Gordon-Conwell is selling its main campus—where I live and go to school—after their enrollment has steadily declined by over 50 percent in the last 10 years.
As over a third of Americans continue to identify as evangelical, the decline of their seminaries is somewhat of a riddle. One explanation is the way some evangelicals think of seminary: as an obstacle—and increasingly, an unnecessary one.
I was invited to sit in on a local church plant’s Monday morning meeting in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of undergrad. The morale was strong, as they had just hit an all-time high with their Sunday morning attendance. Looking through visitor cards, they remarked in astonishment that, just one year in, this had been their “most successful Sunday yet.”
As a young, aspiring pastor, I was curious about how churches track and measure progress. So, I asked, “How do y’all know this is a good thing?” The pastor thought for a minute and then responded, “Well, healthy things grow. That’s our philosophy.”
If this guy’s right—that getting bigger is undoubtedly and invariably a sign of spiritual growth—then we may as well assume that Gordon-Conwell is headed for the grave.
But if we seriously believe that the spiritual value of a thing cannot be determined in an Excel spreadsheet, then we need a new framework for thinking about what it means to grow and thrive. Rather, we need an old framework—the cross—where death becomes the site of life and defeat is the site of triumph.
Gordon-Conwell may be shrinking, both in enrollment and budget, but it’s still a place where living things grow, where souls become attentive and come to life. In other words, we need seminaries to continue doing their jobs well—by reminding us of mysteries calculators can’t make sense of.
Seminary has long been understood as a means to becoming a pastor. I’m now an MDiv—and the expectation is that once you get the MDiv, you get the job. Well, as it turns out, evangelical churches care a lot less about step one these days, so aspiring pastors are being told that seminary is unnecessary, even a very bad idea.
I have received this counsel myself, and the argument usually goes like this: “Why seminary? It’s financially irresponsible, you risk burnout, it’s a lot of work …” Yes, these are all good points. But if they are dealbreakers for you, I must ask, Why are you pursuing vocational ministry?
If you’re hoping to spend a lifetime working in ministry, committing to a full-time three-year seminary program is not an unreasonable expectation. Think of doctors and lawyers—you would not let an autodidact saw off your leg. Likewise, seminary is a means of formalizing and communicating your commitment to your craft. But more than that, it establishes the trajectory of dedication and patience of your calling as a pastor.
And yet some in the evangelical world seem to have significantly reduced their standards when it comes to expecting formal training of pastors. Stanley Hauerwas calls attention to this problem:
Quite simply, no one believes in our day that an inadequately trained priest might damage their salvation; but people do believe an inadequately trained doctor can hurt them. Thus people are much more concerned about who their doctor may be than who is their priest. That such is the case, of course, indicates that no matter how seriously we may think of ourselves as Christians we may well be living lives that betray our conviction that God matters.
Now, it is not impossible to acquire the rudimentary knowledge and skills for the pastorate outside a seminary—that’s clearly been done. But the convenience afforded by the information age does not render formal theological education useless. Even the best Bible reference tools available on the market cannot provide the same kind of holistic training as a seminary degree. Not only that, but self-directed study does not carry the same sacrifices of time and money.
While the increased interest in more informal theological training is beautiful and needed in the church, it cannot replace what accredited seminaries provide: a reliable and universal method of confirming a certain degree of competence and, perhaps more importantly, dedication.
There are no shortcuts, even for those who do not attend seminary. Preparing for the pastorate requires a lot of studying and soul work. And for those who possess the means, seminary is an ideal place to do just that. As Zena Hitz argues, “the retreat that intellectual work requires” needn’t be a form of escapism, as it provides the opportunity to create “salutary distance, a place to set aside our agendas to consider things as they really are.”
At the end of the day, seminary is a unique opportunity for spiritual growth. It provides the needed space and time for deep attentiveness and formative solitude that normal life does not usually afford—allowing theology students the chance to work out their faith in “fear and trembling” within the context of a supportive environment.
For some, the spiritual trials and faith crises many students wrestle with in seminary might be considered setbacks, somehow getting in the way of the ultimate objective. But one does not avoid becoming jaded by escaping situations or environments that might give rise to cynicism. We live in a fallen world—and the pastor’s job is not to tiptoe around suffering and doubt but to prayerfully wade through it.
That work begins within the pastors themselves when they confront their own baggage. As Dostoevsky’s Shatov in Demons famously says, “If you want to overcome the whole world, overcome yourself.” And so for the pastor—if you want to tend to your flock, tend to your soul. Tend to it in the long hours of study. When tempted by detachment and pride, wrestle with God. Your ministry will always begin here.
Like Paul’s instruction to Timothy, pastors must be prepared to “be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable” (2 Tim. 4:2, NRSV), ready to give of ourselves in every season of life. Bernard of Clairvaux distinguishes between a canal, which “pours out what it receives,” and a reservoir, which “discharges the overflow without loss to itself.” He observed that reservoirs were “far too rare” in the church of his day—and how much more so today?
In her book Waiting for God, Simone Weil—French activist, philosopher, and mystic of the 20th century—argued, “The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention.” She believed that learning to attend in one’s studies, whether it be math or theology, is essentially training for prayer. After all, without the capacity to attend, how can one shut one’s closet door and pray to our God who is in secret?
We come to seminary not to be “conformed to this world” but to be “transformed by the renewing of [our] minds, so that [we] may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2, NRSV). Through this transforming work, pastors will emerge primed—not to satisfy the world and its metrics of success but to lead the church and its people in the ways of Christ.
Seminary is a place of learning to let go of life and “growth” as we know it. It is in this self-effacing task that we are given the opportunity to discover God in all his transformative glory. This season of interlude is not a task to be accomplished but a destination. And that’s why seminary’s not just a means; it’s also an end in itself.
So go ahead, forecast the expiration of Gordon-Conwell and other evangelical seminaries. We’ll still be here—writing our papers, loving our neighbors, and waiting for God.
Noah R. Karger is an MDiv student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and research assistant at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity.