[This month we will be discussing the future of theological education on our blog. To read the introductory post go here: This Month’s Conversation: the future of theological education.]
As a young man I was a member of a Pentecostal Church in my hometown where the Senior Pastor told young men such as myself that showed some interest in serving the Church that the best thing we could do was develop a trade to sustain us and then either assist in an established Church or “plant” one ourselves. It was unthinkable to this man that someone who was seriously committed to serving the Church would spend too much time on their education. Maybe one can take a community college class or two, but overall education was more likely to corrupt pure faith than it was to establish and strengthen it. While I’ve never been an Ivy League student it is obvious from my current path in life that I disagreed with him and did so strongly. Now that I am not part of the Pentecostal circles in which this man lived I know for a fact (he has named me in his sermons in the past) that he sees me as a “case-and-point”. Go to college and apostatize!
Sadly, it isn’t just hyper fundamentalist, sectarian Pentecostals who downplay education. There are many Christians who do so either explicitly or implicitly. We have pastors spending thirty thousand dollars on their M.Div program who then oversee a Church of fifty who pays them a wage of forty thousand annually while some charismatic person uses crafty oratory and fancy stage antics to draw a crowd of a few thousand. One cannot enter the medical field this way or the study of law. Sadly, the “clergy” of our Churches can be more skilled as public speaking and community organizing and voilà! it would seem as if spending time and money in seminary was a bad idea.
So, why should we encourage our future pastors to give their time and money to educating themselves and why in biblical and theological studies? Would the best path be to “learn a trade” as my childhood pastor advocated? Would it be better to receive an education in something “secular” like business or law in order to have a “fall back” career if the pastorate doesn’t work?
If a young person asked you why they should or shouldn’t go to seminary of divinity school what would you tell them? Would you encourage them? discourage them? If so, what points would you make to persuade them?
I was given similar advice. Then, I considered the source. Most of those who say such things — in my experience — served smaller churches and had nothing to fall back on when they poorly tended those congregations. These were good men, but they straddled the fence and wouldn’t wholly commit to ministry.
There’s also a disdain of intellectualism within most churches, and because of past record, some who have gone on to greater depths of education have actually apostatized, so the one bad apple has spoiled the bunch in many Christian’s eyes.
I’m not Protestant. I’m Roman Catholic and a Knight of Columbus. My under two year old council currently supports a seminarian in Rome, my parent council supports 8 seminarians at a much closer to home seminary.
There is a vocations crisis in the Roman Catholic Church- between the common rule of celibacy (not universal, there are many ways to become a married priest in the Roman Catholic Church, but all of them start with being Protestant or Orthodox) and the incredibly low salaries pastors earn, there is little incentive except for hearing “the call” and service to the church.
And with Vatican II, during the “spirit of” years when my generation was barely catechized at all, the call almost disappeared entirely.
That started changing under Pope Benedict- and changing quickly under Pope Francis. My Archdiocese will graduate 19 young men to be ordained this year.
This post got away from me. I think I missed the point of the question. What was it again?
Ministry can be hard but in many ways ministry is simple: (1) Love God; (2) Love God’s Word; (3) Love God’s People.
Now if you love God, love God’s word, and love God’s people than you are going to try to gain as much skill in interpreting His word as possible including an understanding of Systematic Theology and Church History. That means – you absolutely should go to school if you have the opportunity to do so.
Many people will talk about how meaningful their seminary education or graduate education in theology is to them,and this could lead some to conclude that school is worth it because it is so fulfilling. While I don’t deny that graduate school may be fulfilling, ultimately for those going into ministry it is act of worship. It is about loving God with our minds and loving His people by teaching them the best theology that we can rather than simply what will draw the largest crowd.
[James 3:1] – “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” and;
[Jer 3;15] – “And I shall give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.”
Biblically, we can infer those rising above the flock to become shepherds are of particular interest to God (also evident in [Isa 56:11] and [Jer 2:8]) and are required to obtain certain prerequisites. So the question is: “Should you gain knowledge and understanding (wisdom) to shepherd the flock?“.
However, this question is different than “Should you go to seminary?“.
If seminary imparts knowledge and understanding (wisdom) as the bible understands it ([Jer 3:15]), than yes – You should go to seminary! However, if this this is not the case, the biblical prerequisite is not ‘seminary’ experience, but something else.
So, for the aspiring shepherd the question most needed to be asked is “What must I do to equip myself with knowledge and understanding sufficient to shepherd the flock?” Since there are a whole lot of seminaries, containing a whole lot of teachers, few of whom possess actual discernment, probabilistically, the answer is likely not. Where there are exceptions however, that is where the discerning student should go. Where these exceptions lay outside of seminaries, however, the aspiring shepherd should not feel guilty about pursuing qualifications outside of the norm.
I’m thankful to be in circles where I’ve been encouraged in my pursuit of education. I would agree with David that study is and should be an act of worship, and is an important part of spiritual formation. I went to seminary with people from many various occupations: business, higher education, insurance brokers, who viewed seminary in this light.
Seminary doesn’t only promote study as worship, but helps us form our vocation as disciples of Christ (regardless of our jobs). It can also address the practical realities that we may encounter. I’m grateful that my professor addressed church conflict–something from which laypersons could benefit.
While numbers are the easiest ways to measure success, they are not always the most meaningful.
@Steven: Indeed, there have been a few bad apples, but I think that amongst Evangelicals, at least, there is a tendency to use the label heretic too quickly. We see people thinking differently, even just exploring, or entertaining a different nuance than our own, and we panic. I think our anti-intellectualism goes beyond what we’re comfortable with admitting.
@Theodore: That is interesting to hear about Vatican II’s impact on seminarians and those entering the priesthood. Also, I’m surprised to hear that there may be a reversal. I’ve heard that the RCC has had a clergy crisis for sometime, and while Pope Francis is very impressive, I imagined that things like clergy celibacy were more of a hinderance then any Pope could overcome.
@David: That’s a healthy perspective that all seminaries need to embrace. Our study must be an act of worship.
@Kate: Very true!
So true, Brian. When we speak about the many members of the body as Paul did in 1 Cor. 12, we should always also note that experience, perspective, and nuance applies to that passage as well.
I wouldn’t say seminary (an advanced degree) is necessary, but if someone has the mental aptitude for it (and the financial resources to pursue it without taking on a debt load that would hinder vocational ministry), they should pursue it to better serve the church.
My denominations (Assemblies of God) specifically has it in the constitution that no formal degree shall be required for obtaining ministerial credentials. But at the same time, one of the purposes put forth at the first General Council (100 years ago last month) was the establishment of Bible training schools. And we do require taking certain Bible and theology subjects (even if through Berean School of the Bible, the non-degreed-level part of Global University) and passing an exam on a broad range of Bible doctrines.
I think seminary may not be as necessary in denominations that have formal credentialing processes that can provide some level of screening for calling, dedication, and understanding of Scripture. I would be very cautious of an independent, non-denominational church whose pastor has no formal Bible training (even a 4-year undergrad Bible/ministry degree).
I guess the biggest thing isn’t how much formal learning you have had, but whether you’re still learning. With all the free resources available (Bill Mounce’s biblicaltraining.org, Covenant Theological Seminary’s worldwideclassroom.org, and Gordon-Conwell’s free online certificate classes) and the availability of so many books through Amazon, there’s no excuse for not continuing one’s education, even if not pursuing a degree (get hold of the syllabi from a respected seminary, buy the books, and do the reading, even if you don’t take tests and write papers).
And our denominations need to do a better job of supporting Christian higher ed from the grassroots level. I pay over $550 a credit (I’m a little over halfway through my MATS program), while SWBTS in Fort Worth is $400-$470/hour (Fort Worth/extension campuses), plus they give students who have a letter of recommendation from an SBC church half-off (because of funding from the cooperative program). Thankfully my local congregation scholarshipped me an amount that covered almost two semesters. If our churches want prepared ministers, they need to invest in that preparation, rather than complain that the preacher doesn’t know his/her stuff.
@Brian R.: I think some sort of denominational pre-ordination training is essential and the minimum and I agree that ordination without either denominational and seminary training (or something akin, like a degree in religious studies from a local university) should make one skeptical. This isn’t to say that God can’t use people without these things, but it is to say that it helps to know that leaders have prepared themselves and have been acknowledged by others.
Also, you hit on what I think is THE major problem: finances. I’ll mention that on Thursday.
First I would tell them my story. Currently, I am blessed to work at a rather large church, by New Jersey standards, and go to seminary part time (thank God my semester just finished). I have wrestled with this question time and time again about calling and education. After working at various churches: 2 years for free, 3.5 years for $300/mo, and one year for $1000/mo and while having a B.A. in Biblical Studies was frustrating. Was it worth it? I don’t know. However, what I do know is that when I was fed up I began going on a course towards Medical School. I was finished with the ministry, and on the day I was going to register for classes a friend called me with a job offer that I wasn’t expecting. Completely out of left field. So now things are much better, and I decided to proceed with going back to school, I am working on my Masters of Arts in New Testament. I love what I am writing about, and working through (if you want to know: orality, aurality, and textuality). In the end God had to bring me back and push me forward.
So what do I tell my friends when they ask me? I ask them: Where do you want to get your paycheck from (and give them the reality about the pay, or lack there of)? What do you want to do when you wake up in the morning? How is God calling you to serve his church?
Most of them respond, they just want to be more formally equipped, which proves there is a real need for more formal education in the church. I tell them, just let me give you a reading list and save you thousands of dollars (you can borrow most of the books from me). If you want to keep pressing forward because you feel the call of God on your life, then let’s explore that. All of them have stopped at the reading list, and many stop at the questions. There is one who is till asking questions.
Thanks for this discussion Brian and for the blog! You and all who post here have been very helpful to me in my personal theological studies. I’m currently debating this question for myself. My pastor is very wise and balanced in his view of seminary(He went to Trinity in Deerfield) and so I’m grateful for that.
I think the most helpful piece of advice he gave me is this: “Seminary had a little secret that got let out in the 80’s, and the secret was that seminary doesn’t make pastors”. That’s been helpful to understand what I’d be getting myself into if I did go(and at this point I do plan on it).
Discernment in this area, I’ve found, is pretty scary sometimes and it doesn’t seem to get less scary once you have discerned a path!
To those of you who have completed or are currently in seminary or other theological studies:
1. What are your favorite parts of seminary?
2. Least favorite?
3. What are some pieces of information you wish you had before applying/enrolling etc.?
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