Non-Traditional Seminary Students Are Changing the Church

A new class of seminarians emerges.

Image: Alex Nabaum

Non-Traditional Seminary Students Are Changing the Church

A new class of seminarians emerges.

Misty Hedrick, a real estate and hospi­tality professional turned writer and stay-at-home-mom, wanted more from her study of the Bible.

“I had a good grasp on the who, what, when, where of Scripture,” she told Christianity Today. “I just needed to back that up with the why and how.”

As a Bible study teacher and lay min­istry leader, Hedrick took her kingdom work seriously. “Conveying biblical truths to equip others deserves every effort,” she said. “There’s no higher task than making disciples.”

Hedrick enrolled at Dallas Theolog­ical Seminary. Now, she wedges online classes into her already full schedule, but she does so with joy—she’s finally getting to develop the skills and under­standing she’s wanted for a long time.

Volunteer leaders like Hedrick, the kind who can’t stop asking questions in Bible study until it’s past time to pick up their kids from childcare or who read Augustine on their lunch breaks, might have long assumed that there was nothing more for them in terms of theological formation. Bible studies and sermons, the thought has been, need to be accessible for everyone, so the church isn’t a place for intense theological study or debate. And seminaries were for train­ing “the professionals”—pastors who preached on Sundays and led the church full-time as their occupation.

The New Seminarians

But times are changing. According to the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), one-third of 2017 graduates planned to enter bivocational minis­try, with 57% of black/non-Hispanic and 41% of Hispanic/Latino gradu­ates declaring bivocational intention. Additionally, in a survey of over 5,000 seminary students, ATS found almost 40% of them intended to use their degrees to serve in contexts outside of the local church.

The boundaries delineating who is a minister and who is not have blurred. “Being a church leader, raising children, and being an active community partic­ipant began to raise so many weighty questions, and I was looking for some direction as to how to respond well,” said Fresno Pacific Bible Seminary student Mary Judith. So, in the narrow mar­gins of life between raising six children and volunteering, she enrolled in a pro­gram composed of online classes and an annual in-person week of learning.

The layperson like Judith who is ravenous for the Scriptures and their application to daily life finds herself presented with new choices. Almost half of theological schools now offer degree programs completely online. “We can distinguish between what we call embedded and uprooted students,” said Scott Cormode, Hugh De Pree Pro­fessor of Leadership Development at Fuller Seminary. “The old model of edu­cation uprooted students from their communities and asked them to move to the site of the seminary. The current student remains, instead, embedded in her community. And that allows me as a professor to create assignments that keep the students’ learning grounded in their specific context.”

Greater access to biblical and theo­logical education seems like an obvi­ous win for evangelical Christians who have staked their eternal lives on what the Bible says. But could the rise of the non-traditional seminary student indi­cate something about the state of disci­pleship in our churches?

Experts and Amateurs

If you ask Jen Wilkin, director of classes and curriculum at The Village Church and author of Women of the Word and None Like Him, she’ll tell you that it speaks to a static division in the church.

As Wilkin describes it, “the average churchgoer believes the person who is on the platform is the expert. And the person in the pew is an amateur. They believe it’s not their role to have mastery or owner­ship over the content. It’s their role to pas­sively receive what the expert gives them.”

For those who have no professional ministry ambition but find themselves burning with the desire to learn more, the path to deeper knowledge isn’t always clear. If finances and time allow, they can enroll in seminary. Church leaders who have grown accustomed to a clear divide between the theologically educated and the laypeople might feel intimidated by this new wave of “amateurs” who are well versed in church history, epistemology, and biblical languages. But this expert/amateur paradigm, Wilkin and others say, isn’t one we should maintain.

Rather, we need to reclaim the local church as a place for theological for­mation and cultivate a collective imag­ination for how seminaries support that mission. We need to shift away from educational divides and Scrip­ture engagement that either renders the Bible a guidebook or an academic text. We need to, in many ways, learn from students like Hedrick who simply couldn’t be satisfied by the basic facts of Scripture and longed for true formation. We need to observe their passion for the Word and ask ourselves if we share it.

Perhaps we should begin by not sim­ply eschewing the lenses of expert/ama­teur and guidebook/textbook but by dusting off an old practice, the one that drove Misty Hedrick to enroll at Dallas Theological Seminary and fuels Wilkin in her ministry: discipleship.

“There’s a disbelief that the Bible does what it said it will do,” said Wilkin. “I’ve been in contexts where the phrase ‘useless Bible knowledge’ was bandied about. One of the biggest things we have to do is give people a good, working defi­nition of discipleship. What does it mean to be a disciple? A disciple is a learner. A disciple is someone who is being formed by what they’re learning.”

Wayne Johnson, associate dean and associate professor of biblical and pas­toral theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, echoes Wilkin’s call for a return to a more rigorous understand­ing of discipleship.

“We’ve lost the educational mandate that is part of Christian discipleship. There are going to be people who are gifted for that and take it and run with it. But I think it’s a call for all of us. And it’s part of our call together—churches and seminaries together—to better figure out how to fan the passion for Christian learning, Christian education, and thus Christian living and thinking.”

Rooted in Community

There are real barriers to this vision com­ing together. The thought of cultivating partnerships between churches and sem­inaries can be scary for seminaries for a pragmatic reason: If people are becoming better equipped by their churches, they may not feel the need to spend the money on seminary tuition. And, for churches, in an era when strategy, efficiency, and growth are highly valued by church lead­ers and congregants alike, the slow, quali­tative work of theological formation may feel like adding yet another uphill climb to the hard work of ministry.

But according to Matthew Hall, pro­vost and senior vice president of aca­demic administration at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, our pres­ent moment can and should be seen as a hopeful time.

For example, he believes the tool of online education can be used to bridge the gap between churches and seminar­ies. With online seminary classes, “what gets lost is that sense of place and com­munity,” said Hall. “So how can the sem­inary, through online delivery, partner with churches on the ground to create a sense of place?”

There are benefits to attending seminary in person that the local church can help provide for online students. When attending online, “it’s hard to have a conversation with the professor after the lecture in the hallway or while you’re walking down to chapel,” he said. “So, we have to work with churches to figure out how we can create structures and models … that at least provide community and rootedness in a place where education is not just content in an online platform.”

JT English, co-executive director of discipleship at The Village Insti­tute alongside Jen Wilkin, said that the church isn’t merely a place where community can happen around theological formation. It’s where, for all people, it should happen. The question is not if the seminary should exist—it should—and it’s not even necessarily a question of gatekeeping. It’s a question of what it could and should look like to democratize theo­logical and biblical education in such a way that people find belonging in and around God’s Word.

While seminaries are more accessible than ever, they still require students to commit a considerable amount of time and money. For those who plan to spend a lifetime in professional ministry, it’s perhaps fair to argue that they should— the same way we might argue that a doc­tor must go to medical school or a lawyer must go to law school. But for those who simply want to hide God’s Word in their hearts and understand who Tertullian is, is seminary a viable option?

Seek and Find

Matt Van Zandt attended Southern Sem­inary to enhance his understanding of the Scriptures and more effectively min­ister in his job and local church. “The working out of what I was learning [in seminary] took place in everyday rela­tionships ... within the church.”

Briana McCarthy, an online stu­dent at Fuller Seminary, applies what she’s learning to her lay ministry. “I believe that my education and experi­ence are equipping me first for service in my local church,” she said. “God has called me there and I must be willing to share what I am learning with my local congregation. I also believe that semi­nary is providing me with ‘book smarts’ while serving in my local church gives me hands-on experience.”

Daniel Attaway, a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and discipleship pastor at Coggin Avenue Baptist Church in Brownwood, Texas, wanted to bring theological education and practical min­istry into the same room. He started Cog­gin U, a two-semester program that costs $80 and includes two hours of worship, teaching, discussion, and spiritual for­mation exercises on Sunday evenings. Similar to The Village Church Institute, students sit at assigned round tables with other students who become their cohort members. They listen to lectures, but they also discuss what they’re learn­ing and, as Wilkin puts it, “learn out loud” in a context that pastors and staff attempt to make as simultaneously safe and robust as possible.

The primary forms of compe­tition inherent to the seminary classroom—vying for internships, jobs, or a professor’s attention that can turn into a recommendation letter—all fall away in a church-based theological edu­cation environment. Sure, there are still problems with heavily invested students talking over those who are soft spoken, but these issues can now be addressed in the context of a church family made of mem­bers who have committed themselves to one another and with the oversight and guidance of pastors and shepherds.

Seminaries have played a defining role in both The Village Church Insti­tute and Coggin U. English and Attaway have seminary degrees, and they draw heavily upon the educations, libraries, and perspectives they acquired during their time in seminary. At times, semi­naries also play a direct role in the pro­grams, like when Attaway asks fellow Dallas Theological Seminary alumni to teach at Coggin U or when The Village Church Institute established a partner­ship with Southern Seminary.

“We are pivoting from a stance that has been oriented toward the invita­tion Come and be a part of us here to one of offering How can we join you there,” said Britt Vaughan, director of commu­nications at Fuller Seminary. “We are reimagining and adjusting our programs to unlock the doors of the academy to individuals and groups, students and learners, churches and organizations across the globe.”

Sam Morris, director of admissions at Southeastern Baptist Theological Sem­inary, doesn’t see nonvocational sem­inary attendance as a sign the church is lacking, but rather that the church is succeeding at instilling a sense of mis­sion in its lay leaders.

“The rural churches all across America that work hard to raise up godly men and women and send them to us are the back­bone of our seminary,” he said. “Because of their diligence in passing on what they have received to trustworthy and faithful men and women, we have the opportunity to carry on what they have started.”

Morris’s perspective may seem to con­flict with that of Wilkin or Johnson, but perhaps these things can be true at the same time—that as the days of cultural Christianity and the Moral Majority become increasingly obso­lete, faithful churches are producing disciples hungry for the Word, and individuals who have not found discipleship in the church are going to do what they have to do to find it.

Learning in the Local Church

When Feleda Keene, a student at New Orleans Baptist Theo­logical Seminary, spoke to her former pastor about her desire for theological education, he told her that she’d never be paid in ministry, questioned why she needed the education, and told her that if she did decide to go, she needed to ensure she didn’t become prideful. The conversation crushed Keene, who delayed enrolling in seminary for several years after the conversation.

“I let a man’s words in a prominent position in the church keep me from fulfilling my calling,” she lamented. “My biggest regret is not starting sooner. If I could share anything with another woman it is this: Do not let another person stop you from fulfilling your purpose for his kingdom (even a pastor)!”

That such a thing would even need to be said—don’t let your pastor discourage you from in-depth study of the Scriptures—is grievous and far too common. One student shared that instead of feeling like her church sees her theological education as a gift, she feels like they find it to be “an annoyance at best and a threat at worst.”

Keene's church is now led by a pastor who supports and encourages her in her seminary education. Many other students who didn’t enter seminary with voca­tional intentions innovate new forms of ministry in their local churches as an outcome of what they’re learning.

“The work I am doing at seminary is shaping me and my beliefs, and this naturally overflows into the work that I do in our local church,” Judith said. “Two years ago, I wouldn’t have attempted writing a kids’ play explaining the difference between a Hebraic and Western understanding of justice while offering a new look at atonement theories.”

As students grow in their understanding of the Bible, doc­trine, and church history, they naturally want to share it with those in their immediate context—the local church. Perhaps one way to create a stronger sense of belonging for that theol­ogy-thirsty congregant, as well as for those whose eyes glaze over at the word Trinity, is to put them in the same room with a simple resource.

For example, Fuller Seminary offers an “In the Room With” video series in which scholars discuss various topics of the day through a theological lens. Dallas Theological Seminary offers free online courses like “The Story of Scripture,” “Understand­ing God’s Covenants,” and “The Book of Hebrews.” While the goal over time should perhaps be for ministry leaders in local churches to articulate the Scriptures in such a way that reliance on videos from a seminary isn’t necessary, these resources provide a good starting point for churches of all sizes. All they need is an internet connection, a time and place to meet, and hearts—whether 2 or 200—ready to learn.

“People think that only a big church with a lot of resources can do this, but we believe it’s scalable,” Wilkin said. “You might have less of a lecture format in a large room and more of a discussion format in a living room.”

At Denver Seminary, this adaptability looks like a rich mentoring program in which students enter into a contract with a mentor, often someone from a local church who is not part of the seminary, who will disciple the student throughout their time in seminary.

“If seminaries and local churches don’t view themselves through the lens of complementarity, then they’re missing a tremendous opportunity in which the strength of one sup­plements and comes alongside the strength of the other,” said Mark Young, president of Denver Seminary.

John Dyer, dean of enrollment services and educational technology at Dallas Theological Seminary, said seminar­ies like his have created a “joint-degree program where the seminary provides the biblical and theological education, and the church provides more of the hands-on training and discipleship.”

Whether the steps are large or small, programmatic or around a coffee table, one thing seems to be clear: redeeming a vision for Christian education as a component of holistic discipleship is neither a solely pastoral or solely academic task. It’s a task for the people of God to undertake together— the single mom with her nose in a systematic theology text­book and the college student who comes to small group for the snacks.

The point is not for all believers to become studious aca­demic types who can read Hebrew and quote paragraphs of Justin Martyr any more than it is to cast aside the hard work of exegesis for the sake of avoiding discomfort or debate. Rather, the opportunity seminaries and churches have before them is one of glorious potential—one that rings of the Ephesians 4 call to equip the saints—not just the professionals, not just the academics, not just the zealots, but every single saint—for the work of ministry and the glory of God. And perhaps, then, the non-traditional student isn’t just a go-getter; she’s a witness bearer to a calling that belongs to us all.

Abby Perry is a freelance writer with work in Sojourners, Nations Media, The Curator, and Christianity Today. Her recent Prophetic Survivors series at Fathom Magazine featured profiles of survivors of #ChurchToo sexual abuse. She lives in Texas with her husband and two sons. Find more of her stories at abbyjperry.com and tweets @abbyjperry.

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