willing and healthy churches to allow for the placement of all their students.

At times the need for practical training conflicts with the traditional idea of seminary education as basically intellectual training. Dr. Duke McCall, president of Southern Baptist seminary, says that “the seminary tends to think theologically and deals with abstract problems, whereas the church focuses on more immediate, practical issues.” Vernon Grounds thinks that evangelical seminaries are aware of their past failings in this area. There is tension among seminary faculty between the cognitive and practical disciplines. “No man,” says Grounds, “was booted out of a church because he didn’t know a Hebrew form, but many a man has lost a church because he couldn’t relate to people.” Seminary administrators and faculty recognize the need to equip seminary students with practical skills for the effective communication and implementation of their intellectual knowledge. Some seminaries give graduates “readiness for ministry” tests, which evaluate the effectiveness of their teaching and discover what areas to improve.

However, some seminary presidents are concerned that the classical seminary disciplines not be forsaken or that their importance be diminished in the pursuit of more practical training. “I have a feeling,” says Dr. Frank Stanger of Asbury, “that the church is asking for an almost disproportionate emphasis on practical theology, even at the expense of the classical disciplines.” Ockenga thinks that if a person is well trained in biblical, systematic, and pastoral theology he will be able to meet most of the practical needs of any ministry. He thinks that too much specialization in such areas as church administration or liturgy fragments the seminary program to the extent that classical theological education gets left out altogether. “Students have a limited time here,” says Ockenga, “just three years, and we can’t give them everything.” Churches expect seminary graduates to demonstrate leadership. They are particularly concerned with the education of youth and Christian education directors and team ministers. “And that,” says William Barker of Covenant seminary, “is a lot to expect from a man who’s probably twenty-five years old and hasn’t had much experience.” Seminaries can only equip students with some skills, shape some of their attitudes, and provide some theological and historical background. This is an introduction. The refinement must come later—by fire. It takes a lifetime.

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Seminaries are beginning to show regard for the healthy family life of the married seminarians. Family counseling during the difficult years of schooling is now a priority with many seminaries. Hubbard drew a parallel between the emotional stress of pastoral training and that of medical school. He noted that 75 per cent of the medical students who were married when they enter medical school are separated or divorced by the time they graduate. The rigors of seminary education, the confrontations with self, and the disparity in the level of emotional involvement are sources of marital tension. The non-student partner in a seminary marriage, usually the wife, is asked to share all of the sacrifices but gets few of the benefits of the training. Some schools provide courses for wives and encourage their participation in women’s fellowship groups for wives and women students.

Seminaries are focusing on the minister as a whole person. Professors and administrators want to meet the emotional and mental needs of students. For students to learn to be ministers, their needs must be ministered to. Student counseling services are in great demand today.

Here, too, the advisor-advisee relationship is important. At Gordon-Conwell each incoming student is assigned to a faculty member who helps him choose courses and a lifestyle, helps him recognize his gifts, and helps him with personal and practical problems. The faculty advisor meets with his advisees as a group once a month and one by one periodically.

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Lundquist described how at Bethel they have combined the concepts of field education, interning, and discipling. Each first-year student is assigned to a pastor in the area who makes him a volunteer staff member. There may be four or five students assigned to a single church.

In his second year each student is assigned to a pastor who emphasizes discipling. The pastors work closely with the students’ on-campus teachers. Lay committees in the church observe and evaluate the students’ participation in the church’s programs. Students are also asked to write down their own goals for the year in such different categories as grades, marital relations, devotional life, church activity, and evangelistic endeavors. This is meant to consciously develop in the student a well-rounded approach to his education.

Trinity seminary is exploring ways to design into their curriculum courses and methods that offer what President Kenneth Meyer says is “more related to life teaching.” The curriculum review includes a survey of alumni, pastors, lay people, faculty, and students. He expects the survey results to show that people want seminaries to emphasize practical subjects.

Students need good preaching models, and chapel services can provide that. Hubbard thinks students also need to work with men who are good shepherds. “The pastoral ministry has changed so much,” says Hubbard, “that if you’ve been out of it for five years you’d better not talk about it as dogmatically as you would if you had just come out of it.”

McCall underscores the need for good pastoral models: “It used to be that the student had some model in his local church. That is no longer true. If he goes through seminary with only his intellectual model, if the seminary is only an abstract, intellectual experience for him, he goes out totally unequipped to do something as basic as presiding at communion. The seminary must have more concern for itself as a professional school.”

The concept of “pastors in residence” is a key element in dealing with this problem. Periodically some schools ask qualified pastors to spend a week on campus interacting with students and teachers in classes, at meals, and in chapels to answer the “how to” questions.

Another change in seminary education can be seen in the faculty. Schools are hiring more men and women who teach out of their own experiences. They bring real situations into the classroom, which helps students put academic training into practical terms. MacDonald, who at Gordon-Conwell is an example of this type of teacher, says that “the guy who teaches theology out of a pastoral background will walk into the classroom and explain how a certain doctrine affects the lives of parishioners.” He concludes each of his lectures with a ten- or twelve-minute anecdote that illustrates how the material just presented can affect the students’ future ministry.

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A Seminary’s Responsibilities

Seminaries are assuming greater responsibility for the success of their graduates. More schools are offering continuing education courses for pastors. Princeton’s Center for Continuing Education concentrates on the actual practice of ministry. Dallas holds summer courses for pastors, which are offered in one-week increments as part of its continuing education effort.

Also, seminaries are testing a student’s ministerial abilities. Although technically a seminary degree reflects certain academic achievements, churches see it as endorsing a person’s ministerial qualifications. The seminary should be responsible to evaluate a student’s qualifications to be a pastor. MacDonald insists that “seminaries have an obligation to tell someone after a year or two of academic performance that his gifts are not those of a pastor or teacher.”

Seminary Goes To Church

More than 6,000 people attend Grace Community Church in Panorama, California, and 90 to 100 people in this relatively young congregation are seminary students. Although the majority of these students are enrolled at nearby Talbot seminary, they get most of their seminary training without going to the campus.

Sam Ericsson, the church’s liaison pastor with Talbot, explained that because an increasing number of Grace students were going to Talbot the two institutions last September established an extension campus at the church. “The Talbot campus was forty miles away,” said Ericsson, “and we thought it made more sense to send five or six professors in this direction than to send eighty or ninety students in the other direction.” This program combines classical seminary education—languages, theology, church history, hermeneutics—with the practical training required for the pastorate.

“We want to integrate seminary students into the life of the church,” Ericsson adds. “It’s one thing to get head knowledge at seminary, but we feel that it is critical to get practical pastoral experience.” The Grace program, taught mostly by members of its own staff of twenty pastors, tries to involve students in as many facets of church life as possible. Instead of taking young people out of the church for three or four years of seminary, Grace has moved the seminary campus in-house to give its young people on-the-job training.

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The pastors teach some of the same courses on Talbot’s campus. This way the seminary’s resident students also benefit from the experience of these ministers. The extension courses concentrate on the how-to questions. “The Fathers’ Coaching Clinic,” for example, explains how to help a father understand his responsibility as the spiritual leader in the home. Other such practical courses as evangelism or counseling are taught by pastors on staff rather than by professors, who would tend to be more theoretical. Classes are held on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Extension students are encouraged to go to Talbot for other courses on off days.

One of the staff pastors at Grace serves as the students’ advisor, counsels them, and assists them in church placement. He will discuss their progress; at times he may challenge a student to reconsider his future as pastor-teacher.

Once a month, following the Sunday evening service, the seminarians meet with senior pastor John MacArthur in his home for a question-and-answer session. Students ask him how he prepares a sermon, what his study habits are, what his devotional life is like, how he handles difficult counseling situations. The seminarians have ready access to other pastors on the staff and are invited to attend any of the church staff meetings.

Some students in the Grace-Talbot program are also working in other churches in the San Fernando Valley. This gives a broader scope to their experience and provides personnel resources for the smaller churches.

The Grace staff also wants to strengthen church-seminary ties through a series of seminars, which will be offered free to local pastors and seminarians in such topics as evangelism, missions, church leadership, wills and probates, and counseling. The courses will be taught by Grace pastors who specialize in these areas.

There are still many limitations to the church-related seminary program offered by Grace and Talbot. Responsibility for involvement in the various church ministries still lies with the student. Although students are exposed to opportunities they would not have at a regular campus, they must take the initiative in using these opportunities to enhance their education.

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The size and scope of the church ministry at Grace is atypical. Students must realize that the churches they will probably pastor will require a well-rounded, less specialized approach than they see at Grace. MacArthur concentrates on the problems of the small church with which he began, and explains how the church grew. Still, it’s difficult for students not to develop false expectations of a church ministry in a congregation the size of Grace. They can develop a mental ministerial style that includes two or three secretaries, plenty of study time, and staff members who work in the areas where they are weak.

The large staff at Grace, with all its advantages, has other drawbacks. It sometimes limits the level of student involvement in the church’s ministries. For example, students don’t have opportunities to preach to a congregation. Preaching to other students in a chapel or a classroom is not equivalent to preaching to people for whom they are responsible.

Dr. Irvin Busenitz, Talbot’s professor-in-residence at Grace, though recognizing some limitations to the extension program, thinks it has advantages that even an internship program can’t offer. He describes the campus extension formula as “a continual field education experience.” Students are surrounded daily by all the elements of church life. They can ask informed questions. More and more seminaries, responding to the desire of students for a more vocation-centered education, may adopt the kind of program developed by Talbot and Grace Community Church.


Seminaries are developing ways to deal with the difficulty of making such a judgment. In many cases reports from a student’s faculty advisor and field work supervisors provide the basis for these evaluations. Stanger says that “we have found that our new supervised ministries program is giving us some mighty good insights into our students. We’ve uncovered all sorts of relational problems.” At Ashland a Christian Ministries Profile is kept on each student. It contains an evaluation of his philosophy of preaching, an evaluation of the preaching that he has done, the results of all entrance testing, counseling reports, peer evaluation, and self-studies done in conjunction with group therapy sessions. These sessions are meant to ferret out the strengths and weaknesses of each student. This information helps the student know himself and design his program of study accordingly. At Bethel each entering student is given a battery of tests that appraise his pastoral potential. At the end of his first year he is interviewed by a faculty member who then recommends that the student either leave or continue seminary.

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Pre-screening seminary applicants is more difficult and less significant than in-school evaluations. Recommendations by pastors and others, though still required, have become less valuable, since the enactment of federal disclosure laws gives a student ready access to those recommendations. Most schools rely heavily on personal or telephone interviews, personality testing, and the student’s written testimony of his spiritual pilgrimage and call.

Yet, much of the effectiveness of seminary training depends on the student. McCall says that “the student has to take those things we do and make his own application. And if that is not done he goes out without a total development or total relationship as a minister.” A seminary can only do so much at integrating practical field work and academic studies.

Hubbard thinks that effective seminary education does not begin with students, faculty, or courses as such, but with the whole educational support network. “If we don’t have a total institutional concern with persons then we’ll negate a lot of what we’re trying to affirm in class and chapel. A bad ten minutes with a secretary can undo a whole exegesis project on the meaning of First Corinthians 13. We want congruence between how we deal with people as persons and what we say about Christian theology.”

A seminary can also help a student by defining what the pastorate is. It is difficult to think of professions similar to it. Perhaps it combines the skills of a teacher, a counselor, and a doctor. In no other profession is a person accountable to a congregation. Jesus used the analogy of a physician with regard to his own ministry. Stanger said that the general practitioners he knew had a sense of calling somewhat analogous to those called to the pastorate. Doctors give themselves to people. Their training is centered on the healing and protection of the whole person. MacDonald elaborated the analogy: “The pastor is a general practitioner. And in this specialized world there’s nothing glamorous about being a G.P.” He suggested that seminaries use medical training as a model for seminary education. “The mental pressures and physical demands of medical school,” says MacDonald, “are meant to break a man down to his most basic elements and expose the kind of person he is.” Medical students have to make life and death decisions under extreme pressure and fatigue, not unlike the demands of the pastorate, he says. Other elements of the analogy might include the application of theory under supervision during internship, diagnosing disease by going beyond the symptoms, and taking responsibility for people’s health through preventative measures and, when that fails, administering life-giving therapy.

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The Church and the Seminary

The seminary exists to serve the church and is to provide leadership in understanding Scripture, in being a loyal critic, and in being a source of the highest level of biblical scholarship—the intellectual center of the church. Meyer cautioned against overemphasizing the training for para-church or institutional ministries. “The main purpose of seminary,” says Meyer, “is to train shepherds for the flock, to prepare persons to minister in and through the church.” The church and the seminary are inextricably intertwined. Without the church there is no need for seminary training, which must teach the nature, mission, traditions, and faith of the church. And it needs to make its students aware of contemporary problems. “As goes the seminary, so goes the church,” was Ockenga’s comment. He is encouraged by the burgeoning enrollments in evangelical seminaries.

Churches can help seminaries in several ways. Financial support, to students and to the institution, is an obvious way. If the students’ time and energies weren’t distracted by financial needs, they could spend more time studying.

Although seminaries have become more sensitive to the personal and emotional needs of students, churches need to help here, too. Churches need to assume more of a total care attitude toward their seminary students. A personal phone call, letter, or visit from home, rather than the stale weekly bulletin, would help to ameliorate feelings of isolation and abandonment. This is especially important if the church was instrumental in guiding the student to seminary.

Unfortunately, the better qualified young people are often steered toward the more prestigious professions of law or medicine. The health and prosperity of the church and its mission demands the best talent the church can provide. And, as Hubbard put it, one of the ways a church can attract talented young people to the Christian ministry is to “be a good church. There’s nothing that will recruit people for ministry and give a better blood and bones preparation than to be raised or won to Christ in the church.” By the time young people who were raised in Christian homes get to seminary they are already spiritually formed. Seminaries can only refine and direct the application of the gifts discovered and cultivated by the congregations. A good church would in Lundquist’s words evoke “feelings in its young people that—boy—to share Christ in a church like this is the most significant vocation there could be.”

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Churches need to be more receptive to the idea of internships and be eager to make the necessary staff space available. A student intern can be a valuable resource for a small church. Churches could improve the caliber of men entering the pastorate by taking letters of recommendation more seriously. Churches could also stiffen the requirements for ordination. And they should maintain closer contact with what seminaries are doing.

Students, seminary faculty, and churches need to keep in mind that pastoral training is not completed in three, four, or even ten years. It is done in partnership with the church over a person’s lifetime. It begins with a young person’s nurturing in the church and in the home. Then he goes to seminary to learn theology, epistemology, exegesis, church history, and hermeneutics. Through field education and internships he begins to apply what he has learned. Then after graduation he begins his life as a pastor. It is a complex of many beginnings.

John 1:14: A Commentary

Sweet to the nose, but rough to the hands, the pine

Boards must be sawed just so, and stacked in line,

(Not resting, lest they warp, upon the ground)

Until their turn has come to be nailed down

With all their fellows, framing floor or wall.

Here will be the kitchen, there the hall,

And there a bedroom with its bath, and there

A porch on which to breathe the summer air,

All laced with starlight when the night is warm,

And wonder if the distant thunder-storm

Or one of its wild kin will come and pay.

A boisterous visit, ’ere the break of day.

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But that is weeks off, yet. For now, the wide—

spaced workmen must be all kept well supplied

With lumber, hauled up from the pre-sawed stack

By means of someone’s hands, and someone’s back.

When palms grow tender, fingers stiff, back sore,

The job has just begun. You carry more.

And so the summer passed. I often stopped

At close of day, when the last load was dropped,

And thought, “In this, I’m not alone: my Lord’s

Hands also were worn raw by rough pine boards.”


D. Bruce Lockerbie is chairman of the Fine Arts department at The Stony Brook School, Stony Brook, New York. This article is taken from his 1976 lectures on Christian Life and Thought, delivered at Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado.

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