My hate-love relationship with Seminary

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.

Seminary Misery
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.

Seminary Hybrid
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.

Seminary Circle
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).

Disadvantages

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

Conclusion

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.


If you’d like to give us feedback or join in the discussion, go ahead and look up our Facebook Group or leave a comment right here. You will always be able to find the most recent episode here on the blog. If you would like to subscribe via iTunes, you can do that here or if you want to subscribe with another audio player, you can try this RSS link. And here’s an archive of 2012′s podcasts.


Check out

Don’t Tweet that Sermon
Tried this once at a conference. Decided, on reflection, that it would be best to take notes, and perhaps Tweet a few quotables afterwards.

Gospel-centered Spiritual Formation
Tim Brister bridges the gap between the spiritual disciplines and Gospel centrality.

Microconference on Soul Care
Zac Allen tells a story I’ve heard repeated too many times to count. Maybe it’s your story too.

What the pastor-scholar has in common with the NBA star
Another headline I never imagined writing.

New Calvinists and Christian Education
Can you Anthony Bradley with his research into the question why New Calvinists and Missional Calvinists don’t value the Reformed Tradition’s emphasis on Christian education? And while we’re on the subject of Christian education, ever wondered why home-schooled kids are so annoying?

The one sentence most public speakers get wrong


Really Practical Theology

Pastors, teachers, parents, and employers are daily deluged with people’s problems. Oftentimes we resort to simplistic and formulaic practical counsel that has short-term benefits at best. Other times we are tempted to ignore the problems, to deny them, to run from them, or sometimes just to give up. Our advice is spurned, our help is rejected, our prayers go unanswered, and situations go from bad to worse. We try one counseling strategy after another, we turn from one step-by-step guide to another, from one disciplinary measure to another, and we end up going round and round in circles.

Stop and study the attributes of God.

“What? The last thing I need at the moment is systematic theology. I need solutions and I need them fast. Be practical, man.”

Actually, God’s attributes are the first thing you need, and they are eminently practical for both sinners and sufferers alike. Consider the practical value of God’s attributes for those you are trying to help.

God’s Sovereignty
Let’s plant our feet on this rock-solid foundation before we offer a word of counsel or advice to anyone. God is in sole and purposeful control of all past, present, and future events, both on a macro- and on a micro-scale, at the inter-planetary level and on the our-little-life level. God is the ultimate ruler of time and space. He has a plan that is being worked out perfectly from day to day, and from year to year.  It’s a plan that extends from creation to consummation. It includes all the good things and all the bad things, the pleasant things and the painful things.

Belief in the sovereignty of God changes the way we look at the world, at people, and at their problems. What looks like a mess is actually part of a meticulous divine plan that is being worked out for the good of those who love God.

God’s Holiness
God’s holiness is our model and motivation in counseling others. It is our model in that the aim of counseling is to bring people into conformity with the perfectly beautiful image of God in character and conduct, especially that holy image as manifested in Jesus Christ.

It is our motivation because we learn from this attribute how much God hates sin, opposes it, fights against it and will punish it. Thus we do not treat sin lightly, we do not cover it up, and we do not excuse it; rather, we seek to have it confessed, forgiven, and forsaken.

God’s Wisdom
The all-wise God has all the answers, and all the ones we need He has revealed directly or indirectly in His Word and in His world. The answers in God’s Word may take the form of a verse, a doctrine, or a deduction from a passage. It may be a story, a commandment, a promise, a proverb, a psalm, or a summary of truth from various places. Sometimes the answer may be very direct and obvious, sometimes indirect and yielded only to study.

However, God also communicates His wisdom to us through His World. Although God has placed all we need to know for salvation and sanctification in His Word, He has also placed much helpful wisdom in the world, which we locate, read, and interpret through the lens of His Word.

God’s Power
As we look at the brokenness and complexity of people’s personalities, bodies, minds, hearts, relationships, etc., we collapse in impotent helplessness. But looking up from there, we then see God’s infinite power, and His infinite willingness to help the helpless, toughen the tried, and empower the powerless via His Almighty Spirit.

God’s Love
The love of God is why we counsel and what we counsel. The love of Christ compels us to counsel, and the love of Christ is the content of our counsel. We are not in the business of condemning people but of pointing them to salvation and the Savior. The love of God in Christ is at the center of every counseling session – whether it is extending forgiveness through Christ’s blood or sympathy through Christ’s sufferings.

God’s Justice
God’s justice? Is that not a rather threatening attribute? Well it may be. And maybe it ought to be. We are dealing with souls who are heading to judgment and an eternal destiny of blessing or cursing. We will be called to account for how we direct such souls. And we should remind those we are trying to help that they too will be called to account for how they respond to God’s guidance through us.

But I included this attribute primarily as a comfort! So many of the injustices we face will not be resolved here. It is such a wonderful hope that Christ will return put everything right. He will perfect His people, deliver them from all their oppressors, and punish all who have wronged them. The Judge of all the earth will do right. He will renew His people and this world, and make everything new. He has promised. And He will keep that promise.

Unless we start with the attributes of God, we will never get started.

This article first appeared in Tabletalk. You can try it free for three months here.

I’m also looking forward to Brad Hambrick’s booklet, God’s Attributes: Rest for life’s struggles,  which takes a more in-depth look at the role of the attributes of God in counseling.


Check out

T4G De-brief: Where were all the African Americans?
Thabiti Anyabwile with a helpful response to my question. Worth reading some of the comments on Thabiti’s post too.

God’s Attributes: Rest for life’s struggles
Keep your eye open for this. Looks good.

The Trayvon Martin Case: A moment for Evangelical Reflection
Marlena Graves says: “The tragedy underscores how far white churches have come on race relations—and how much farther we have to go.”

American Girls, Dangers and Delights
Really liked this idea. Emily Whitten interviews her young daughter about the American Girls series.

God in our midst
Danny Hyde’s new book on the Tabernacle is well worth a read. You can read some sample chapters at Ligonier’s website.

5 reasons why I will not see the Hunger Games
Not many reviews like this around.