This morning I read two articles on seminary education that I thought might be worth mentioning. First, D.M. Hopewell contributed an article to Urban Cusp titled, “I Went to Seminary and Still Don’t Know What I Believe” where he states,
“At this point I’m certain of only a few things. I do believe that there is a Creator. But that’s all I got, unfortunately. The critical question at this juncture is whether that Creator intervenes in the affairs of humankind. Or, as the deists believe, did this creator merely wind the clock and simply walk off? This question is everything for me. If this creator does intervene, there is hope and perhaps all suffering can be redemptive. If this Creator does intervene it is possible that even my own struggles are a part of some larger, dynamic plan. If this Creator does not intervene, then we are simply on our own – a sobering thought. What if every struggle and hardship just is? What if Superman isn’t coming to save you?”
Hopewell was a student at Oral Roberts University, one of the classical Pentecostal tradition where there was an emphasis on things like signs and wonders, healing, and the miraculous taught side-by-side with traditional academics. Yet he walked away from seminary leaning toward deism, a hopefully deism though that wants there to be a personal god.
I’ve done a couple graduate programs at seminary now. I think I am far more confident in many things than Hopewell, but I can validate his testimony by telling readers that there is plenty of which I remain unsure and ignorant. Some times there are core teachings of Christianity like the Trinity or the doctrine of hell where I feel a sense of agnosticism. I “believe,” but I don’t feel dogmatic about it, nor can I say that the way I understand it would satisfy some of my “orthodox” friends (e.g., I think I am an annhilationist and I tend to be quite committed to an apothetic Trinitarianism). On the other hand, I am excited about the resurrection of Jesus and it is quite rare that I have times of intense doubt about whether it happened or not.
I have graduated with many people who come across as very confident and assured in their doctrinal beliefs. This may be authentic for some. For others I think they insulated themselves against critiques so they think they are confident in what they know but this has more to do with avoiding challenges. Then there are those who drown their questions in weighty theological jargon that I’m not quite sure they themselves understand. I guess if you tell yourself big words long enough you’ll believe you know what you are saying! (But as I’ve said, a fundamentalist with a broad vocabulary remains a fundamentalist.)
I hope Hopewell comes to a place where his faith in Christ can become stable, but I do respect him for fully engaging his doubts and asking himself difficult questions about what he believes.
The second article was by Dr. Russell D. Moore, a dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He wrote an article titled, “Student Loan Debt and the Future of Seminaries” for the Wall Street Journal. This article lamented the fact that many future ministers cannot go to seminary because they are buried in debt upon the completion of their undergraduate degree. If you owe $80,000 it is hard to commit to another $40,000 for a M.Div.
In this article he discusses the potential move by seminaries to online degrees. I know of some schools that are planning on offering fully accredited (yes, ATS accredited) degrees completely online beginning soon. Moore doesn’t seem all that excited about the shift to online education, but I don’t know if there is any turning back. If seminaries want their students involved in ministry why would you ask them to leave their pastorate in Wyoming to move to attend your seminary in Oregon so that they can train to do what they are already doing in Wyoming? That doesn’t make sense. Sure, being in a classroom is superior in many ways to watching a recording of a class, but watching a recording of a class while continuing in your present ministry is better than quitting that ministry to attend classes on campus.
Of course, if a seminary is asking $450 per credit hour for on-campus classes there will be serious questions directed their way if they ask the same price for online classes. Many schools do not have a tiered payment option yet, but I think they should think about it. If they aren’t using your electricity, flushing your toilets, or printing from your library maybe $350-$300 per credit hour makes more sense. This will help students avoid debt.
Moore argues that seminaries that are tied closely to local churches are in the best shape because (1) those churches trust that seminary to provide them with future clergy and (2) they can pay into the seminary for this service. Moore is a Southern Baptist so this makes sense for him, but for many non-denominational types (a growing piece of evangelicalism) this has proven to be a pipe-dream pragmatically. Pastors of these churches gain their ecclesial identity from the little creed they post on their church website, not from their denominational confession. A seminary is bound to upset many of these non-denominational pastors at one or two points of their faculty doctrinal statement and these independent churches with little financial wiggle room are likely to withhold funds from the local seminary because “they don’t make a big enough deal about dispensationalism anymore” or “four point Calvinism isn’t real Calvinism so I am not sending my youth ministry hopefuls to that school.”
Petty? Yes. Reality? Yes.
If you are part of a Southern Baptist church you can do seminary for cheap, but you better be committed to the Southern Baptist. If you have doubts about their doctrine or the direction the denomination is moving it could cost you funding. Oh, and that paper you wanted to write critiquing your denomination where you disagree? Well, I recommend not writing it. It could cost you a scholarship.
For those who want more “freedom” to think be warned that there may not be much money for you. People give money to schools that support their ideologies. It is rare that a church would sent money to a school that supports, “letting our students wrestle through important issues themselves with academic freedom.” So you will pay for that freedom.
All that said, seminary can be wonderful. I don’t regret my education. If I wanted to buy a 2012 Toyota Prius I would be committing myself to $24,000 starting and probably closer to $30,000 if I wanted to add a few things. In ten years if I continue to drive that car I don’t get much from it anymore, probably. If I spend $45,000 on a seminary education and I make sure to go somewhere where I think I will receive the best education for me then I might benefit from it the rest of my life. Even if a seminary education doesn’t land you the highest paying job it could land you a job. Your Prius won’t do that!