The Challenge of Seminary: an initial post

Over at the Gospel Coalition, there is a great short reflection about the challenges of seminary written by Donny Friederichsen pointing out that seminarians often forget that their time in school should be developing them both theologically by pastorally.

One of the paragraphs that seemed to stand out is this:

I also would have spent more time with real people in my neighborhood and at my church instead of gravitating toward people who liked to read dead Dutch guys and use phrases like “hypostasis,” “hapax legomenon,” and “the chthonic thralldom of sin.” I need those people too, but in seminary it’s entirely too easy to get lost in the academic world and lose contact with why you are there. (emphasis mine)

This is a good point and worth exploring. Seminary, in its current form, is presenting substantial challenges to ministry and ministers. As a quick observation, many of my peers in growing, dynamic churches are becoming increasingly wary of hiring seminary graduates who are both 1) recent graduates and 2) don’t have a lot of outside experience under their belts. For many of us, we find that seminary does a good job of preparing a student theologically but there is a massive shortfall in actual pastoral training and ministry execution.

Having graduated from seminary 8 years ago, I saw this challenge worked out. Thankfully a gracious professor of mine put several key texts into my hands while I was in my earliest days of seminary that reconfigured my outlook and steps for preparation. For what its worth, I thoroughly enjoyed seminary. It was a kind of intellectual and spiritual renaissance for me. Though there were some institutional pressures and challenges which cloud a bit of last days at my seminary, I am the minister I am because of my time in seminary.

Now, back to Friederichsen’s point. Too often our seminaries are a kind of “Sunday School 2.0” that fail to maneuver their students to interact critically and practically with pastoral ministry situations. We are seeing a substantial rise in post-seminary ministry failure rates in new graduates over the past decade, and its not because of moral failure. It is often due to burnout, firings, underperformance, expectation issues, among other factors. While not every seminary graduate is going to end up in pastoral ministry (a fairly new concept by the way), for those who do go into pastoral ministry one of the first tasks that must be accomplished is to sort through what was helpful and what was not helpful for application in the local church ministry.

The very real issues at Friederichsen brings up in his post are matters which, as I recall, were rarely addressed in seminary classrooms. They were talked about in my undergraduate instruction. For too many seminarians there is a need to balance this intellectual maturation with practical equipping tools. At this point too many of our seminaries are ill-equipped and ensconced in “church of last century” ministry models to provide a substantive change to the ministry training culture. Another challenge in the seminary model is professors who have never served a day in a church, yet are given opportunities to train and equip future pastors for ministry. While there are certainly individuals and fields where we can make margin for the academic only scholar, I wonder if we are pressing the mark too hard in continuing to elevate and place individuals with no local church experience in the midst of the training and equipping institute for future pastors.

Final thought: In Houston we have radio ad for a local law school that promotes itself by producing “practice ready attorneys.” Perhaps if we can start to get our arms around the realities of ministry and begin developing seminaries that produce “ministry ready pastors” we can see some things begin to change. Seminary is a vital part of training men and women for a lifetime of ministry. I’m looking forward to seeing how this important conversation continues.