The title of this post is bound to raise some ire. But it’s time to call a spade a spade. I’m writing this post because of numerous conversations I’ve had in the past 2 years with people who feel a calling from God toward Christian ministry and assume that going to seminary is the natural “next step.”
Here’s one example: a young man in our church is about to graduate from Bible college and wants to serve in pastoral ministry. Last week, he told a friend of mine that he’s planning on going to seminary next year. Wanting to be helpful, my friend asked what his criteria were for choosing a seminary.
He had no idea.
This isn’t an isolated incident. Christians have a nebulous perception that a seminary degree is like a union card for pastoral ministry. News flash: it’s not. In fact, in Acts 29, we find that church planters without a seminary degree are often more successful than those with a degree.
Readers are going to have to forgive me for some over-generalizations in this post. What I am going to say is not true of all seminaries, all seminary graduates, or all potential seminary attendees. I am not anti-seminary. I have a seminary degree myself, and I cherish the education and the spiritual formation that it provided me. But it’s time for someone to challenge the standard assumptions.
First things first: theological training is a must for anyone called to the pastorate. Pastors who don’t have a deep grasp of history, theology, and philosophy are simply unqualified. Titus 1:9 requires that all who serve in the office of elder (pastor) must be able to “give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” According to Richard Lovelace, Christianity quickly lost influence after the Second Great Awakening because “the leadership of lay evangelists without formal theological training… led to a progressively shallower spirituality among evangelicals and to a loss of intellectual command” (Dynamics of Spiritual Life, p. 50). Pastors work in the world of ideas. They are guardians of a storied theological heritage and teachers of a philosophy of life. Education is a must.
So I’m not denying the importance of sound, rigorous theological training. I’m simply questioning whether seminary is the place to get it. Here are some of my concerns:
- Seminary pulls pastors “off the streets” for 3 or 4 years to isolate them in a sterile academic environment. While this might be great for paper-writing, it’s really bad for missional living.
- The nature of the business means that seminaries are always juggling the best interests of students, faculty, donors, and accrediting agencies. These players are never in agreement, which means that no one is ever happy.
- Seminaries seek to accomplish theological training apart from immersion in a local church. Though most require their students to be active in a church, seminaries tend to be a breeding ground for Monday-morning-theologians who want to critique the church rather than serve it.
- Because professors are pressured to publish and gain tenure, the classes they teach are often little more than laboratories for their latest projects. One seminary student in our church told me that every one of his classes this semester uses a book written by the professor.
- Seminaries have to pay the bills, which means it’s in their best interests to keep students around as long as possible. Seminaries continue to promote the M.Div. as the “flagship” degree – even though a 2-year M.A. with well-chosen electives is often just as good, and about $15,000 cheaper.
- Seminary graduates tend to exit with heads full of theology, but without worshipful hearts or authentic relationships with non-Christians. I am aware this is an over-generalization. But unfortunately it’s an accurate one.
- Because of a seminary’s need to cater to a diverse student body, most seminaries can’t offer a truly systematic theological education. Students end up having to piece together the fragmented bits of data they’ve accumulated in so many haphazard, out-of-sequence courses. The idea of a cohesive “body of learning” is all but lost in the modern academy.
The seminary model is a tired one that needs to be updated for a post-Christian, technological age. Here’s a possible way forward:
- The primary place for pastoral training and development should be within the local church. Good, theologically astute elders can guide aspiring leaders through a year or two of seminary-level reading and study without ever removing them from their church body. Rather than paying thousands of dollars for a packaged seminary education, aspiring leaders can get exactly the same level of reading and study (minus the classroom interaction) for free, with the added bonus of mentorship and community with others in their local church.
- Regionally influential churches should band together to host theological training academies, similar to what Mars Hill/Acts 29 has begun to do with Re:Train. Cadres of a couple dozen students can fly top-notch professors in, wine them and dine them, and pay a hefty honorarium for their labor, and still come out way ahead of the $400 or $500 per credit hour that seminaries charge.
- Theological students should use technology to access “the best of the best” teachers and theologians. Many seminaries offer lectures for free through iTunes U. Others allow students to audit classes via videoconferencing. If you want to learn systematic theology from Wayne Grudem, church history from John Hannah, and apologetics from John Frame, why not?
- Seminaries should continue to hire and equip the best and brightest academic minds in Christianity to do battle on the field of ideas. We need good theologians doing high-level academic work, and seminaries provide an important context for that. But rather than paying the bills by lassoing directionless Bible-college grads for a 3-year M.Div., they should focus their recruiting efforts on doctoral students, pastors who want ongoing training, and “a la carte” students who would pay to access the wisdom and expertise of the most talented professors in a given field. Seminaries could cut all the “adjunct” faculty and retain only the best and brightest thinkers.
How would this change the face of theological education? Right now an aspiring pastor goes into the poorhouse to fund a 3-year M.Div, only to come out less equipped (in many ways) than when he went in. Imagine if that same aspiring pastor spent 2 years studying theology under the direction of his local church elders, then a third year taking electives from “the best of the best” professors at various seminaries, available through distance-ed or through short on-site intensives. He would avoid debt, stay connected to the local church, continue to grow as a missionary and worshipper (not just a theologian), and still come out with a top-notch education – and a much better pedigree for missional leadership.
When I was a sophomore engineering major at the University of Oklahoma, I contacted a family friend about a potential summer internship. He said, “Yeah, I’d love to have you come work for me – because after you get your degree, I’m going to need you to un-learn everything you’ve learned anyway.” That’s exactly how I feel about seminary graduates who are coming into a missional church-planting movement. The model I’ve proposed certainly isn’t flawless – and if you’d like to defend the current model or propose other alternatives, I’d love to hear from you. But the fact is that seminaries simply aren’t producing the kind of leaders that missional church leaders are looking for. It’s time for a change.
Thoughts? Disagreements? Fire away.
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I think you make some good points. I know a lot of people who were AT seminary who thought the same thing.
I think another thing that local church vs seminary offers is less turnover in elders. If you go to RTS or SBTS or Westminster, Masters etc, there are classes that talk about what a successful ministry looks like, often causing a lot of turnover. As it stands, most pastors only stay at a church for 2 years. I think, in a large part, because you leave seminary and become a “senior” pastor at some church with 200 people. You’re not prepared for the infighting that may or may not be there. You’re not prepared on how to lead a congregation through difficult problems. You’re trained how to read Greek and Hebrew, how to interpret a passage of scripture, why John Huss was important of the reformation, which is only a small portion of a pastor’s weekly responsibilities.
Now if theological training was bringing up elders in a local church, they’ll have a vested interest in that church. It will be more likely that they’ll stick it out when times get tough, additionally, the church will be more likely to tolerate the short comings of the pastor. Better yet, they’ll get some real world experience without needing to carry the weight of the entire pastoral staff.
The church can still send out planters out of their congregation, but but it a church planting a church, and not a para-church ministry.
Here’s one more reason why maybe you shouldn’t go to seminary. In A LOT of churches, if you
1. are a male
2. show interest in church
3. have the capacity & desire to learn
you’ll be pushed into leadership of some sort and/or encouraged to go to seminary.
If you can speak publicly without stammering and tripping over yourself, you’ll almost be forced to go.
However, it’s more of an indictment of the missing mature men in our church than anything else. Because someone appears “mature” it’s assumed they’ll be a great pastor. However, it’s entirely possible to be mature simply by outshining the average Sunday morning member.
I’m not trying to sound harsh or judgmental, but I think the answer is far simpler than anything written here. Jesus is Lord of my life, I’m following Him, period. I would never spend the time or money on seminary if I wasn’t certain it was His will. If the Lord leads me there, then I trust my experience is the one He has for me and rather than analyze everything through my understanding I can have faith that I have followed Jesus into this experience. Should you go to seminary? How about ask God. Making a pro’s and con’s list ultimately has nothing to do with being led by the spirit, after all ‘sons of God are led by the Spirit’ In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths. There is literally no end to people debating what they think is best. In the end, we will all stand before God and give account, I just want to be able to say, ‘I followed You Lord.’
I’ll be the first to say amen. I’m not going to apologize for having an M.Div., but at the very least we must all admit that “ministry preparation” and “seminary education” are not synonymous.
I think that is a fair and accurate statement to begin with my brother.
Some good thoughts here Bob, and a few things I would challenge. This sounds like the Home School vs. Public or Private school debate. In this debate, i have found that many people form a conviction for themselves, then export it to the masses as a litmus test of the “best way” to do education. Each side has their arguments, statistics and anecdotal reasons for believing as they do. Here is my problem . . . somewhere in the exporting of our convictions, we lose sight of the fact that each individual person and context is simply different, therefore different solutions work for different folks. In the home school debate, there are contexts and kids where home schooling works out well. However, there are also times when home schooling kills a kid, socially, vocationally, and mentally. It all depends on the kid and the resources (parents) available to him. Here is my point:
When we look at the “best” model for ministry training, we are making lots of assumptions and looking at the world with very idealistic goggles on. God reaches the hearts of many people (young and old) in different contexts. Some contexts (like some households) have great leadership and could “home school” their young leaders well. Others have poor leadership. Seminaries provide a critical path for those not currently in churches, cities, etc. where solid biblical leadership exists. In essence, they are the public or private school option in my analogy.
Second, as a seminary graduate, I had a wonderful experience in my time that greatly prepared me for ministry. I needed to get out of my mold and be placed in a different soil to grow. The seminary did not hold me by the hand and tailor make a ministry setting for me, I had to take advantage of resources they provided and find contexts in which to serve while in school. I learned as much about life and ministry from my time off campus while at seminary as I did on campus, but for me, the whole experience could not have been recreated in the comfy confines of previous setting. Public or private schooling was a better option for me than being home schooled.
I now am back serving at the church I attended while in college. What I learned and experienced in my days away was of great service to me in my return. I have seen this with at least two others I know of who have gone from our church to seminary before coming back. There is a seasoning that comes for some people with leaving home for a time. As a church we seek to partner with the seminary to help keep in contact with our students, help them keep engaged with the body and ministry, etc.
I write all this to challenge you to not be so hard on all those who do not take the home schooling option. As it is with families, many factors (more than just the ones you mention) go into making wise decisions here. I hope this adds to an important conversation here!
I think you bring up some great principled points, and have successfully straw manned the worst of seminary experience. There are (no doubt) drawbacks to home school options as well. As they said on the 1980’s sit-com “The Facts of Life” – “You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have the Facts of life.” 🙂
I think it would be great for there to be multiple options for ministry prep . . . some home school, others private or public. I think this would help sharpen all involved and keep the conversation (as you accurately point out) on ministry prep, not degree attainment. Thanks for writing on this important topic Bob!
I’m totally with you Bob. I’m participating in Re:Train specifically because I can get world-class instruction, supportive co-hort fellowship, and practical assignments all while not leaving the city in which I feel called to plant a church. Were I to go to seminary, I would have to move somewhere for years, leave the relationships I’ve built, gain debt, and then return to the place where God has called me.
Thanks for this. No doubt, many seminary students are susceptible to exactly what you talk about. However, my opinion is that much of your rationale is a problem with the character of seminary students, not the institutions themselves.
Many of my seminary classmates squandered their experience by unplugging from ministry during those three or four years and fell prey to the Monday-morning theologian disease. However, many of us chose not to discontinue ministry while in seminary, choosing instead to stay involved in the “real world” and use our theological education to supplement the conversations we were having out there.
I benefited a great deal from the intensity of the seminary experience. It forced me to think through some issues that weren’t practical in order to think more clearly about the issues that are. It also gave me an exposure to differing ideas and people from other traditions; I wouldn’t have received that to the same degree without the seminary experience.
Doctors focus for 4 or more years so that they can accurately handle the human body. We wouldn’t trust a doctor who hasn’t completed the rigors of medical school. In the grand scheme of things, it is worth at least that kind of focused investment to handle Scripture accurately as well. If a person can’t complete seminary while staying involved in ministry to people, the problem is with him or her, not the seminary.
By the way – I’m excited to find your blog. We stumbled across the Gospel-Centered Life material a few months ago and are using it with some of our small groups. You guys have done a great job on it.
Just a general question. Do you think this model is applicable to all graduate-level learning?
That’s what I was going to ask, Josh. I’ve been thinking about taking classes again, but the hindrance is the cost and overall commitment. The proposed model sounds more attractive, but for some reason, I don’t know if I trust its legitimacy.
Here is a website that I was blown away by:
Scholars and professors from top U.S. universities such as Harvard, Standford, Yale, and more offer up free video lectures on a large spectrum of subjects on Academic Earth. Personally, I have used the lectures by Dr. David J. Malan (Harvard) to gain some helpful insight into basic computer science. Currently, there is only one theologically focused series of lectures available (Introduction to the Old Testament from professor Christine Hayes of Yale University) and it is limited to her first three lectures in the course.
It would be great to see this website broaden their scope and offer more theologically driven content in the future. Or to see a similar approach taken in the evangelical community to get more content out to the everyday person wanting to gain theological insight. I think there is a lot of value in these type of lectures being available in video rather then just audio.
There is probably a seminary already doing something like this that I am just unaware of. Has anybody ever run into anything like that?
There is a shift going on even in seminaries, which is to move from simply academic preparation for ministry to more of a ministry renewal center. In other words, it’s not just about starting the race well but running and finishing the race well.
I’m not sure why these ministry fitness hubs can’t be located in churches with the direction of biblical elders, rather than in academic institutions. The function you are talking about, Bob, as far as academic ministry could be accomplished by a think tank just as well as a seminary. I would just marry the think tank, or better yet birth it out of, a missional church.
My hope is that Re: Train will deliver content online. I made a conscious decision to have seminary come to me, instead of vice versa. Going to seminary is not the answer. Not going to seminary is not the answer. The “answer” is the gospel, and how do we become equipped for a whole life of committed gospel ministry.
Bottom line I think the biggest weakness of seminaries is that they either overtly or unintentionally “approve” men for ministry who have no business anywhere close to biblical eldership.
“Not going to seminary is not the answer. The “answer” is the gospel, and how do we become equipped for a whole life of committed gospel ministry.
That is the end goal. How we get there can be worked out. Just don’t lose sight of this goal. This is crucial to the whole issue. Amen!
[…] been thinking about this question a lot lately. Bob Thune would say no. I really like his reasons, many of which have been on mind as reasons for not going. So for […]
Regarding Jon’s comment that , “… the biggest weakness of seminaries is that they … ‘approve’ men for ministry who have no business anywhere close to biblical eldership.”
I suspect after you take $40,000 and three years of a man’s life it’s difficult to withhold approval.
Thanks for stepping out and writing this, Bob.
I would suggest a few nuances to this question that may make a huge difference in this decision for different individuals.
Take location for example. While living in Omaha, the thought of pursuing an MDiv was unrealistic because it would require a major move and a 3-4 year commitment in a foreign city. But now that I live with RTS-DC in my backyard I can pursue seminary and serve in my local church and maintain a normal life at the same time.
Second, I think guys on a pastoral team will be called to fulfill different roles. I’ve seen churches begin to hire theologically minded men who oversee the teaching of the entire pastoral team. Seminary training may benefit the entire church, especially in areas of discernment of theological fads and answering theological difficulties. I would say the same thing about men who will lead the biblical counseling ministry in a local church. The benefits of earning a degree under counselors like Ted Tripp and David Powlison is hard to argue against.
I think as young men and women we are attracted to the pragmatic and anything that promises immediate fruit. Our impatience can hinder us from doing great things. I fear this is behind the church planting vs. seminary discussion.
On my computer screen I keep this quote: “Young people tend to overestimate what they can do in the short run and underestimate what they can do in the long run.” Wise words to consider.
So those are a few thoughts.
I dig. When I went to seminary, I cut my income in half while doubling my living expenses because I thought I had to have the degree. I wish the seminary had asked me if I was financially able to attend and wish they would have turned me away due to lack of good planning for my family. After two years as a YP, I am now involved wth an A29 church and have a job working sewer pipe construction, which I am finding out is one of the best places to prepare someone for pastoring.
I’d agree with alot of your concern about pulling training out of ministry and Id agree that there are some dangers with Seminaries.
But I think your speaking to a specific context.
–Not all seminaries are alike. I attended a seminary in Pittsburgh were more than 50% of the students are existing ministers who are are go in the evenings to receive the theological training that is lacking in the local congregations.
–In many denominations theological education is required, but it doesn’t have to be seminary, the PCA for instance has a cohort model, which is local and cheap.
–I think Total Church’s talk about theologians in residence in the local church is a helpful one.
–I do agree that we need to realize that seminaries are one way that we equip men to teach, but so is re:train. Re:train might be awesome, but its not going work in every context.
Check out http://www.biblicaltraining.org . There are several classes there for people at several stages of maturity. I also believe Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis offers several online courses free of charge at http://worldwide-classroom.com/ . There are probably more, but those are two I’m aware of.
Thanks Mark, TSR, and sdesocio for bringing up some important contextual factors. You have added valuable insights to the conversation.
Again, I’m not arguing against the value of seminary education in certain contexts and for certain roles. And, to be clear TSR, I’m not opposing church planting and seminary – I believe in the value of both. I’m trying to lobby AGAINST seminary being seen as the default choice for young guys heading toward pastoral ministry, and FOR the recovery of theological training within the context of the local church.
My opinion is that young men get plenty of encouragement to attend seminary (often from seminaries who want their money, family members who see graduate education as more “credible,” and church leaders who are naively optimistic – see Nathan’s points). Rarely do they hear a cogent argument against attending seminary. I’m hoping to make that argument, in order to contribute something helpful to the discussion and keep a few men from making the wrong decision.
[…] Thune on why you shouldn't go to seminary. He also reviews Paul Miller's A Praying […]
There is an chapter in “The Urban Face of Mission” by Harvie Conn and others, which speaks to the question of how good is seminary in our present situation.
I am enjoying this comment thread. A good portion of the comments caveat Bob’s argument- “yes, but it depends on context,” etc. For those who have commented, what questions would you propose the potential student ask themselves in making the decision to attend seminary?
Also, to TSR- could you elaborate on what you mean here:
sorry the html didn’t work. I meant this quote: I think as young men and women we are attracted to the pragmatic and anything that promises immediate fruit. Our impatience can hinder us from doing great things. I fear this is behind the church planting vs. seminary discussion.
I agree that the autonomy of education–divorced from it’s rightful place in the context of the local church–is problematic. I agree that training must be done in tandem with the church. I’m a little skeptical that adequate training can be accomplished completely apart from a traditional scholastic arragement. Some of the more technical subjects (e.g. language study) cannot be effectively learned in a weekend (I feel even summer intensives short change people) or online: the dynamic of a teacher to ask questions, interact with and give feedback is key for language study. In your paradigm, how do you see this working?
Hooley – good thoughts. One answer: there is a guy in Omaha who is formerly a seminary-level Greek prof – got his PhD and then served as an international missionary teaching Greek to students at a seminary overseas. He is tutoring some of the leaders at another church in town. I think assets like this allow for the possibility of teaching chnical subjects, facilitating teacher-student interaction, etc.
Also: I took my NT Greek at the University of Oklahoma, in the Classics department, with 3 frat guys, a couple nerdy girls, and a prof who wore tweed jackets and carried a pocket watch. We spent a whole semester translating parts of the Gospel of John. That provided opportunities for mission and evangelism that a seminary could never provide. But as long as seminaries are the “default option” for Christian graduate work, students won’t consider possibilities like this that might exist in their local context.
Great reply, but I just wanted to push back a bit. NT PhD Profs that teach Koine Greek for fun at local churches is a very scarce phenomenon. I have yet to come into contact with one. I myself am a seminary student and I have been studying Greek for 3 years. I cannot imagine having gotten anywhere near I am now with only a summer or short intensive program. When I took First semester, I had a Greek professor who was so committed in his walk with Christ and applied Greek to his disciplines. In short, this prof transformed the way I integrated greek into my ministry and life. This would not have happened I would have taken koine with your prof and in your class room setting.
As a seminary professor myself, I think Bob has hit on some important points and yet also think (as he admits) he has made some big assumptions that may need to be modified and evaluated seminary by seminary.
Regarding his opening illustration about a young man thinking of going to seminary yet having not criteria of evaluation, I am in complete agreement. It is too often the case that folks thinking about “going into ministry” believe that seminary is just the “next step” and never stop to consider why or how to get the most out of the time they invest. In my own case I chose to invest the first 4 years out of college in a hands on context with Campus Crusade for Christ. It was only after the 4 years of training in evangelism and discipleship on staff with Crusade that I knew what I lacked and what seminary could train me in that I was not going to find anywhere else.
Having said that, then, the advice I would give for someone considering seminary training would be to be very clear on the reasons you are going, have a specific goal and sense of “oughtness” and then choose very wisely on what doctrinal foundations and missional activities bleed out of the seminary. Bob is right in pointing out that with many schools the theology is divorced from practice and the missional discussion never leaves the classroom. I would avoid such a school like the plague.
But again, as a seminary professor, I will tell you first hand that not all schools are like this. In my own case, for example, I teach Christian Ethics, I take my students on mission trips and live life with them on the field (next week I leave for the middle east), I am an elder in my local church and I disciple men in one on one contexts in which we dig into scripture and share christ verbally as well as through service. Where I teach (Southeastern Seminary) that is more the norm than the exception among faculty.
As for books and the “labratory” comment, I think Bob is probably stretching his critique to far. As a dear older brother of mine once told me “never enter a class without knowing the basic assumptions of your professor.” Thus, as a teacher what better way for me to transfer these assumptions to my students for them to apply Acts 17:11 to than in writing. But in addition to things I write, I have them also reading John Frame, Christopher Wright and Jerry Bridges so that they are exposed broadly “to the best of the best.” Not all schools have a “publish or perish” dogma… but even when they do, would you rather study with a person who is reading very broadly in their field and culling through all the various ideas and then trying to systematize the best of the best in their own writings for their students?
As is so often the case, perhaps a “both/and” approach is better than an “either/or”. Overall I think Bob has some very good critiques. However, I would probably want to say from the other side of the coin… while I agree it is not for all and certainly not necessary for effective ministry, to be trained for a 60 (and prayfully more) year run of effectiveness in building the kingdom of God and training mature and ministering worshippers of God, perhaps we ought to set aside focused time to “study to show ourselves approved unto God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed because he handles accurately the word of truth.”
Many of the things mentioned above are so true, and it is critical for ministry preparation to be done within the context of the church, and often seminary’s are sterile harboring an environment of an exiled monk…that said, the article above misses two major points:
1. This assumes that the elders of that local church (a) can invest in the student in terms of quantities of time (b) that Christ would want the duplication of those leaders. Sadly, most of our churches leader’s probably shouldnt be duplicated.
2. There is no place in the above rhetoric that addresses the heart of the student. For the lack of mission, lack of vibrancy in study, lack of involvement in local church while in seminary, etc. that student needs to repent and take responsibility for his/her actions instead of simply blaming the system known as the seminary.
We are sinners, we need a healthy recognition of that and be careful in creating ideological situations for things to be harbored and be more careful to recognize the sinfulness of man and have him/her take responsibility for themselves and in light of that seek the wisest counsel to make them effective as a minister of God, be that in a local church (preferable) or a seminary.
Mark: Thanks VERY much for your perspective. I appreciate you taking the time to add your thoughts as a prof.
Nathan, good points on the heart. If I were to offer a counter-point (and I am), I would simply say I think your assessment is too individualistic. While our hearts are definitely the root problem, the environment we are in can do much to either soften or deaden our hearts. Yes, people are prone to “blame the system” and avoid responsibility. On the other side of things: sometimes the system legitimately shares some of the blame.
I’m not sure I have anything new to add to this discussion, but I can affirm some of the thoughts that have been offered. As a recent graduate from seminary (studying under Mark Liederbach), and now 4 months into church planting – I would absolutely commend the “both/and” approach. Bob has brought up some wonderful thoughts and suggestions – many of which I’ve discussed with brothers in the seminary and church planting worlds.
I think the model Bob suggests would be ideal – that men and women would be able to receive such training within their local church context, under the supervision and leadership of qualified elders. There are contexts where I believe this would be more than possible. I think of Wake Forest/Raleigh, NC. I could name several local church contexts with equipped elders who would be able to teach and facilitate the model Bob suggests. I would imagine that Seattle would be another such place, and maybe in Omaha (I’m unfamiliar with the overall state of local churches here).
However, where I grew up in NW Arkansas, this option absolutely would not exist. And I’m afraid that is probably more often the case across our country than not. It sounds like most everyone would probably agree that Bob’s proposed model (along with suggestions brought up in the above comments) would be more ideal. The best place for “seminary” to happen would be in the context of a missional local church community.
I would be interested to kick the above question around: So what does Billy Bob do when a gospel-centered, Christ-exalting, missional, local church does not exist in the place he has a heart to minister?
The first thing that comes to my mind is that we would continue to saturate our country and the nations with gospel-centered, Christ-exalting, missional, local churches which are led by biblically qualified/equipped elders. In so doing we make the proposed model more of a possibility.
Any thoughts or proposed answers to the question?
Thanks for the comment Bob and again, so thankful this discussion is even being had…however the heart analysis was to be read within the context of the intro and number one of my post, consequently it is communal not entirely individualistic, although, we can talk a great deal about the system in place (and we should), but until we get to the heart behind it all, we are simply moving the deck chairs on the titanic, and that second point was to bring to light that this aspect is rarely mentioned within these discussions.
The system does have some level of fault and those involved will have to give an account, but I am confident the system will not be an acceptable excuse to the Lord for my sterility while in seminary. Let us be quick to discuss this side of the story while also discussing the improvement of the “system.” We are far to quick to see the problem “out there” and not “within” and this isnt individualistic, repentance within Biblical community is the healthiest model and this is what I am advocating.
I am thankful for all you brothers that sharpen me…may the Gospel advance through Christ’s vessel, the church.
I would love to work myself out of a job. In fact, that is what I have been trying to do for a decade! If that happened, the only thing that would change in my life is where my paycheck comes from. “Seminary professor” is just a title given to me and a platform for reaching the lost and equipping them to join with me (and my local church) in the process of becoming mature and ministering worshippers of God.
It is the chief job of a seminary (which is a para-church organization) to serve the local church bodies.
Having said that, there are some ways that seminaries could serve local bodies even if the country was saturated with the types of local churches we all longed for. For example, it would be difficult to teach Greek and Hebrew in a local setting – both in regard to qualified me to teach it as well as a cadre of students in that church to justify the course being taught. Seminaries can be places that can collect qualified me and spin them around each other to cross pollinate and go out stronger.
Like government jobs (as well as pastoral positions) when we get more concerned with protecting our positions than worshiping the King and doing his Kingdom work then we are in sin. Thus, if seminaries have a “self-sustaining purpose” why bother? But if they accelerate the kingdom work and serve to increase worship of the King then lets use them as tools to glorify Christ Jesus.
Bob, a new thought… could part of the problem be that in many of our churches students that are attending seminaries are not called up, raised and sent by the church but rather simply leave as if they are independent beings? So many of my students are shocked when I suggest to them that they should be owned and sent by their home churches as a part of the local churches overall missional strategy. Instead, they tend to see seminary like a decision to go to college. Any thoughts? It seems to me, then, that the problem is much bigger than the seminary itself.
First, I must disagree with Mark. The ministry he does is more often the exception than the rule, and, as one of his former students, I thank him for being that exception. Seminary Professors are seldom given incentives to invest deeply in their students beyond the classroom.
Second, I have to agree that seminary is the last place to go to learn to be a minister or missionary. Those who go to seminary to become something often find that what they become is fiscally broke, in broken homes, with with no ministry left in them.
Seminaries are places for those who are already ministers to go to improve their ministry. No matter the controls, every institution looks at scripture logically, not as inspiration. No matter the controls, every institution has professors teaching heresy or their own personal hubris. No matter the controls, every institution struggles between being totally libertine or enforcing ridiculous rules on the students at every turn. A minister should be strong in his faith long before considering seminary.
Ministry is not a job, it is a calling – almost a state of mind. Someone who is not actively ministering in every aspect of their life will not suddenly begin doing so after any education or program at seminary or elsewhere. Someone who is actively ministering with their life will continue to do so in any occupation, including seminary student.
The apprenticeship model alone is not enough. It never was. After childhood and apprenticeship came the period of the journeyman. The apprentice, having learned his father’s trade, would rotate through other tradesmen in nearby towns learning how they did things. An apprentice, particularly in his home church, is a narrow minister indeed.
That is what seminary is for. Take a man, prepared as well as a church can, and cast him into a seminary. The proving ground of that wilderness will have him returning a stronger man of God than ever before.
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We are working through this ourselves and are seeing such in-house equipping as integral in being a church planting church, a gospel community planting gospel communities. We are developing our discipleship and leadership training with this in view. And even John “Main” Frame is with you on this! Check it:
Also, check out http://www.thirdmill.org for some great video resources and an ever-expanding catalogue of top-notch stuff.
Thanks for the encouragement and direction.
This is a great discussion. A lot of food for thought here. Thanks everyone.
Well, a lot of these points that Bob is making here really depend on the student, particularly when it comes to church involvement. Right now I go to RTS Orlando. Outside of going to seminary and taking 15 hours of classes (which amounts to about 30 hours of homework a week), I work at Chick fil A with a bunch of college kids that are very immature in their faith or have no faith at all. Part of my responsibility is to help them grow in Christ because that is where God has put me. I also have an internship at my church, where over the course of grad school I will acquire 2000 hours of ministry. I’m on a flag football team. Needless to say, I am out in the community and the “real world” enough to be grounded and not get an idea that everyone is a Christian.
I may not be getting all A’s in my classes, but I’m not looking to get a doctorate.
If you go to seminary and aren’t involved in other things, then that is your own fault, not the schools. There are plenty of opportunities to be missional, it doesn’t matter what kind of degree you are pursuing or where you go to school.
I don’t think I’d get better theological training and pastoral training at a local church. Maybe I would be more “missional” if I wasn’t taking classes all day, but would I really be prepared to preach and teach Christians and non-Christians?
Also, one of the great things about several seminaries is having electives and MDiv tracks that focus on church planting. At RTS, these are some of the hardest, but most beneficial classes anyone could take. I would bet that these classes are also very beneficial at other seminaries.
But again, if you go to seminary and don’t involve yourself in your community, then that is your fault. No one said you have to finish the MDiv in 3 years. You can take as much time as you want.
Thanks for this article, I needed it. I generally find myself over-explaining why I’m planting a church but haven’t finished my master’s yet. Even though it’s probably a result of my pride and not other people’s perceptions, I tend towards feeling inferior as a result of not having an advanced degree, as if somehow having another framed diploma on the wall would confirm my calling for everyone else…and maybe even for myself. The lesson I’ve had to learn is to rest in the One who called me, and not in a certificate to make me feel like I’ve earned it.
This post only quad-triples confirms what men like John Piper, Ed Stetzer and Matt Chandler have said on this issue. Going to seminary is a person by person evaluation and not something that should be generalized.
Like Ed Stetzer, I was a horrible student in high school (graduated with a GPA of 1.7/4.0). That was 17 years ago. One, I have been saved since then. Two, by the grace of His Spirit, my mind has been renewed by Him. I study systematic theology, original languages, apologetics and biblical counseling while serving in a A29 church plant and previously interned in Equip & Leadership ministry for another local church. When I study, I come up with lessons, curriculums and papers that I need to write and study on my own.
Please keep in mind that I cannot take credit in all of that. That is totally God. I praise Him that my mind is sharp now and my focus is laser like now. I pray that if He keeps me on this earth for another 60 years, that my mind would be sharp like J.I. Packer’s and John Piper. But if my mind goes, He will still be my Lord and my Father and He will take care of me.
All that to say is this: I know what direction God has me pointed in and I know what I am called to do. I would love love love to go after a Th.D and be able to teach at that level. But that is not what I going to do now. That is all on God. I have to trust Him for what He needs me to do just for today.
Bro, I loved this post! I couldn’t agree more. I’m a product of church based training, and I have no regrets. I think the biggest challenge is the languages. I took Greek at Iowa State, and have yet to learn Hebrew.
Thanks for the post,
These are all reasons not to go to a BAD seminary. Those are more than over-generalizations; they’re a caricature.
The need for rigorous theological training is desperately needed not only for the church’s leadership but also the church as a whole. I think modern evangelicalism has fallen prey to the mockery given by some regarding seminary and deep theological training. I do think that those who step up to the pulpit must have a minimal amount of exposure to core concepts. Whether they get those through seminary or other means (like you describe) is not important.
Personally, I am a career IT guy who serves as an elder in our church. Eventually I will probably (God willing) move into an Executive Pastor-like role given my background. Elders are required to engage in some personal/theological development and I chose seminary (Moody) as a way to do that. For me, it works. I think having the “paper” will assist me in future venues where I might engage the culture.
Frankly, I think your Bible college graduate should be able to engage into ministry immediately. I posit that an undergrad degree focusing on “secular” skills followed by a seminary degree yields a preacher that can “mend tents” like Paul did. ???
Bob–thanks for writing this, and thanks for the thoughtful comments everyone.
I have an M.Div, and walked right into a supporting role with a PCA/A29 church plant from seminary. I was able to do that because I served in a local church during my seminary years.
I was an extremely disgruntled seminarian. The chasm between the classroom and actual ministry was cavernous. I found many of my classmates not only didn’t look for ministry opportunities, but they weren’t interested, period. They loved books and endless debating. The majority of my profs (with notable exceptions) did nothing to help bridge the chasm. Way too much abstraction.
If an alternative model had existed when I went, I probably would have taken it. But in many ways, I’m glad I didn’t. The longer I’m out of seminary, the more thankful I am for the ways it challenged me to think, and the tools it put in my bag. The degree that I’ve been able to read/study since seminary is much diminished, and I believe there’s still value for that season of study.
That said, it’s the rare church that can provide an all-round education/preparation for ministry. I’ve always been intrigued by Sovereign Grace’s “Pastor’s College” model. It’s a very content-heavy year, all at Covenant Life. sdesocio’s comment about context is important–if there’s a seminary in your backyard, i think you can still make a strong case for attending it. But I like what Keller has advocated–a deeper, more thorough-going “apprentice-ship” model. Instead of the 4 years I spent getting my M.Div in the classroom, I would have been better off doing 2 intensive years of coursework, and then 2 years of “residency,” a la Med School.
sdesocio, from what I’ve seen, the LAMP program has had mixed results in actual implementation. The same A29 church I was part of tried sending our young guys to that, and eventually sent them to the big seminary. It’s also very tough getting those guys thru denominational firewalls.
[…] same title as this post. The author offers an honest critique of seminaries.I am linking the post here. Read the article then come back here to leave a […]
[…] though I don’t think necessarily the biggest, are covered in Bob Thune’s post “Why You Shouldn’t Go to Seminary“. Bob’s issues could be summarized with Missional Costs (pulling people out of their […]
Great post. Being schooled in a specific environment doesn’t make the learner infallible. So why puff it up and spend so much money, when it truly is about the leading of the Spirit. Spending a life savings to learn critical thinking surely does sound like a waste, when you’re being asked to bypass a few years of growing in Christ through acts of service and love.
Oh. I think there is a healthy measure of “right” in your proposal. It comes with significant pitfalls, some of which are to be avoided at all costs. Sitting “under” the pastor and elders can breed…reproduce “our brand” with little accountability. Just as in the early 80’s there was a host of Charismatic groups that were on their own and like the one we were involved in the leadership frowned on my going to a Bible College.
The church had no accountability to anyone….
At least by going to a solid and open for public viewing by the body of Christ the student can avoid the “Jim Jones” catastrophe (worst case scenario) or the situation where the leader imparts his view of theology and thus reproduce a poor foundation.
I am also speaking in generalities. But I have witnessed the negative side of ministries that keep everything “in-house” perpetuating ‘brand x’. Sometimes it is good doctrine sometimes it is not.
The model you are proposing, interestingly enough, is very much like the black church in America did pastoral training for a very long time. A young man was groomed for pastoral ministry and eventually released to care for a new flock or in some cases to take over the retiring pastor’s position.
I have the degree and the costs have been large in time, money, blood, sweat and tears. I entered school in my mid-thirties and I think I would have been better off in the situation you have presented. Not because of the impact on me or my family. Rather, because I think it really is the Biblical approach to placing people in ministry.
In conclusion. The idea is sound. But lots of details need to be addressed before fully embracing it.
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I found some of your thoughts interesting. However, the thoughts seem to be directed to men in ministry and not women, why?
Secondly, you spoke of MEN/Pastors attending seminary, what about Women and Lay/Associate Ministers non church planters attending seminary. In my denomination if a licensed minister does not have a Min Div, they are usually not recommendation for ordination.
I agree in principle especially the emphasis on doctoral studies. I really believe the biggest problems in seminary education is that it based on an outdated model and the student has little flexibility in determining what to study. Although cost and distance learning are important factors how seminary education generally plays out is outdated- it doesn’t make sense to the person considering it.
The typical seminary program is 48-60 hours for an M.A. (MTS or similar) and 75-96 hours for an M.Div. Most curriculum offers little to no “flexibility” in course work. So seminaries are asking students to study 2-3 years full time taking on the courses the seminary says they can take. Now add to that the cost and what ever DL options are or are NOT available. It just doesn’t make sense especially when you consider most denominations do not even require these degrees.
Think about the following as this is what potential seminary students are comparing to…
– It takes up to 96 hours to obtain an M.Div. and it takes about the same to get a Ph.D. or Ed.D.
– It takes up to 60 hours to obtain an M.A. (MTS, etc) and it takes about the same to obtain a 6th year degree (Ed.S., CAGS, etc)
– In any of the above programs the student is allowed to determine concentration and emphasis after the core.
– The Ed.S. and CAGS are more likely to be beneficial financially than an M.Div. or at least equal to.
– An ATS only accredited degree is not as valuable as an RA degree for those who need to cross over or be “tent makers”.
My suggestion…I recently had a friend ask my opinion concerning similar matters at the institution he works at….this was my advice and suggestion…
Do away with the traditional MA, M.Div., and D.Min. (as it stands).
Here is what you should offer:
Masters (MA, MS, or M.Ed.)….36 hours. The degree program should have core, advanced study, flexible electives, and a thesis/project.
6th year (CAGS, CAS, Ed.S., Licentiate, etc)….30 hours. This program should be a specialization of 24 hours in advanced graduate study + a thesis or advanced graduate project.
Doctoral degrees…..60-66 hours beyond masters or 36 hours beyond 6th year. Doctoral degrees can be Ph.D., Ed.D., D.P.T. (Doctor of Practical Theology- gaining wheels again in UK) etc.
The above programs would emphasize a core set of knowledge, specialization of student, advanced study in theology or practice, and the same for doctoral studies.
The D.Min. or D.P.T. should be a direct entrance program for anybody with a graduate degree but not “theology/ministry” related. It should be 72-90 hours based on what the student needs to meet equivalency to the above.
…Or something similar…what seminaries do they need to change or they will be fossils.
I have recently experienced an Acts 29 pastor and am incredibly disappointed. I guess I have been lucky enough to sit under pastors who have gone to seminary and I haven’t experienced a pastor who hasn’t, in truth I didn’t know there could be one until now. I doubt the Acts 29 organization has thoroughly spent time in some of the churches they have helped plant if they actually adhere to the statement you quoted. The pastor I have encountered recently has shoddy scholarship at best. He was teaching on 2nd Peter and I almost wanted to go reccomend some books to him after the service so he could understand more deeply the book vs. teaching from a very surface level, which I thought a pastor was supposed to do! I also went to one of his theological discussion groups which got into lordship salvation v. free grace soteriology, a debate he had never heard of, we also got into the doctrinal differences that happened from the time of the reformers to the american puritans, a part of doctrinal christian history he knew nothing about, I could go on but I can just stop here and say that the lack of scholarship is embarressing. I was disturbed at what seminary could have ever let this pastor graduate only to find he had never been to one, had received a quick 2 year pastor degree out of high school, and that explained it all.
Biblical scholarship is necessary for the pastorate. Period. I understand the argument that seminary takes you out of ministry, but I wonder if anyone making this argument has been in ministry! If you are actively in ministry you are pulled from every end and there are a lot of needy people out there taking up your energy. To truly devote yourself to study you have to be taken out of ministry, the 2 are almost impossible to juggle together, one or the other will suffer, and usually its the scholarship.
[…] of the most controversial blog posts we’ve ever written here was titled “Why You Shouldn’t Go to Seminary.” So you can imagine my excitement when the Gospel Coalition blog asked a similar question yesterday […]
Just stumbled onto this old post from your recent blog post. I agree with much of what you wrote, and it also solidified for me the value in the seminary program of which I am currently a part. I am a in a distance M-Div program at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, MN. Because its a distance program, all 12 of my classmates in my cohort (we all take nearly all classes together) are deeply involved in ministry in various contexts. We have a missionary to Croatia, a youth pastor in Alaska, a worship pastor in Arkansas, and a church planter in Alabama. This real-life learning environment has broadened my perspectives tremendously. Additionally, while I am only 1 year into the degree, I have yet to take a class that I would not strongly recommend to somebody wanting to become a teaching elder. The role of the primary church leader/elder/pastor is so broad, that it takes a lot of courses to be educated on all the important aspects of the job.
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I’d say I disagree with the premise. You’ve rightly identified the issue of choosing the right seminary. Some have programs intrinsically focused on spiritual development and mentorship to make sure that personal development, maturity, and intimacy with God are central to the seminary education. Others don’t. With so many elderly, objectively established pastors coming to the end of their lives and very publically indicating that their biggest regret, if there is one, is that they didn’t spend more time in their lives studying and preparing; I’m not sure how one would completely discount this form of preparation as a legitimate way to prepare for a life of ministry.
All that said, I think you missed the most important factor in the decision to attend, or not attend seminary – the will of God for one’s life. I am currently a MDiv student (via their distance program) at Denver Seminary, and I am a full time corporate banker. At the same time, I serve in a variety of volunteer leadership roles at a local church that is a churhc planting church. Yet, despite opportunities to jump on staff, or be trained by the local church, I still chose to attend Denver Seminary for preparation. Why?
First and foremost – God’s will. He’s led me to be there, and I have to say, I’m greatful he did. My soul has come alive in ways I never understood it could because of Denver. Second, I don’t want to take a shortcut just to get to a ministry position unprepared. There are programs at local churches that provide training and education, but here’s the problem – without accredidation or long standing reputations, how does an individual evaluate doctrinal positions, effectiveness, faithfulness to the Word, etc.?
I greatly respect and care for those at my local church, but I wouldn’t pass on the opportunity to be prepared by the quality scholars and pastors that I get to interact with because of Denver – that would be a decision to rob my soul of a season of life that would be profoundly influential and life giving. God’s will – that’s the approach, not anything else.
Thanks for your thoughts. A couple observations:
1) you are writing on a post that is 8 years old, and in that 8-year period, seminaries have adapted their model in some positive ways (i.e. the distance degree you are pursuing).
2) you have chosen to pursue a distance-ed seminary degree while remaining rooted in a local church and in your vocational calling… which is pretty much the trajectory I laid out in the post.
Though I do not feel called to be a pastor, I have personally struggled with going to Bible College/Seminary. But as a lower income person, the thought of having $50K+ in student loans, for a degree(s) that are basically monetarily useless outside of formal, paid ministry keeps me from doing so. But it is one more thing. The sheer amount of freely available resources in the year 2019. Why pay all that money when you can get the knowledge for free? Below is a link to the classes you can get online for free, I have them all on a 2TB external HD. Find mentors in your local body, and go to the internet for the “scholastic” specifics of each theological discipline. The link to that list is bit.ly/SeminaryLite
Best wishes, and God Bless.
I am an online seminarian at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary with Liberty University’s School of Divinity (Lynchburg, VA). My response would be that I am not going into debt with three-four years of MDiv study because I have to, but rather because I want to. I can get “ordained” online for roughly $10, but I can’t study Scripture under the tutelage of twenty practicing pastors with PhDs for $10. I know people who are legally marrying couples with their $10 ordination, but they are nowhere within the same stadium as I am academically or theologically….and perhaps with some exceptions, most will never be. I am receiving amazingly insightful and meaningful theological training from these godly men. Importantly, I owe it to the body of Christ to learn all that I can in order to rightly divide and share the gospel. Sadly, we increasingly live in a world characterized by anti-intellectualism and an unapologetic want for immediate gratification. Theological legitimacy and validation for clergy with never be obtained through less education.
Its not really a question about where you learn biblical truth and the doctrines of the church it’s really about what you are being taught. I have not attended Bible College or seminary and I am thankful for it. The church today is being torn apart by the so called educated elite that don’t teach but rather indoctrinate students with false doctrine. You may not agree with me but most of you do not even agree with each other. Think about that.
What happened to the simplicity of The gospel of Jesus Christ?
Its easy to agree or disagree with anything depending on how you look at things. The way I see it. The only book in existence that matters is the Bible. Or rather, the original manuscripts. The rest is FLUFFY. Man creating his doctrines and programs most often used for self enrichment. Which is far from what Jesus and the apostles actually did. I’m pretty sure the Bible was written for those of less intelligence. Because overly educated people are brainwashed in all their carnal knowledge. So many pastors coming out of seminaries are too intellectual to resemble anything that Jesus represented. I look at seminary grads as Pharisees who can parrot knowledge. But its always the poor in spirit who emit the true spirit we are to understand. I doubt GOD ordained any of the seminaries or church buildings. That stuff is for the Jews. Real Christians are more likely to gather in homes and parks. Anyone can walk into an expensive building with high bills and be drawn into membership to help pay those bills. While getting the usual loud sermon on the stage. People have carved a worldly path to follow to “become” Christians by their own will. While calling it GOD’s. That’s the work of placing too much importance on world knowledge and not enough on the “simple” understandings that are the new covenant.