The title of this post is bound to raise some ire. But it’s time to call a spade a spade. I’m writing this post because of numerous conversations I’ve had in the past 2 years with people who feel a calling from God toward Christian ministry and assume that going to seminary is the natural “next step.”
Here’s one example: a young man in our church is about to graduate from Bible college and wants to serve in pastoral ministry. Last week, he told a friend of mine that he’s planning on going to seminary next year. Wanting to be helpful, my friend asked what his criteria were for choosing a seminary.
He had no idea.
This isn’t an isolated incident. Christians have a nebulous perception that a seminary degree is like a union card for pastoral ministry. News flash: it’s not. In fact, in Acts 29, we find that church planters without a seminary degree are often more successful than those with a degree.
Readers are going to have to forgive me for some over-generalizations in this post. What I am going to say is not true of all seminaries, all seminary graduates, or all potential seminary attendees. I am not anti-seminary. I have a seminary degree myself, and I cherish the education and the spiritual formation that it provided me. But it’s time for someone to challenge the standard assumptions.
First things first: theological training is a must for anyone called to the pastorate. Pastors who don’t have a deep grasp of history, theology, and philosophy are simply unqualified. Titus 1:9 requires that all who serve in the office of elder (pastor) must be able to “give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” According to Richard Lovelace, Christianity quickly lost influence after the Second Great Awakening because “the leadership of lay evangelists without formal theological training… led to a progressively shallower spirituality among evangelicals and to a loss of intellectual command” (Dynamics of Spiritual Life, p. 50). Pastors work in the world of ideas. They are guardians of a storied theological heritage and teachers of a philosophy of life. Education is a must.
So I’m not denying the importance of sound, rigorous theological training. I’m simply questioning whether seminary is the place to get it. Here are some of my concerns:
- Seminary pulls pastors “off the streets” for 3 or 4 years to isolate them in a sterile academic environment. While this might be great for paper-writing, it’s really bad for missional living.
- The nature of the business means that seminaries are always juggling the best interests of students, faculty, donors, and accrediting agencies. These players are never in agreement, which means that no one is ever happy.
- Seminaries seek to accomplish theological training apart from immersion in a local church. Though most require their students to be active in a church, seminaries tend to be a breeding ground for Monday-morning-theologians who want to critique the church rather than serve it.
- Because professors are pressured to publish and gain tenure, the classes they teach are often little more than laboratories for their latest projects. One seminary student in our church told me that every one of his classes this semester uses a book written by the professor.
- Seminaries have to pay the bills, which means it’s in their best interests to keep students around as long as possible. Seminaries continue to promote the M.Div. as the “flagship” degree – even though a 2-year M.A. with well-chosen electives is often just as good, and about $15,000 cheaper.
- Seminary graduates tend to exit with heads full of theology, but without worshipful hearts or authentic relationships with non-Christians. I am aware this is an over-generalization. But unfortunately it’s an accurate one.
- Because of a seminary’s need to cater to a diverse student body, most seminaries can’t offer a truly systematic theological education. Students end up having to piece together the fragmented bits of data they’ve accumulated in so many haphazard, out-of-sequence courses. The idea of a cohesive “body of learning” is all but lost in the modern academy.
The seminary model is a tired one that needs to be updated for a post-Christian, technological age. Here’s a possible way forward:
- The primary place for pastoral training and development should be within the local church. Good, theologically astute elders can guide aspiring leaders through a year or two of seminary-level reading and study without ever removing them from their church body. Rather than paying thousands of dollars for a packaged seminary education, aspiring leaders can get exactly the same level of reading and study (minus the classroom interaction) for free, with the added bonus of mentorship and community with others in their local church.
- Regionally influential churches should band together to host theological training academies, similar to what Mars Hill/Acts 29 has begun to do with Re:Train. Cadres of a couple dozen students can fly top-notch professors in, wine them and dine them, and pay a hefty honorarium for their labor, and still come out way ahead of the $400 or $500 per credit hour that seminaries charge.
- Theological students should use technology to access “the best of the best” teachers and theologians. Many seminaries offer lectures for free through iTunes U. Others allow students to audit classes via videoconferencing. If you want to learn systematic theology from Wayne Grudem, church history from John Hannah, and apologetics from John Frame, why not?
- Seminaries should continue to hire and equip the best and brightest academic minds in Christianity to do battle on the field of ideas. We need good theologians doing high-level academic work, and seminaries provide an important context for that. But rather than paying the bills by lassoing directionless Bible-college grads for a 3-year M.Div., they should focus their recruiting efforts on doctoral students, pastors who want ongoing training, and “a la carte” students who would pay to access the wisdom and expertise of the most talented professors in a given field. Seminaries could cut all the “adjunct” faculty and retain only the best and brightest thinkers.
How would this change the face of theological education? Right now an aspiring pastor goes into the poorhouse to fund a 3-year M.Div, only to come out less equipped (in many ways) than when he went in. Imagine if that same aspiring pastor spent 2 years studying theology under the direction of his local church elders, then a third year taking electives from “the best of the best” professors at various seminaries, available through distance-ed or through short on-site intensives. He would avoid debt, stay connected to the local church, continue to grow as a missionary and worshipper (not just a theologian), and still come out with a top-notch education – and a much better pedigree for missional leadership.
When I was a sophomore engineering major at the University of Oklahoma, I contacted a family friend about a potential summer internship. He said, “Yeah, I’d love to have you come work for me – because after you get your degree, I’m going to need you to un-learn everything you’ve learned anyway.” That’s exactly how I feel about seminary graduates who are coming into a missional church-planting movement. The model I’ve proposed certainly isn’t flawless – and if you’d like to defend the current model or propose other alternatives, I’d love to hear from you. But the fact is that seminaries simply aren’t producing the kind of leaders that missional church leaders are looking for. It’s time for a change.
Thoughts? Disagreements? Fire away.