I wanted to take a few moments to make some observations and state some of my thoughts in regards to theological education. Two weekends ago I spent some time with some folks interested in my opinion on the subject of ministry training and I just read through an interesting article over at the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog on where to do a PhD. Then, this past weekend, I had another lively discussion regarding theological education and I figured it was well worth the time to actually finish this blog post. It seems that there are a lot of opinions floating around the body of Christ on just how important theological training actually is. So, since many others have shared their perspectives, here is mine.
First, I believe the issue begins with prayer and is one that essentially comes down to obedience. I’m hard-pressed to find an explicit statement within the Scriptures that commands or demands that those in ministry are required to have 7 years of formal education before they can function in the ministry. So at some point, individuals need to make a decision that is based upon their own prayer, study, and perhaps the advice of those around them. Everything I share from this point on needs to take this into account.
Secondly, I strongly suggest that people who are sensing a call to ministry take every step possible to get as much formal education as they can. I will clarify this statement further.
I believe that far to many people in ministry take education lightly. In this day and age, hard work and study are neither popular nor well represented. Many people would rather take short cuts than develop their giftings properly. This is unfortunate because we see the fruit of this problem in the moral failures and burn outs that happen so often within churches.
But this does not mean that every person who has a call to church leadership need sell all of their belongings, pack their bags, and move to a seminary. This is simply not God’s will for everyone nor is it responsible for many men and women who have families to provide for. The life of formal academic training is extremely stressful and difficult to accomplish with a family (I speak from experience). Late nights, early mornings, and a whole lot of “maybe next time’s.”
Yet, a positive element to our age is the use of the Internet. Virtual schools abound and “living room” training is becoming more normative with every passing day. So there is really no reason for people to not take advantage of these opportunities.
So why should someone who is going into ‘vocational’ ministry make an effort at formal education? The first word that comes to mind – effectiveness. If one’s calling is to essentially equip and train people (Eph. 4:11-14), than one would assume that it would be helpful to be effective at doing so! And it seems obvious to this writer that the more Scripture that one understands will greatly help as one communicates this to others. The second word that comes to mind – longevity. I believe one of the single causes for the lack of longevity within the lives of many ministers is based largely upon lack of training. How are pastors to respond when the going gets rough? How can a pastor minimize the fall-out damage of bringing correction? What types and forms of communication are best given the situation? Questions like these find answers and the much needed discussion in the context of theological education.
Therefore, I strongly recommend that people take seriously the call to the ministry and do so by taking every possible opportunity to strengthen their theological foundation. You’d be surprised how issues related to Church History and Historical Theology can be integrated within the context of pastoral ministry. The same is true of Systematic Theology and obviously anything having to do with Exegesis and Hermeneutics.
Now let’s address the more complex issues that are raised here: Where should I go? Should I consider seminary or will bible college be enough? What about ministry schools? How important is experience in comparison to academic training?
These questions are also difficult to address because the answers depend entirely upon the direction that the Lord is giving you. Are you being called to serve as a pastor or a missionary or a small groups leader or to work with youth? Secondly, do you think it is remotely possible that your calling may change over time (the answer is more than likely “yes” if you are like anyone else in the world)?
So here’s my take. Seminary training can be very difficult. It’s not that your undergraduate days are a walk in the park, but from my experience, you go from being told what to believe to having everything you believe challenged and stretched and often ripped apart by very skilled theologians and exegetes. It gets pretty tough. In fact, David Drury, in The Flip Side of Seminary, eloquently lists 10 reasons not to attend seminary: (1) It can make you depend on your own intelligence, (2) It may cause you to develop false values, (3) It causes stress, (4) It will likely challenge your beliefs, (5) It can cause you to think of your religion as a class, (6) It can make you lose touch with the real world, (7) It costs lots of money, (8) You can lose sight of ministry, (9) It can cause you to see the Bible as a textbook, and (10) It can make you lose your focus.
These reasons are well thought out and certainly become true your second year of undergraduate training (if not earlier). Yet Drury also notes ten reasons why you should go to seminary: (1) It makes you think, (2) It makes you read, (3) It makes you write, (4) It answers a lot of the tough questions, (5) It helps you understand and appreciate diversity, (6) It forces you to form foundations, (7) It helps your own spirituality, (8) It forces you to know the Bible, (9) It makes you more knowledeable, (10) It probably pleases God.
Tony Kummer, a former seminarian, wrote that one of the great things about seminary was “It’s an opportunity to make lifelong friends who will encourage your ministry.” This, of course, depends entirely upon whether you are studying at an actual campus or online. But even if you do your studies online you will be forced to interact with students who can become friends (or fellow bloggers, as is the case with several of my readers).”
MissioMishmash, a blog by David Hosaflook, also shares some thoughts from a missiological perspective. Hosaflook essentially repeats what many other non-seminarians say – seminary is not for everyone but it is for some people. He makes an excellent point when he quotes the following statement made by a seminary trained pastor – “Going to seminary is paying someone to make you do what you ought to on your own.” Amen! I agree. And yet there are some extremely positive elements to formal training, as Hosaflook also fairly notes. He refers to one pastor who essentially taught what he was learning in seminary to the congregation he was pastoring. Therefore, seminary was not training “for” ministry but became training “in” ministry.
But what are we to make of seminaries in light of my previous statements about para-church ministries? I would strongly contend that some seminaries are indeed parachurch ministries, while others do a very good job of connecting with the Church and require a lot of involvement in local church. But sadly, many people attend seminary completely and entirely disconnected from the local Church and have no actual ministry experience for the role they’ve spent a great deal of time and money to earn.
So I would strongly encourage every church body to have ministry training as a goal if not a reality. Churches should spend more time raising up leaders than just shipping them off to seminary or trying to always hire someone from seminary. And we should also value the training that can take place when attending seminary, assuming there is a strong connection with a local church and a great deal of emphasis on experience, as was the case when I attended.
Quite frankly, there’s a balance. I learn a great deal from the experiences I have in the congregation I serve and I also read and study a great deal more than most folks. Yet I also realize that there are things lacking in my ministry that I need to have formal education for. I would love to have another man in our midst to teach me this stuff, but it just simply isn’t there. So, plan b is to enter a D.Min. program to get a stronger foundation in Practical Theology, namely Spiritual Formation.
So the one thing that is apparent to me is that people need to study hard and do all that they can to grow, regardless of whether it is in a bible study or a seminary or a coffee shop. The Holy Spirit can certainly teach us while we’re all alone but hopefully we are never to arrogant to ignore that the Holy Spirit has uniquely gifted some people for the specific task of deeper theological training. Once again, there is a balance.
So what are others saying? Check out Greg Atkinson’s thoughts on Don’t Go to Seminary. The Heidelblog offers some excellent thoughts regarding should should and shouldn’t go to seminary (part 1 and part 2). Heidelblog’s second post gives three types of people who shouldn’t go to seminary: (1) those who already know everything, or at least think they do, (2) students who are only interested in “ministry” and not interested in “learning”, and (3) the emotionally and spiritually immature. Bryan Lilly’s blog, KATAGRAPHAIS, also shared his thoughts on the subject – Do Pastor’s Need Seminary? Lilly’s thoughts are essentially the same as mine. Does a pastor need seminary? No! But that “no” comes with a long list of requirements, which include a strong set of study skills, a love for reading, and a heart after God!
For those interested in attending seminary, check out GoingtoSeminary.com. Some interesting articles and opinions.
In conclusion, I’d simply caution those who are considering seminary to really pray about whether it would strengthen their ability to fulfill their calling. There are some wonderful things that can be gained through seminary, but for many people it may not be the Lord’s will. And for those who are strongly opposed to seminary (most of whom have never actually attended it, though they seem to think they know all about it), consider that pride and insecurity may play a larger role in your negative opinion than you realize. And for churches who have no “ministry training,” I encourage you to work towards being an “equipping” type of church. And for seminarians, stay involved in a local church. And for Seminaries, make it a requirement that your students are strongly involved in a local church!
Consider Paul’s exhortation to Timothy…
2 Tim. 2:15 – “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”
Anyway, while I’m on my soap box, I’d really encourage people to consider studying outside of their tradition. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed some of the more “liberal” professors I had, along with those from entirely different theological frameworks than me. It’s easy to say something is true when everyone around us believes it; but sometimes doctrines we assume are 100% truth fall apart quickly under the scrutiny of those outside of our theological box. So if you have a strong theological foundation and aren’t the type of person to jump off the bus just because a Ph.D. tells you to, it might be a good idea to consider studying in a different environment. In fact, some seminaries now have programs that give you a chance to get out of their box and experience someone else (e.g., Pentecostal’s studying at a baptist seminary).
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.