Seminary did nothing to prepare me for ministry in a post-Christian context.
This comment, which was an aside in a conversation I had with a pastor today, has gnawed at me all day. Several hours after the conversation, I tweeted:
Pastor who graduated from a UM seminary: "Seminary did nothing to prepare me for ministry in a post-Christian context." Thoughts?
— Kevin M. Watson (@kevinwatson) January 29, 2014
The response was slow at first, but gathered momentum throughout the day and into the evening. (In hindsight, I really wish a hashtag had been created to help track the conversation. It has gone in several different directions and is difficult to trace now.)
Here are the main things I heard in the conversation: Some people are happy with their seminary experience and feel that it prepared them well for ministry in a post-Christian context. Others were frustrated with their seminary education and felt that it did not prepare them adequately for basic pastoral ministry. But what stuck with me the most was a general confusion about the purpose of seminary. One person tweeted: “I have heard more than once that it is not a theological school’s job to prepare people for ministry.”
This raises several questions for me: What is ministry? How ought one be prepared for it? If a theological school is not focused on preparing people for ministry, what is the purpose of a seminary education? And why would it be required for ordination? To what extent should the church and academy be connected to one another?
My hope in this post, then, is to continue the conversation with a broader audience and without the 140 character limit.
What do you think the purpose of a seminary education ought to be?
For those of you who have attended or are attending seminary, what are your thoughts about how well it prepared you for ministry?
To what extent should the church and academy be related or interdependent?
Brian LePort said:
This is a tough question to answer. When I worked in admissions for my seminary it gave my an insider’s look at how seminaries define there identity. Often it feels like the seminaries that are best at preparing people for the daily grind of ministry are not prepared to help them think through some of the big issues facing the Church today whereas the more academically inclined seminaries often fail to produce graduates who know how to live life and talk about God with people who don’t share their education. I think this polarization freezes up many seminary presidents and admin who aren’t quite sure how to bridge this chasm.
Garet Robinson said:
What a compelling quote to start off a post. I must say, for so many of my seminary peers it rings true. I graduated from seminary just over 9 years ago and have been in vocational ministry ever since.
I loved my time in seminary and benefitted greatly because of it.
However, little of what I discussed in the classroom adequately prepared me for a post-Christian environment. That’s why I stayed involved in a church plant in the heart of the city (Fort Worth) where my seminary (Southwestern Baptist) was established.
I do deeply worry that seminary is producing ministry ready pastors.
Seminary would be great if it weren’t run by scholars. Though scholarship and the immersion into academia is a vital part of seminary, the reality is that most at seminary should be pointed and trained to go out into the real world. All too often conversations focus around remote theological topics (which have their importance) and not in what it takes to actually minister to people in this culture. For me, seminary was a formative time to grow intellectually and spiritually. I had to go outside my seminary to grow in my ministerial identity.
Thanks for the post.
Carol Hampton said:
While I have not attended seminary … I thought the purpose of seminary was to teach knowledge beyond the basics. I think a pastor needs to know the history to understand what was going on during the times of the bible. Now one would say I can go to the library and learn that (true) but someone could go and read up on how to treat a person who has a brain tumor and do surgery …. now would you want that person doing your surgery (not me). I want my spiritual leader to have the knowledge that I don’t have. Zeal without knowledge can be dangerous.
I appreciate that in the United Methodist Church they require you go seminary. The part I don’t totally get is you have to a Bachelors degree, which usually has nothing to do with your what you are being called do in ministry, to be able to attend a Seminary and become an ordained minister. I also appreciate that if you aren’t able to go to seminary there are opportunities for “lay” ministers to be able to take classes and be effective in reaching and transforming the world also.
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I am a lay person who has heard similar comments from clergy. I believe that seminary, like most higher education degrees, provides the foundation and, hopefully, the lifelong thirst for knowledge. Few new graduates are fully ready to pursue their vocation whether it be brain surgery, engineering, or pastoring a congregation.
The education is critical but we must all be willing to form relationships, particularly with mentors; to seek out worthwhile continuing education opportunities; and to listen. My mind has been opened to so many opportunities to improve the vitality of our churches by observing other pastors, through workshops and reading and my own personal relationship with God. I am grateful and humbled for the time and resources that our pastors invest in their seminary education but we must calibrate expectations that we all need to join the journey of lifelong preparation for our careers.
Training, of course, is vital. To the degree that seminary provides that as well as the theological education that clergy need to bring to bear on their roles in ministry, it is important and useful.
But seminary as an industry, which is kind of what it has become since our denomination handed it the keys to our ordination process, is quickly becoming more and more burdensome. There are ever-increasing costs, the pursuit of esoterica under the banner of knowledge, a yawning and widening gap between what seminaries view as their mission and what the local church believes is its mission, and probably no shortage of other problems.
Seminaries are schools, and they pursue visions which focus on their survival as schools, whether standalone or connected to a university. If that survival happens to include the preparation of persons for ordination to ministry, then the church benefits. If it does not, then the church is burdened by the association.
I entered seminary at age 50. Especially after reading George G. Hunter III’s “Leading and Managing a Grwing Church” I could say that my MBA program was also helpful in being a 21st century pastor – a rancher instead of a shepherd.
But as I thought deeper, my thinking I can become prepared through human means such as a seminary education smacks of human pride. If God has truly called me, then God will provide what I need. I need to rely on God not on academia or business school or on my own self-motivation.
So no, seminary did not prepare me fully and thank God it didn’t.
A seminary needs to prepare people for ministry who are intellectually prepared to face a post Christian world with sufficient grasp of the core of the Christian theological tradition and history to enable clear and faithful teaching/preaching.
A seminary needs to prepare people for ministry who are spiritually focused Disciples of Jesus; who pursue holiness above all; and are willing to die for Jesus.
A seminary needs to prepare pastors to be cross-cultural missional practitioners who understand the pagan culture in which we live both in and outside of the church.
A seminary needs to teach pastors to maintain physical and emotional health throughout their ministry.
If you get that done in 3 years, “good on you!”
I was not trained in an American seminary. I am ordained in the Irish Methodist Church and was trained in their school in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Initially, I was left with a sense of having been armed with theological tools to take into ministry. We were trained to practice regular theological reflection in response to our experiences. The theological tools we were given were sound and were useful…if we had remained in seminary.
What I discovered when I was commissioned and sent to my first church was that all the theological training and theological reflection in the world was not enough equipping for pastoral ministry in the reality and chaos of peoples lives.
The theological stuff is extremely important – I get that. But I was left wondering if it might not have been better for the church in Ireland to have invested the resources that they do in training their ministers, into me being sent to a church for training on the job on a part time basis and the remainder of my time spent in college tackling the theological issues that arose.
Bottom line? In seminary, I did a lot of head work, theologically speaking, but I did not do a lot of heart work. If I was a college principal or seminary president, I would be seeking to invest in heart work for would-be pastors.
Kevin Watson said:
Thanks belfrev. It is helpful to hear the perspective of an Irish Methodist.
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Ray Mason said:
Seminary is a great tool if it does what it was intended to do, and that is to train future pastors in the biblical languages in order to be effective in rightly dividing God’s Word. Unfortunately, many Seminaries are beginning to downplay the importance of biblical Greek and Hebrew in ministry. Also, I feel that seminaries focus too much on techinal terminology and theological jargon that has little to nothing to do with real life ministry. I find that there is too little Bible being taught and as a result, people are graduating from seminary with very little knowledge of the Bible. I believe that the Bible should be the main textbook in any seminary. Hermeneutics, homiletics, biblical history, exegesis, biblical and systematic theology can all be taught from the Bible. The book of Romans itself contains all the major doctrines of the Christian faith. As a seminary graduate, I am not undermining the importance of sound research from other sources, but I believe that if the Bible is allowed it’s rightful place as the chief textbook in the seminary, then we will see a tremendous growth of future pastors graduating with a working knowledge of God’s Word so that they will be well equipped to ministry according to the Word of God. I know of seminaries that only uses the Bible as their textbook. I applaud them for that. The thing that bothers me is that too many critics criticize those seminaries that uses the Bible as the only textbook. Why call yourself a Bible school if the Bible is not used. Many that have gone to these non-traditional seminaries where the Bible is the only textbook have more knowledge concerning the Word of God than those who went to the traditional schools. The ultimate goal of seminary is to train and prepare men for the ministry of preaching God’s Word and not what some ancient theologian said. As a pastor, the Bible is my tool of trade. Just like tools are important to the auto mechanic, so is the Bible to the preacher, and the preacher should be prepared to use his tool (The Bible) in seminary.