The trouble with seminaries

I favor seminary training but that doesn't mean I don't see the trouble with seminaries.


Chap said...

I graduated from seminary (Bethel) in the mid-90's. From my perspective many seminaries are making the kinds of changes you propose. Even in the 90's most of my fellow students were working 20-30 hours a week in a church and attending seminary full-time. This certainly allowed me to apply my studies in the laboratory of the church.

What interests me about the future of the seminary will be college debt(and other debt) that may discourage students from attending seminary.

Not to "diss" Christian colleges, but I counsel most people interested in becoming Pastors to attend state colleges, get involved in a ministry like Campus Crusade for Christ in order to save money, get involved in a local church student ministry--and save money for seminary.

John Mark said...

Brilliant article. Never made it to seminary myself, and have tried to be a "self-educator" as a result. Where will money come from for alternative seminaries? Will they be supported or opposed by denominational leaders?

Mark Schnell said...

Gordon Conwell is one of those schools that is slooooowly, and painfully moving in this direction. A few of my professors integrate pastoral discussions in their classes but the rest haven't much at all. I'm not privy to all the inside info. but GCTS had a president that was quietly outsted by the faculty about a year ago. It was pretty much the exact opposite of what happened at Asbury. Some of the entrenched faculty are vehemently opposed to anything related to mega-churches and the new pres. was trying move the school away from the past and into the 21st century. He even suggested doing away with the language requirement. The faculty wasn't having that. So now the school is in the midst of a financial crisis and trying to find a new president to come in and take over a mess. I think the board and president, Haddon Robinson see what needs to be done but who knows if the faculty will allow it. Oh, if there was only another James Barnes out there!!

BTW, I still like GCTS and I can't wait to get to the preaching classes, that's one of the main reasons I came here, but if IWU's MDiv was up and running this fall I would be seriously tempted to transfer in.

Craig Moore said...

I think academia is much like any other bureacracy, it's number one priority is to grow in influence and ensure it's survival. Change is resisted. Maybe requiring faculty to get out into the real world and become a local pastor every few years would enable them to integrate their teaching with practical applications and inspire more rapid change.

Pastor Rod said...


As usual, you raise many excellent points. Here are a few reactions.

I'm all for an emphasis on practical application, but what I fear is pragmatism. My impression is that evangelical churches have generally sold out to pragmatism. I'm afraid that most District Superintendents would jump at the opportunity to have Joel Osteen's church in their district.

I believe that the primary function of a pastor is theological. He (or she) needs to be able to answer this question in every ministry situation, "Who is Jesus Christ for this person and what does that mean in the context of his or her life?"

Seminary professor Andrew Purves writes, "Pastoral care is not primarily about the minister's care. Neither is the minister a professional for hire who is paid to care. His or her primary mission is to bear witness to Jesus Christ. The specific skill that is brought is theological rather than functional."

(If you haven't read his The Crucifixion of Ministry, you must put it at the top of your to-read list.)

Of course, "doing theology" is not about memorizing the words of dead theologians. It requires a broader knowledge and a degree of creativity.

It seems to me that pastors are expected to do just about everything--everything except the work that they are (or should be) uniquely equipped to do.

Unfortunately, some of the most important lessons a pastor needs to learn are nearly impossible to process without a few years of (difficult) experience in ministry.

Good column,


Mark O. Wilson said...

Amen, Keith! Amen!

Mark Schnell said...

When I saw the article in Rev magazine I was thinking, "Wow this is so cool because Ken Schenck has been posting about this kind of stuff. I should shoot him an email." Then I turned the page and saw Dr. Whitesel looking back at me and then saw the side article with Russ Gunsalas. I guess you guys at IWU are on the front edge of this one!

Makes me pretty proud, we've got the IWU guys in that article, Jim Watkins every month, and Mark Wilson not too long ago too. Maybe it should be called, "REV - The Wesleyan Advocate". Wait - that's been used before hasn't it?

Ryan Schmitz said...

My concerns with Seminary is that it seemed redundant after graduating with an bachelors degree in Christian Ministries.

Like you said, in a denomination that only requires a bachelors degree, why would I need more education. It seemed that most students that went to Seminary from my undergraduate days were students that didn't complete the 66 hours of Christian Ministry courses, but a major/minor in Bib Lit or a major in Philosophy. Maybe this trend has changed over the past few years. So is there any validity for CM majors turn pastors invest their time and money in study a different subject like counseling, business, sociology, etc.)?

I have also heard, from some Ministry majors who go to seminary, that things are redundant, for at least the first year for the students who have never studied in this area before. Of course I have never been so this could be wrong or maybe only at some seminaries.

tricia said...

The problem with seminaries - GREEK!!!!!!!!!

I hear you and tend to agree.

Here are a few encouraging things I see in my little seminary circle:

I do see many of my friends working there way through seminary while at a local church.

I like our format of one weekend a month at an extension site which allows some classes to be taught by some of the well known profs from the flagship institution.

If I want to go on to get my PhD I have to take at least a year off and get practical ministry experience first.

Keith Drury said...

CHAP, you are right about the debt load for some ministry students… it appears that about half of our ministerial grads here at IWU have at least some debt for their $100,000 education. Because of this I would hope most ministers could attend seminary virtually without cost.

JOHNMARK, Money is never a problem for great ideas ;-) As for denominational leaders, many will respond like some do for church planting “we have too many weak churches already, why plant more?” But progressive denominations always see the value of new wineskins.

MARK, yeah, faculty members often act on their own behalf… like church members in the traditional service..(of for that matter those in the “contemporary” service too. ;-)

CRAIG, I like that idea (faculty members being required to rotate into pastoral work every X number of years… I have always liked it for district and denominational officials and I like it for faculty too.

ROD, Amen Amen! Pragmatic = bad, Practical = good. I teach “practical theology” not “pragmatic theology.” ;-) Also I agree that theology is queen of all the disciplines (including all the sciences and liberal arts in fact). But, as you say “applied theology”, “doing theology” or “thinking theologically” is the practical thing. Same with Bible, it is not Bible quizzing knowledge so much as using the Bible in preaching, teaching and discipleship that a pastor does. And church history can be most useful of all, particularly if it is used to help me understand the milieu of denominational backgrounds my people come from. A practical seminary should not be easier or designed for dumber people, but should inspire students to become effective practicing pastors and not inspire them to want to become college professors. (though I would hope some would become professors later—but only after being a pastor first)... even in our undergrad program only two professors (out of 16) did not pastor first and some still pastor churches quietly on the side.

MARK O, Hey mark… this article sounds like YOU doesn’t it?

RYAN, You raise a totally different problem… what a student who already has an undergrad ministry degree in hand does when faced with seminary and the potential redundancy of seminary (at least the first year.) I think they should be able to “test out” or “jump up” a year which is what they do in most seminaries… As for the trend of who goes, the current trend here (I can’t speak for other schools a clearly) is for students to go out for 5-6-7 years then go to seminary in the last half of the 20’s. Given the emerging delayed entry into adulthood of the 20something crowd, this is probably good. As for the Wesleyan church, we once ordained people with no education at all, then with three years of Bible school (my father) then with a full four year degree (me) and I suspect we will one day expect seminary for all lifetime ordination (though always permit a renewable license for less).

TRICIA, Yep, there are changes happening… some seminaries are “getting it” better than others… these will survive…. like churches who make shifts as time passes while others continue to serve the needs of past generations. You are right in the middle of this discussion!

Scott's Orange said...

Increasingly, a many new pastors have never attended college or seminary. Many evangelical denominations provide alternative education programs (i.e. FLAME) instead of college or seminary. A small church prefers a “home grown pastor” as they can’t afford to pay a seminarian with big student loans. Such “fast track pastors” have become the standard for many churches and some denominations. Seminary is no longer seen as necessary or relevant. A denomination will eventually become fundamentalist, when the majority of its pastors have never attended college or seminary. Ultimately, the tail will end up wagging the dog!

Phil said...
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Phillee4840 said...

I graduated from the WU in 06 with a degree in music and have been serving in a Wesleyan Church in SD as a music minister since then. My heart has since grown in it's desire to study pastoral ministry...so I've been looking all over the place at master's degrees and seminaries that I can do from where I am. Thankfully I have had the privilege of taking a few credits from a small, conservative, evangelical baptist seminary here in town (Sioux Falls Seminary) and have been able to taste a little bit of the seminary life.

The value of getting my education while still in a ministry context cannot be overstated. They both inform and enrich the other. I think it makes learning increase exponentially...and so for me to imagine a seminary that would be coherent with, depend upon, or even have a sort of "symbiotic" relationship with my ministry context would be awesome.

When what you've described happens, let me know...

Dave said...

My comment was hastily written and inappropriate to the original discussion. I apologize.

Michael R. Cline said...

Chap went to Bethel? good to hear as I am there as well.

From what I've heard, Bethel Seminary was facing a crisis in the early nineties and was nearly shut down. An entire new team of leadership was brought in to figure out how to keep the school open first, and second to get it thriving. The InMinistry program has probably been one of the biggest catalysts to doing just that, which is the program that basically aims at what you have said in this post. They are still tickering around with it, but they are getting there.

As you pointed out, curriculum overhaul is way harder. Many of the schools trying to get where you are aiming are stuck between delivery systems and curriculum. I think Bethel may be there as well. The delivery systems are cutting edge, but the curriculum is the same stuff. I'm more of a "classical generalist" anyway, so I say bring on the languages and the theology. But for others, a curriculum overhaul is sorely needed. Any ideas how that happens?

Pete Vecchi said...

This is one of the few times I find myself disaggreeing with you, Keith. And the disagreement isn't over what and how seminaries should be teaching, it's rather with the entire educational set-up as it currently stands.

I don't think that cemetar--er--seminary is necessary for pastoral ministry. I don't even think a 4-year college degree is necessary for pastoral ministry.

The problem is that we in the church are too readily following the world's standards when it comes to education. If we want a school to be accredited, we make sure we follow the accreditation rules--rules set up primarily by secular standards.

So, what do you do with a person who is called to ministry--specifically pastoral ministry--but has trouble getting through college because in order for the college to be accredited, it must require (for instance) math courses and the student can't do algebra if his/her life depended on it?

Unfortunately, in that case, all too often the student would not graduate college, making the student ineligible for seminary, meaning that the person couldn't become an ordained minister because he/she couldn't do algebra.

This is not to say that I am against education. I believe that pastors should continue to learn throughout their lives in the ministry. It's just the requirement of too much formal education that I oppose -- especially if that formal education even passively would prohibit someone called to ministry from fulfilling that call based on what secular standards say a person must know in order to graduate from college.

Bitty said...

1) it sounds like you're describing U.S. education. One of the strongest appeals of British systems is the ease with which you can integrate subjects.
2)it's true: I had a CM major in college, went to seminary, and got an MA in Theological Studies because I didn't want CM 2.0. But I made it work for me - I simply focused on areas I didn't have time for in college.
3)application to practical pastoring is less about problems with seminary and more about the kind of professors. here's my observation: there are scholars, there are teachers, and once in a blue moon, there's a scholar who's a teacher and a teacher who's a scholar. the student needs to realize that scholars will assign Greek papers, teachers will assign group projects, and scholar-teachers will assign something that stretches your brain but puts it into practice.
4) I will always, always be in favor of educating pastors.
5) In my experience, the problem is less about practical application and more about trying to encourage intellectual responsibility among students. By the time of arrival at seminary, many students still struggle to exercise critical thinking.And this is a skill that is absolutely necessary to be a responsible member of clergy of a denomination, because pastoral training goes two directions: to the local church, and to the general church. One should be prepared to participate in both.
Example: a friend commented that, after losing her mother and experiencing deep grief, one of the classes that helped her most was not counseling, but philosophy of religion. Why? They dealt with the problem of evil and the problem of pain, and in doing so, she was able theologically to address her grief.

chadwickwalenga said...

there was a moment during my junior year of undergraduate study that the 'critical thinking' switch that bitty refers to turned on...up until that point i never felt that i belonged in the educational arena...my life experience was more missional on the streets of grand rapids working with the homeless and crack-heads...but I loved to learn, and am a academic at heart...while in school i quickly realized that many of the students i was in class with were going to get chewed up and spit up out there in the real world when they showed up with their old testament survey notes, and that many of the professors probably never actually were able to grow successful churches...there is so much tension between the theologian and the grass roots guy...if the seminaries don't account for the tension, then i hope there are enough college jobs for all the bookworms...and if all the grass root guys don't keep their minds in the books, then maybe our dualistic/pluralistic society will prevail...the kingdom is in the real world

Jon said...

I am in seminary, and have to say these are all issues to some degree still today. The truth is we are dealing with a clash between the American university style of learning and a more biblical model of apprenticeship and discipleship. It seems schools are picking up on this, but it is difficult to adjust institutions to these realities.

Larry said...

Because the church has never really renewed her mind, we do all things as the world does. Pastor/teacher is a apiritual gift, not something learned in Seminary. Because we value education over call and gifting, we send people off to Seminary.As I look at churches seeking Pastors it's amazing. You must have a Seminary degree, so many years in ministry, have Pastored churches of a certain size etc. What a joke.The church has become just one more human institution, doing human things with human means.

In contrast, the church is supposed to be unique, gifted, empowered,the body of Christ. Why wouldn't we acknowledge and raise up leaders from within? People we know and have observed for years. No, instead we send for someone from thousands of miles away, who we don't know, and if they impress us with their preaching or credentials, they're it! How unspiritual, unbiblical and worldly!