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