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?


What I Have Learned in My First 11 Weeks of Seminary

I attend seminary at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, through their online program. The online aspect is not ideal, but it is functional for me and my family. So far, I’m learning (I hope). More than anything, I’m being exposed to scholarship and lots of reading the average person wouldn’t read (not even me).

I have learned two very important lessons in the first eleven weeks of this semester. First, I am totally not an academic. (Can’t you tell after I used the word totally?) God has given me a shepherd’s heart, not a professor’s heart. I love to teach doctrine, but I love to herald the good news more. I love to dig into finer points of theology, but I love to motivate and challenge to pursue holiness more. Seminary is pricking and prodding my academic skin, which is thin and frail.

Secondly, in general, it takes a lot of work for me to focus when I read. Don’t let this blog fool you, I am not that smart. It is hard for me to comprehend anything above a college football article on I often find myself reading the same sentence three or four times. Seminary is pushing me to rely on the Holy Spirit to control my literary ADHD when it comes to the teleological argument and the neo-orthodoxy movement.

I love to read and write, it just takes a different shape in my personal time and here on the blog than in an academic setting. Thankfully, because of the cross, God’s grace is abundant, fresh, and powerful. And its fountain doesn’t run dry over seminarians like me.


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.


What Makes a Sermon Great

You don’t have to be John Piper or Mark Driscoll to preach a great sermon.  What makes a sermon great is not the fame of the preacher, the size of the sanctuary, or the volume of the speaker’s voice.

This could be a very long post, but for the sake of brevity, here are, at least, three things that a pastor should have/do to make a sermon great:

  • Passion for Jesus so hearers leave wanting to know the Jesus you know.
  • Faithfulness to the text in that you labor to explain what it means, instead of using the text to prove your points.
  • Give hard challenges to holiness so that the information you gave them (theological, cultural, social, etc.) turns from information to transformation.

As I grow older (not that I’m old), I find that these three are usually intertwined, and number three is often a fruit of the first two.  I hear so many sermons that are more like a youth group talk on Wednesday night.  It might even be biblical theology, but it is weak sauce in conviction and does nothing to challenge a person to want more of Christ in their life.

Most weeks, what a Christian needs is the velvet hammer, not the teddy bear on the Downy Soft commercials.  Sermons today lack that extra something that makes me leave and think, “I’m awful and God is supreme.  What do I need to trust him for this week?  Where do I need to repent?  What about my life needs to be transformed by his grace?”

Remember that I am not a pastor, but as a weekly hearer and as an aspiring pastor, these are things I think are essential to the preaching ministry of a pastor.   Our end goal shouldn’t be “great sermons.”  Our end goal should be to make Christ look great by glorifying him with our words and lives.  However, pastors should be ready and willing, by God’s grace, to give their best on Sunday as they proclaim God’s word in order to edify and challenge God’s people.

What other things do you think are essential to a make a sermon great?


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.