Should you go to Seminary? What are the pros and cons of Seminary? Should Seminaries exist? These are the questions Tim and I discuss in the latest podcast. Partial transcript below. Download here.
I have a hate-love relationship with Seminary.
When I was converted in my early twenties, and sensed an almost immediate call to the ministry, I was looking at six years of training before I got near a congregation. (I’d gone straight from High School into Finance, because, I mean, who needs a degree to make a million dollars? Right!)
Six years? Three years at University, then three at Seminary?
The world needs me, the Church needs me, lost souls need me! Why do I need books, lectures, professors, etc?
I was ready to jump on to MV Logos and save the world. Yet, despite trying hard to find someone to confirm my vital stop-the-clock mission, every voice, without exception, told me to get some education and some theological training first.
So with much reluctance and considerable resistance, I started the long, weary six-year plod through Glasgow University, then Seminary in Edinburgh.
Glasgow University taught me how to learn, and Seminary taught me what I needed to learn. At least, that was the theory. I’m afraid my Seminary years were a fairly miserable experience. Some of that was my own fault; but most of it wasn’t.
This is not the place to enter into the details, but suffice to say that the Seminary’s Faculty and the student body were angrily divided and fatally distracted by a major theological and moral controversy that eventually split our Presbyterian denomination. For that, and for other reasons, it was hardly the best place to learn or to prepare for ministry. I lost 24lbs going through Seminary (most people go the other way) because of the stress!
I’m telling you all this because I want to demonstrate that my current appreciation for Seminaries and their role in preparing men for ministry has been despite my own prejudices before Seminary and and my painful experiences in it. I’ve been won over through experience in the ministry and by seeing how wonderful places Seminaries can potentially be.
But one other detour before I get to that…After our Presbyterian denomination split, my own side of that divide were left without a Seminary or a Professor. After trying a few options, we eventually decided to start our own distance-learning Seminary.
As we couldn’t afford to hire full-time professors, we asked five pastors to add teaching duties to their pastoral work and to teach our handful of students using mainly distance education methods. The idea was that our students would stay in their own home congregations, receive lectures to read and listen to, and then come together for a couple of days a month for face-to-face instruction with the five pastor-lecturers.
I was a real enthusiast for this “hybrid” approach as I thought it would avoid some of the dangers and difficulties of the residential seminary method that I suffered.
On the whole it worked very well. The part-time lecturers did an amazing job of producing quality lectures on top of their pastoral work. At times it was frustrating for the teachers to have so little face-time with the students. Seminary training is much more than data-transfer. Ethos and pathos are as important as logos and you can’t communicate that without personal presence.
Some students found it very hard to motivate themselves without the daily discipline of lectures and seminars. The few face-to-face days were great, but they also reminded the students of how lonely the in-between weeks were. Some students were well-supported in their home congregations; others, however, had very little local interest or input.
And now I’ve come
full half-circle. I started out hating Seminary before I even got there. I grew to hate it even more through my experience of training in one. I saw the potential of a healthy Seminary, though in a hybrid model, and now I’m teaching in a residential Seminary and I love it.
Although there can be significant disadvantages, and although it does not fit every student or church situation, on the whole I believe a good Seminary is a great way to prepare for a lifetime of ministry.
I’m not saying it’s the only way – we all know men, past and present, who’ve had faithful and fruitful ministries without Seminary training. And I’m definitely not supporting Seminary training divorced from the local church – that’s a disaster area. However I do believe in a significant role for Seminaries in training men for the ministry. Even where a large part of a man’s training is in a local church, I would strongly encourage the integration of well-taught Seminary courses, or even a short period of residential study in a Seminary.
Benefits for students
Some of the benefits of a Seminary education are:
- Well-trained teachers whose primary task is preparing men for Gospel ministry
- Emphasis on original language training equips for a long ministry of fruitful and varied expository ministry
- Forces you to study subjects you would not choose to but which you need to
- Discipline of daily lectures/assignments/tests is good training for ministry routine and responsibilities
- Access to well-stocked library
- Fellowship and lifelong friendship with students from other cultures and nations (this is a huge plus).
However, I know all too well that there are disadvantages, and I highlight them here, not as deal-breakers but as areas that require extra thought and care if we are to avoid Seminaries becoming a hindrance rather than a help:
- Uprooting of family to live as “pilgrims and strangers” for a few years
- Cost – is it right to leave Seminary with $20,000+ of debt?
- Emphasis on PhD qualification attracts academic and scholarly staff, who are often lacking pastoral ministry experience in a local church
- Students may become attracted to the academic life and lose the burden of ministry and mission
- Pressure of academic success may quash spiritual life and even push out responsibilities to minister to your family, neighbors, etc.
- Unless you choose your Seminary wisely you will expose yourself to unchallenged liberal theology and practice that may ultimately undermine your faith and your confidence in Scripture.
- Living in an “unreal” world for a few years might disconnect you from everyday reality for most people (TIP: try to work, for a few years at least, in the “real” world before coming to Seminary)
- Too much focus on the intellectual at the expense of the practical
- Seminary becomes the master rather than the servant of the Church
Seminary is not a “Finishing School” for pastors. It’s more like a starting school. It sets you up for a lifetime of learning. In fact, if all Seminary teaches you is how much you have to learn – it might be worth it just for that.
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