Scattered Thoughts on Seminary and Staying Put

11052 (3)Back in August, Christianity Today ran an article about students choosing and attending seminaries based on geography, not theological affinity. Students want to “stay put” because of the cost of moving and living in a larger city. The article alludes to the fact that the nature of seminary is changing. If seminaries want to survive, they have to adapt.

This brings to mind some scattered thoughts on seminary and “staying put” in your hometown. This post is not for people who want a debate about the virtues or vices of seminary. It’s for young (or old!) men and women who want to attend seminary and want to hear from a guy who went through seminary. Here are some (random) thoughts from my seminary story that you may find helpful as you discern God’s call on your life.

I have a seminary degree from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, and I “attended” online. I chose Liberty not because of any theological affinity but primarily out of convenience: I could stay in my hometown!

Over two years, I read books and wrote papers and interacted with students and professors through online discussion boards. Then I got a degree (an MAR, which is somewhere between an MA and an MDiv). This online education was successful for me. Why? I had a very solid theological foundation before my program and I was serving as a pastoral intern in our local church. We could not afford to move to a big city. We could not afford for me not to work and pay for seminary. Attending online was an affordable option, and I had a job (at our church) that provided full-time pay and time to study. A complete win-win for Carly and me.

For you, can you somehow stay at your local church and complete your studies? You will lose face-to-face interaction with other students and professors. But you will gain valuable field experience in your own context and your life (especially if married) will not experience such a drastic interruption. Is a question worth digging into.

I said that I had a good theological foundation before seminary. Yet seminary was still very helpful. I was exposed to ideas that I had not thought about before. But did I need to pay money to do this? Honestly, no, I did not. I know your objections: paying for an education provides accountability (if you pay, you’ll do the work) and credibility (getting a degree shows you can accomplish something). But remember that the first disciples did not have degrees and none of the apostles, aside from Paul, were theological scholars. Why should we require it (or even assume it).

Sadly, I went to seminary to “get the paper.” It’s frustrating to me that in our culture if you’d like to be considered as a vocational pastor/elder, you need to have formalized academic training. Because of this, many churches are filled with pastors who have letters after their name, but do not have 1 Timothy 3- and Titus 1-type character.

Now, hear me out: I am not saying seminary is not valuable! I’m only saying that the primary pursuit of pastoral ministry (thus this is different than people attending for counseling, teaching, etc.) is not primarily an academic pursuit. If that is true, then why do pastors spend so much time in a classroom before being launched a people-centered ministry? You do not need to have a formal degree. Again, none of Jesus’ disciples did.

You do need to be educated somehow. You must be trained to preach, teach, and lead. Everything you learn in a seminary classroom—and much more—you can (and should) learn in a local church context in life-on-life environments. Most seminaries will teach you theology and exegetical skills and historical context and introduce you to important doctrinal debates in church history. You need that. But, with few exceptions, seminaries will not train you how to actually be a pastor. Enter the local church. Enter your pastor and other wise men and women in your congregation. Enter a small group or Sunday School class where you are face-to-face with people. Ah, people! People are, after all, what ministry is all about. Would you be a pastor? Be around people!

When I consider my journey, I could have read everything I read in seminary, written papers, discussed them with my pastors and other mentors for free. It would have taken longer, yes. It would not have yielded a piece of paper and letters after my name. But it could have been greatly customized to my personal call and needs in the moment. I would not have been in an institutional box. It would have been, well, a bit more like Jesus and his disciples. Isn’t that what we are shooting for? This is not casual, haphazard, maybe-we’ll-get-to-it-maybe-we-won’t training. It’s non-formal, student-centered education, and it’s rooted in the natural rhythms of the Christian life: family, worship, vocation, and church community. If you are considering pastoral ministry, my encouragement to you is to talk to your pastor and latch onto him. Find out what he does. Find out what his life is like. Eat meals with him. Get to know his wife. Be his shadow. And listen. Then listen again. Then keep listening.

Let me share one more thought. If I could have a seminary mulligan, one thing I would have done differently is not gotten a seminary degree. WHAT?! That’s right. I would have gotten an MBA or an MA in teaching or English or exercise science or something that would have opened doors for me in non-church environments. The reason for this is two-fold. First, because I believe the future of pastoral ministry in the States is not staff pastors who receive their entire salary from a church. Second, it would have provided greater opportunity and capacity to be a missionary in the “real” world and play a greater role in organic church planting.

So there you have it. My scattered thoughts on my seminary experience. Do not take any of this as the ultimate truth on seminary. It’s food for thought. I trust some of it will be helpful for you.

For those of you who have been to seminary, did you attend on campus or online? Or have you been trained non-formally (not in a classroom/online environment)? How was your experience? What would you change?


New Page and Documents

While I am interning at my church, one of our pastors is providing some church-based training in addition to the seminary training I’ll receive. I have created a vitae page that chronicles this training, and I’ve added a few papers I’ve written in the first couple months of the internship.


How Should Christians Respond to Obama’s Education Speech?

Obama’s speech on education, which he will give today, has caused quite a stir among Christians, most notably on the Desiring God blog.  There, John Piper expressed his excitment over what the President said.  Basically, Obama challenges students to work hard, be responsible, and have a positive attitude with school.  He said that students need to turn off the TV and get off the Xbox.  I couldn’t agree more.

Some Christians try to find a devil behind everything Obama says.  Some Christians will not give “honor to whom honor is owed” (Rom. 13:7).  I think that’s wrong.  I don’t agree with most of Obama’s policies, but I can commend a man when he speaks truth.

With that in mind, I think if you are one of the Christians who believes you cannot applaud something that Obama says because of his other policies/ideas (which very well may be moral failures), then you are ignoring an important theme in Scripture:

  • Remember that King Cyrus was a pagan ruler of a pagan nation, yet he was the Lord’s “anointed,” who was used to redeem his people. God said, “I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me…I equip you, though you do not know me” (Isa. 45:1-13). It is clear that God can do good through people who don’t know him personally.
  • Remember that God has common grace on all of creation: “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). This includes Obama and all the unsaved teachers who teach our children.
  • Remember that God loves justice wherever he finds it because God is just: “A false balance is an abomination to the LORD, but a just weight is his delight” (Pr. 11:1). And “A just balance and scales are the LORD’s; all the weights in the bag are his work” (Pr. 16:11). This applies even to Obama and education in the United States.
  • Remember that Obama is a “servant for your good” if you are a believer (Rom. 13:4), whether you agree with him or not. Are some of his policies bad? Yes. Was there anything wrong with what he said in this speech? If there was, it was minimal.  Would you fault your non-Christian employer who demands his employees to work harder instead of showing up late, leaving early, and taking an extra long lunch because he didn’t mention Jesus? I doubt it.
  • Remember, finally, that Paul quoted pagan religions in evangelism and teaching (Acts 17:22-34; Titus 1:12). There are commonalities that we can share with non-believers in order to point them to Jesus. Obama can’t point people to Jesus if he’s not a believer, so we can’t expect him to do that. The job falls on us Christians to find common ground in order to tell him (and others), “Look there! That’s Jesus. He made hard work. He created math and science and English and history. And he gives us strength to learn and write papers and do science projects!  To know this Jesus, that is what our children need the most.”

So we pray for Obama and beg God to let light shine in his heart. But we also give honor to whom honor is due. We don’t encourage our children to be like Obama or a teacher or anyone else (not even John Piper!!!). We point them to the cross, teaching them to be conformed to and led by Jesus. As we do that, we tell them to rejoice in truth wherever it is found because all objective truth is God’s truth. Education is good. Hard work is good. Addiction to TV and Xbox or anything else is bad. We praise God for these truths. He is the author of them.

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Is Lack of Education Really Our Biggest Problem?

If lack of education was the primary reason for the world’s brokenness (such as poverty, crime, hunger, disease, war, heartache, etc.), then universities and colleges would be the most moral and ethical places in the universe.   In case you haven’t noticed, they aren’t.

There must be a more fundamental reason for problems in our world.


The Pastor and Education

I want to be a pastor, so typically I read a lot of posts and articles about things to consider before you become a pastor.  One general point that pastors always list has to do with being well-read or getting a seminary education.  This always rubs me the wrong way.  Now, I love education and think it is invaluable.  I love to read.  I’m a guy who has a BA from a university and plans to attend seminary to get an M.Div.

Yet this issue never ceases to make me shake my head a bit.

Does every pastor in every context needs to be well-read and seminary educated?  Consider a pastor in an inner-city setting where the people in the neighborhood didn’t even finish high school.  Will they care if he did his thesis in Pauline theology?

Does this mean we don’t read the Puritans or Edwards or Spurgeon or Calvin?  Does this mean we never seek formal training?  Of course not.  But when reading every book out there and getting a master’s degree become requirements, we become legalistic.

These thoughts come to mind because Peter was a uneducated man in the formal sense, and he ministered to blue-collar Jews around the Roman Empire (and Pharisees at times too, of course).  Paul, on the other hand, was the Pharisee of the year from fourth to ninth grade, and he ministered to Greeks who loved logic, debate, and formal education.  Different contexts.  Different ministers. Different backgrounds.  Same gospel.  Same fruit.  This led to a world-wide revolution.

John Piper has said, “We should not say, ‘You have to have an M.Div.’  There are so many M.Divs [and PhDs] who are incompetent pastors!  And there are people without them who would make really good pastors. I think all of that is changing, in fact.”

This isn’t a knock against seminaries or reading.  Anyone who reads this blog knows that.  I think any man who wants to be a pastor should be trained and mentored by other pastors and, if possible, formally educated.  But I think we need to be careful to tell every man who wants to be a pastor to read a lot of books and go to seminary.  Instead, perhaps we should tell those who desire the noble task of overseer that they should soak up the Scriptures, especially the pastoral epistles.  They should be exemplary in what Paul lays out for a qualified elder in 1 Timothy 3:1-7.  And it’s funny, because when I look there, I don’t find anything about reading or education.