The Case for Seminary Training

Seminaries have suffered long and painful deaths in the past twenty years. With the profound influence of free on-line material, many traditions, which do not require M.Div’s as requirement for ordination, have simply by-passed the seminary process urging  brief internships or apprenticeships in its place. During my college days, churches were calling men directly after college graduation to pastor small and large churches. Most of them went on to pastor only to discover there is more to the pastorate than Sunday preaching. They had expectations and college was not sufficient training for what they were to experience in their first year. Seminary training could have spared a lot of pain; not all pain, but a lot of it.

Recently, I heard a Christian say in a Q&A session that the best churches are those pastored by men who have never stepped one mile near a seminary. But those who think seminary did not offer enough courses on x,y, or z would be completely unsatisfied even if they did offer courses on all those things. These folks usually cry in opposition to any institution of higher learning that requires an intellectually vigorous journey.  Otherrs in the low-church tradition make the case that any man old enough can be a pastor, since all he needs is a general knowledge of the Bible. Thus, he is fit to become an elder.

But these expectations all miss the point. Seminary was never intended to be a place where young men would find an exhaustive foundation for his entire pastoral ministry. That expectation would be foolish, if not to demand too much from an institution. Those who sat at Jesus’ feet for over three years still had personal struggles with others in ministry. They still needed to learn things that you only learn on the ground in Corinth or Ephesus. The expectations placed on a young seminary graduate should not be overly high. The training is there, but the implementation of that training takes time. Ask a dentist or a medical doctor.

While offering specialized studies, seminaries have by and large provided a great help to the modern church. In the early 20th century, German liberalism was producing a plethora of young graduates who injected the Church with what Machen referred to as “another religion.” As the seminaries go, so goes the church. On the other hand, well-known Reformed seminaries have provided the Presbyterian and broadly evangelical churches with great ministers who have fulfilled their roles well in the rural church and the metropolis. “But aren’t seminary graduates overly zealous and prone to dividing the church?” Yes. And the same applies to those with no training. In fact, those with no training have never had to submit themselves intellectually to others, which may make them even more unbalanced and unprepared to handle the enormous amount of pastoral dilemmas that require gentleness and humility.a

The Real Seminary Problem

What people perceive as a seminary problem can also be described as a vocation problem. James says that not many of you should be teachers, but too many are becoming teachers when they shouldn’t. And urged by their churches to attend seminary, they attend halfheartedly and learn the art of memorization to achieve their desired diploma.  They please pastors and friends, but they themselves are still clueless as to what they should do. Without an option they mount to the first pulpit they find and begin a pastoral ministry. Again, this is a vocational problem. At the Reformed Seminary I attended, many international students attended seminary simply because it was a way to spend some time in the United States. Instead of engaging the seminary community, attending events, reading the assigned texts, they spent most of their time feasting in a buffet of video games. We knew they wouldn’t last long after seminary, and many of them didn’t.

There is also the problem of idolizing ministerial work. This stems from a false dichotomy between secular and sacred. In my early fundamentalist tradition if someone were not involved in what they deemed to be “ministry,” then they were likely not in the will of God. Carpenters, wood-workers, electricians, etc. were always looked upon with some condescension. But the reality is the exact opposite. Each vocation is fundamental in the growth of the kingdom of God on earth. Gene Edward Veith, quoting Luther observed that “God is milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid.”  According to Luther, vocation is a “mask of God.” He is hidden in vocation. We see the milkmaid, or the farmer, or the doctor or pastor or artist. But, looming behind this human mask, God is genuinely present and active in what they do for us.

Who Should Go?

Anthony Bradley summarized it well when he said:

There are… lots of folks in seminary who shouldn’t be. Just because someone, esp., a man, shows spiritual giftedness and ministry interest does not mean he or she should go to seminary to train for formal ministry positions. We need folks like this as 2nd grade teachers, cops, managers at Target, bus drivers, line cooks, lawyers, nurses, CEOs, politicians, teaching biology and economics at the college level, doctors, etc. These is so much confusion out there on vocation.

There are problems in the seminary system. I am the first to make that case. I would like have to seen many more liturgical courses than I did. But again, I attended a seminary that did not seek to produce mainly liturgical leaders. I knew what I was getting into, which meant I had to supplement that with much reading and experience in the local church. On the other hand, seminary provided me with the opportunity to engage a vastly different audience of Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Anglicans. I dare say that my seminary education made me less dogmatic than I was when I came in. I was confronted daily by ideas and thoughts that to this day still shape my pastoral ministry. It further provided me with the wisdom to navigate through vast literature and gain unique insights into different perspectives. It allowed me to interact one on one with men who have engaged the text at a pastoral and scholarly level for decades. Yes, there are problems with seminary; problems, which my former professor John Frame has ably tackled. But the problems with the absence of seminary training are far greater.

I understand that there are circumstances that are unique. The father who has been called to the ministry in his late 30’s and who has four children cannot let go of everything and move somewhere for a three-year degree. Fortunately, there are on-line programs that facilitate this process and Church-sponsored training has also become a good alternative– though lacking due to resources and time limitations of local pastors.  But by and large, for young men considering the ministry, whose gifts have been clearly identified in the ecclesia, a healthy seminary training is still the best way of training men to handle the Word of God accurately both in the pulpit and in pastoral weekly activities.

  1. Of course, there are exceptions. I myself know very gifted and gracious men who never attended seminary  (back)
Share Button

3 thoughts on “The Case for Seminary Training”

  1. Would guess that both spiritual and intellectual journies are both required. That must be one of the reasons why most great spiritual leaders of the world go into periods of isolation while embracing that journey:)

  2. Might I suggest that the problem isn’t so much the requirement of receiving seminary training for the ministry but is instead in the professionalization of the seminary “experience.”

    The word “seminary” is an agricultural term that speaks of a place where you put seedlings so that they can grow before they are placed into the “garden of the world.” Thus, as both of our experiences in seminary would attest, seminary cannot give you all of the technical expertise for everything we will do in the ministry — we must supplement with additional reading (and some trial and error…).

    If you look to the early church, Biblical and Theological training was given broadly and it was an expected part of the Christian life. When the Reformation took place, we saw the same emphasis once again, particularly with Calvin, who began schools and seminaries to train the people in the Word. Yet, Rome reacted against this and with the Council of Trent, adopted the term “seminary” to refer to a place of specialized training for the priest and not the layman — in turn, the layman was meant to go and work a trade in a “lower calling.”

    What I fear has taken place is that we protestants have adopted the Roman definition for “seminary” and not the Genevan definition or the early church definition…relegating seminary to those who will train for the professional ministry and being considered as something usually “over the head” of most laymen. When you specialize in this fashion, you also open the door for academic liberalism to dominate because the future pastor is not being trained in the context of the local church.

    I think that the solution to our problem is to adopt a more broad-reaching understanding of the role of the seminary…to see not just pastors attending seminary, but people from all vocational backgrounds: doctors, lawyers, farmers, mechanic, etc…, and not so that these people will become professional ministers, but so that they may be equipped to do the work of ministry in their local church context as well as with those they meet vocationally.

    One of the most influential people in my life was an insurance agent of mine who took a personal interest not only in my spiritual life, but in the spiritual life of all of his clients. He knew what it meant to “study to show yourself approved” and that the scriptures are “profitable” for every good work…

    While I treasure my time at seminary, I wonder whether the church would not be better served if every church (or group of like-minded churches in an area) had their own “seminaries” in the natural sense of the term…seminaries for those sitting in the pews to equip them in the Ephesians 4 sense. My two-cents at least,


Comments are closed.