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?