- 13 Reasons Why (Traditional) Seminaries are Irrelevant (For Church Leaders): Part 1
- 13 Reasons Why (Traditional) Seminaries are Irrelevant (For Church Leaders): Part 2
- Why Seminaries are Irrelevant: A Postscript
- Seminary: Have we Lost our Imagination?
- Reinventing Seminary
- Reinventing Seminary: The Goal
The other day Jake Belder linked to a post about 5 Reasons Seminary is Relevant. As someone who is in seminary and also interested in how to best train and equip church leaders I found this post interesting while at the same time disagreeing profoundly. Below is my response, but first I should qualify that I define traditional seminary programs as full-time residential programs that require someone to relocate themselves to a brick-and-mortar institution for a period of 2-5 years. I believe these programs are becoming increasingly irrelevant and unhelpful.
Also, my limited seminary and professional experience has been in the mainline church, specifically the ELCA. So, some of the following critiques might not apply to evangelical seminaries, but I believe that most will.
With that, here is why I think traditional seminary programs are irrelevant for church leaders:
- Seminaries remove people from ministry contexts. The traditional seminary model has certain values that undermine local gatherings and remove people unnecessarily from their faith communities. Yes, I know that your fellow seminarians create a community, but there is a significant difference between a gathering of idealistic budding theologians and the average person in a congregation. Much discourse in academic settings is very pie-in-the-sky and not well grounded in reality.
- The process of seminary is no longer effective in preparing for ministry. When the dominant church model was oral proclamation, reasoned argument, and apologetics, perhaps sitting in classrooms studying the minutiae of supralapsarianism, practicing speaking skills, and honing rhetoric was helpful. Today, however, we are moving past such a model and moving towards organic, relational, flat models of ecclesiology and mission, making the seminary model less relevant.
- Denominations are becoming a thing of the past. Many seminaries are bastions of denominational conformity and preservation. Unfortunately for them, today’s younger generation could care less about denominations. Denominations did not arise in force until the 1800s. If they haven’t always been, then it is likely they won’t always be. Denominational seminaries might be the first to go.
- The future of ecclesiology is the priesthood of all believers. Many future church leaders will be bivocational, making a dedicated graduate degree impossible. Dedicating full-time graduate level study to something that doesn’t pay the bills is not a practical option.
- Seminaries are about credentialing as much as training. My school, Luther Seminary, had to (and continues to have to) jump through all sorts of hoops to get the Association of Theological Schools to accredit their innovative Distributive Learning Program, which, to the surprise of the old guard, has been wildly successful in providing church leaders with quality training. We continue to be restricted by ATS from doing certain things that might be helpful in our education. This is all because we are caught up with being accredited, which has nothing to do with the gospel or training church leaders. (I say Luther should consider making the bold move of becoming the first major seminary to break with the ATS in order to do what we need to do to train people for the church. I know it’s complicated and all, but we should at least be considering it.)
- The process of seminary is personally damaging. Maybe this is not happening across the board, but Luther Seminary is doing some research into what happens to the spiritual lives of seminarians between the time they enter seminary and the time they graduate. The results are not encouraging (sorry I don’t have a citation because the results are not published). Not only is ministry effectiveness questionable, but at a personal level seminarians are coming out less healthy than when they matriculated. My hypothesis is that seminary asks deep and profound questions that need to be wrestled with in the context of a constant, steady, familiar worshipping community in order to not inflict the damage that it does. The role of the Spirit is diminished by taking people out of their church community.
You can read reasons 7-13 here. I look forward to some lively conversation.
Kevin I says
Those are some very interesting things to consider.
Do you think those are sort of across the board for seminaries or only for seminaries of a certain stripe?
And when you mention the future of ministry leadership being bi-vocational, do you think that the expectations for ministry leaders will change to fit a bi-vocational mindset or will we just be burning through ministry leaders by keeping old expectations mixed with a new way?
Hey Kevin, thanks for the comment. In tomorrow’s post I clarify that this is a forward-looking post, so their relevance might not be so apparent today. I’m sure typewriter manufacturer’s weren’t so worried when the only computers were mainframes that filled up multiple rooms. However, I think that, for the most part, this is an across-the-board trend because I’m not talking about content but about models, and most seminaries use about the same model.
I think as ecclesiologies flatten it will be a bottom-up shift first. Meaning that we won’t have pastors becoming bi-vocational, thus showing their congregations that they need to step up to do ministry as well. I think that congregations will begin doing a lot more ministry from the bottom-up, which will cause people to ask why they need to have someone with an M.Div. be their pastor as a full-time job.
Scott Lenger says
Your point #2 is $!
And while I don’t think #4 applies to everyone, I have recently felt pulled in that direction.
I’ve been meaning to post my own reasons for my recent skepticism of Seminary, though haven’t yet gotten around to it. I will say that Peter Rollins idea of transformation has been pivotal for me in terms of considering avenues outside of Seminary for pastoral formation.
Scott, thanks for the encouragement.
Since this is a forward-looking post, no one will remember this by the time we get around to confirming #4. I think it will take one hundred years to really get there. And obviously, prosperity gospel churches who build around Christian celebrities will never want a flat ecclesiology. However, how many of them are seminary-trained anyways?
I like Rollins as well. Very provocative thinker.
Maybe I can provide some further discussion from a different perspective.
#1. Many seminaries require a good amount of ministry work and many classes coordinate with ministry work to be effective.
#2. Seems like more of the blog title here than a point. I understand communication is different today but students still need a strong doctrinal understanding to lead. Just because communication has changed doesn’t mean leaders shouldn’t be qualified.
#4. Same thing as my response to #2. No movement happened without a leader…seminary is raising up leaders who are qualified to lead for today.
#6. I would say that yes seminary can be hard because of the focus on doctrine that tends to numb the spiritual aspect of faith. But partially, what seminary becomes and how it affects a person’s heart is up to them.
Tyler, thanks for your thoughts. Part of the background to this is my participation in a non-traditional distance-learning program, so I’m just a wee bit biased. But, I would be willing to bet that on issue #6 that people going through the same curriculum, wrestling with the same questions, but doing it in a way that allows them to stay grounded in their communities of faith will yield much less damage than a traditional residential program. Luther Seminary is beginning to do some research with this into, unfortunately the results are not available.
A few quick comments:
#1. I’m aware of that and almost added some comments about those programs and why I think they are less effective but wanted to stay brief. Many people have to relocated from ministries they are already involved in. Secondly, even if you were fully involved in a ministry full-time for the four years of an M.Div. you are just beginning to hit your stride in that particular context at the end of the four years. I obviously prefer a program that require practical ministry work over none, but think there might be a better model out there.
#2. Yeah, the bolded part might not be as descriptive as I wanted. Hopefully you know what I’m getting at by reading the rest.
#3. We agree!
#4. I do think that part of the transition to a new model will have to come from credentialed seminary professors and ordained ministers, which is quite ironic, but they are the only people who can bridge the credibility gap until a new model is proven effective. And God has always raised up leaders, with or without seminaries.
#5. No comments… maybe you agree?!
I’m not saying that seminaries haven’t done good things, but that for the critical work of training church leaders there could be a better way. You’ll see more tomorrow.
I appreciate the thoughts.
I appreciate your thoughts, and I do agree with some points, I have trouble with a few others. Here’s what I mean:
1. Not all seminaries remove people from the ministry context. Ok, so you used the word “traditional” and I’ll give you that out. But I know several seminaries that are really of the traditional variety that are venturing out to change scheduling, provide online courses and such, so that people don’t have be in residency for the entire duration. I went to Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa. They went to block scheduling. So a class that would ordinarily meet 3 days/week for 1 hour was changed to 1 day/week for 3 hours. Almost all the way through I took classes 1 day a week and was able to serve in ministry the duration.
Most seminaries I know of actually require service in a ministry context. They’ll call it “Field Education” or “Supervised Ministry” and students are usually partnered with a mentor for the duration.
2. Yes and no. I found many courses very effective in training me. And of course there were some that were a total waste. I think it depends on your intended vocation and the electives you choose to take. But there were of course some major deficiencies in the curriculum.
3. Truer every day. But if not this model for preparation then who takes the reigns? Something to think about.
4. While I agree in principle, there will always be a need for training and educating the primary leaders of the priesthood. Until congregations are able to train ministers completely from within their ranks this model has some need.
6. I’ve seen this and known this. And it’s hard to explain. I think your explanation is a bit over-simplistic, though. For one, the common denominator may be participation in the seminary experience, but that doesn’t necessarily make it the cause. There could be other factors (and probably are). Could it be that seminary may actually be weeding out some people who maybe aren’t really ready to answer the call?
Thank for your thoughts, Dan. Most of my responses to Tyler’s comments above apply here as well. I just want to reiterate, again, that I am not against education and training, but that the traditional seminary model might not be the best way to go about it.
Though I loved much of my full-time on-campus seminary experience, I have to say that I agree with a lot of what you have written. While I assume most seminaries do provide field experience, much of what you learn in the classroom is not really applicable to hands-on ministry (at least not directly). That said, I did have one professor who suggested that while “not everyone needs to know why the light switch turns on the light, SOMEBODY has to understand what is happening inside the wall.”
As to moving more toward post-denominationalism and the priesthood of all believers, I hope this will only be for the betterment of the Church.
Ron Amundson says
Wow… lots of stuff, I could write a book, but just a few things. Fwiw, I have not attended seminary, nor am I a pastor, but I get accused of both periodically. Otoh, I’ve worked with hundreds of pastors and seminarians, perhaps it rubs off, don’t know.
Idealism propagates not by direct intervention, but by osmosis, but it has to start somewhere, and somewhat coordinated sources are important. I think not to expose seminarians to such would be a huge dis-service. Idealism fosters a higher level of thinking, and preparedness, even if not directly applicable.
Shred faith and rebuild in a local ministry context is dangerous… ones local peers can offer emotional support, but they really have zero idea as concerns the huge faith struggles that many seminarians are dealing with. I’ll also throw out consideration, that bringing those faith struggles to a local level is not without danger either. Its one thing for a sr pastor to bring meat to the congregation… to have spillings randomly fall off the truck from a seminarian, without the experience to deal with the fallout could well compound the problem for both the congregation and the seminarian.
I do agree that both spiritual and emotional support are needed, but to sacrifice spiritual support, ie your peers, professors, seminary faith community for emotional support… I think its too dangerous. Far too many enthusiastic young folks enter seminary and freak out as is, I just don’t think local ministry context can do justice in this area, of course the emotional part is pretty critical too. You may have a good argument as concerns the combo approach.
I concur with the cost… but lets be realistic. A fully burdened ft professors salary is ~$150K, classroom and direct admin overhead could be reduced to perhaps $50K. An idealistic grad school student/professor ratio is 1:10. Thats $20k/yr/student, then add in overhead, and living expenses… I know a multitude of people that would like to attend seminary, but walking out with 6 figure debt precludes that option for many.
I’ve seen cases where churches have tried to home grow pastors… Often times it leads to pretty far out and dangerous doctrines, each year shifting a little bit further off center. Granted, technology has mitigated this a bit as of late, but the danger imho far outweighs the benefits. I do very much agree the individual local church should do more, or at least make provisions for such. The combo approach again seems to be of benefit.
Wow, you could write a book! Thanks for all the thoughts. Random comments by me:
Interesting thoughts on idealism. Will need to think more on this.
Regarding home-grown pastors, I’ve seen it both succeed and fail. And I’ve seen plenty of seminarians come out with pretty whacked out and dangerous doctrine as well. One example is a spirit of sectarianism as a pastor thinks they’ve got it all right and everyone else is damned.
Again, I just really want to reiterate that I am not against rigorous education and training, but I am saying that the prevailing seminary model is not the future of the church.
Andrew Tatum says
I just started reading your blog and, as a fellow youth minister in a mainline church, I’m loving what I’m reading!
This post in particular really hit home because I’ve studied in two different seminaries and I think a lot of what you say is spot on.
However, I think I need to take issue with the first two points. Here’s what you wrote,
“1. Seminaries remove people from ministry contexts. The traditional seminary model has certain values that undermine local gatherings and remove people unnecessarily from their faith communities. Yes, I know that your fellow seminarians create a community, but there is a significant difference between a gathering of idealistic budding theologians and the average person in a congregation. Much discourse in academic settings is very pie-in-the-sky and not well grounded in reality.”
I’ve studied both at a fairly young and small Baptist seminary and at an old, very large, and VERY traditional Methodist seminary and I’d say that both of these – via field education programs or conscious encouragement of work within the local church – are very effective at helping students connect with local churches in ways that are both realistic and authentic. Not to contradict it’s just that my experience has been fundamentally different from what you describe in this regard.
You also wrote:
“2. The process of seminary is no longer effective in preparing for ministry. When the dominant church model was oral proclamation, reasoned argument, and apologetics, perhaps sitting in classrooms studying the minutiae of supralapsarianism, practicing speaking skills, and honing rhetoric was helpful. Today, however, we are moving past such a model and moving towards organic, relational, flat models of ecclesiology and mission, making the seminary model less relevant.”
Once again, at both seminaries I’ve attended during the course of my M.Div. program, there has been an exploration of (at the large, traditional seminary) and an outright recommendation of (at my current seminary) a more flattened ecclesiology. I’ve been an advocate of an “every member functioning” ecclesiology (a la Frank Viola and Leonard Sweet) at school and, although I’ve received lots of push-back from fellow students (some of whom are there for a “credential” that gets them a higher salary), my professors have been encouraging. So again, not all seminaries are doing all that poorly in this regard.
Again, Matt, great post(s). I’m looking forward to reading more of what you write as I think it will be inspiring and helpful to me in my own ministry.
Grace & peace to you!
Andrew, I just started reading your blog recently as well, and am loving it. Keep it up. I’m going to post some more on these ideas and address some of the holes in my argument.
Thanks for stopping by.
Dr. Paul Hill says
After working in theological education for 17 years I would say I agree! Except, some seminaries (i.e. Luther in St. Paul, MN) are moving very rapidly to distributive learning degrees that do not remove people from place and context. Well done and keep up your comments. P.S. Check out my blog on our website, I think you’ll find a kindred spirit.
Paul, thanks! Maybe some day our paths will cross when I’m up at Luther for classes.
We enjoyed hosting Lyle and Marilyn for our Passing on Faith Conference back in February. Some great things have started to happen around our synod as a result. Thanks for the work the Youth and Family Institute does.
Minnesota Jobs says
Thanks for this. Just subscribed.