Is Seminary Education Necessary? Part I

I am biased. I spent eleven years at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary studying for an M.Div. and a Ph.D. I had a wonderful experience there in both degree programs. I met some lifelong friends. I learned many practical skills in preaching, exegesis, church administration, and leadership. I expanded my base of knowledge in the Bible, church history, theology, and philosophy from very little to a lot. I carry no debts from student loans. Overall, I’d say that my seminary experiences helped me immensely in many years of church work and teaching. And, lest I neglect to be entirely frank–a seminary presents me with a regular paycheck.

But seminary education is falling on hard times these days. There are some who say that seminary education is not necessary for the pastorate (e.g. Pastor Matt Chandler–see here). Others suggest that seminary education is superfluous, expensive, and outdated–and therefore, not necessary (see Jerry Bowers’ pieces in Forbes here and here).

First, let’s look at some of the critiques of seminary education, and I will go on record as agreeing with them in principle.

1. Seminary education is expensive and many students take on huge amounts of debt going to school for a minimum of three years in M.Div. studies, and do not get paid much when they get into church work.  (Amen!)

2. Seminaries are often professored by haughty, out-of-touch, cold, and unapproachable academics who couldn’t minister their way out of a wet paper bag.

3. The curriculum in seminaries is often too focused on irrelevant and obsolete issues, while skills and content that really need to be taught are neglected or de-emphasized.

4. One does not need a seminary education to be an effective pastor–note that Jesus, the apostles, and Matt Chandler (avg. weekly attendance at 8000 in 2010, according to Thom Rainer) do not have seminary degrees.

5. Many seminary students have terrible experiences–they get lost spiritually, their families break up, they go broke, they don’t have the innate skills to do ministry, and many either drop out of school or they work in secular fields.

6. In the information age, someone who is motivated can self-educate in theology, history, the languages, and philosophy. There is no need for formal education when so many resources are available for free.

7. It is not legally necessary to have a seminary education to go into the pastorate, as it is to practice medicine or law.

8. The old model for seminary education, whereby churches support seminaries financially and send them students, is becoming obsolete with the de-centralization of financial and human resources for ministry.

9. Many who have earned seminary degrees have no business working in churches. Many who do not have seminary degrees seem to be born for the pastorate.

There are probably other valid critiques of seminary education, but these will do for now. Let me say again that I agree, at least in part, with all nine critiques.

1. Church work isn’t like medical school or law school. Lawyers and doctors make a great deal more once they get employment than pastors and missionaries do. That’s a fact! Seminary education is not as expensive as law and medical school on average, but it still involves the expense of many thousands of dollars over at least three years. That is significant for most people who are going into the ministry.

2. It seems that there are few professions that can have more arrogant people per square inch than in academia. Sadly, that is also often the case in Christian academia. I have had my share of seminary professors who were not at all Christian in the way they dealt with people. This can be exceedingly dismaying and discouraging for students studying to be ministers.

3. Irrelevant coursework is the bane of the seminary student. And it is true that a lot of required courses in seminary suffer violently from the “so what” syndrome. Irrelevant coursework is indeed the serial killer of morale in seminary.

4. Jesus did not have a seminary degree, it’s true. Neither does Matt Chandler. For many, these facts alone settle the argument.

5. Anybody who has been to seminary has the images of those students’ faces etched in their memories. And those memories are the ones we try to forget, and literally pray they aren’t repeated in our own experience.

6. iTunes U is a truly amazing resource. How can all this really be free??

7. Here’s another reason why we must contend for religious freedom and the First Amendment.

8. Can’t deny this, as much as I would very much like to–to paraphrase George C. Scott as Patton, “How I hate the twenty-first century!”

9. How many churches have had to suffer under a seminary graduate’s leadership that had no clue how to love people and be Jesus to the community? More than can be counted, no doubt.

Next post: answering these nine arguments against seminary education.

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