Are Seminaries Really Necessary?July 15, 2014
Let’s consider here for a moment a proposal that, at first looks very attractive: to turn the training of ministers over to the churches rather than to the seminaries (John Frame proposed something very much like this in 1972, though he admits some seminaries are doing a much better job than his analysis at the time indicated. See http://www.frame-poythress.org/proposal-for-a-new-seminary/ accessed 1/25/2014.). After all, we are training ministers, not academic theologians. The traditional seminary setting is too bound up with concerns about grades, attendance reports, accreditation, and academic parity to focus on the really important matters that a minister needs, especially in a rapidly changing world. Let pastors mentor young ministerial candidates and give them “on the job training.” The result will be better prepared ministers, who are more aware of the real challenges of church life, something you can never get in the classroom.
That sounds very good, but the reasoning is flawed on several points. For one thing, many seminaries now include some kind of field education requirement. Seminary professors these days are often involved in church ministries and are acutely aware of the need to encourage students to gain hands-on experience while in seminary. In addition, there are essential aspects of ministry training that can best be gained in an academic, seminary type setting. Without these, the minister who has had on the job training only will be ill prepared for many of the challenges offered in today’s secular and pluralistic world. Seminaries offer a place where the ministerial candidate can be well prepared to meet those challenges. Here is why:
Seminaries offer a “safe place” where important biblical truths can be discussed, where ideas can be considered, adopted, and abandoned, and where (in general) no one’s spiritual life is in danger. Consider, for example, the question of the existence of evil. This “philosophical” and doctrinal problem becomes a very real question in our churches when a young couple loses their baby; when someone in the church dies in an accident, when the church bus crashes, or when a beloved church member is a victim of murder. Every pastor will face one or more of these circumstances in his lifetime. How much better, if he has worked through, in his own mind, a deep and settled conviction of the goodness of God, even in the face of tragedy. His tone of voice and demeanor will communicate that reality to those who are grieving. The minister who is faced with working out his beliefs on this matter at the time that a grieving young couple is sitting before him is in trouble, but so is the couple. If he can say nothing that comforts, and in fact is clearly floundering, he may damage the spiritual life of a young family for decades to come. It is well then that young ministers in training should “hack out” this issue in systematic theology, and apologetic classes, and even in the student lounge. These are places where all kinds of ideas can be tried out, rejected, refined, and replaced—and nobody is going to walk away from God because of it.
A second reason for Seminaries as a place for preparing ministers is that they offer a diversity of mentors, in the persons of the faculty. The Seminary at Liberty University, for example, has graduates of Dallas Theological Seminary, Southern Baptist Seminary, Southwestern Baptist Seminary, Baylor University, Wayne State University, Denver Seminary, University of Virginia, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Michigan State University among its faculty including those with degrees from Liberty University itself. These men come from a variety of pastoral and ministry experiences in large churches and small ones, and from various states across the US. The ministry candidate whose training consists of mentoring by one older pastor draws from a narrower vein of experience, and from the ministry of only one church. Seminaries bring together a community of people who have helped plant churches, revive churches, build youth groups, and who have served overseas short and long term in a variety of mission settings. Rather than being mentored by a single pastor (who may have a passion for theology, but little else, or a passion for evangelism but little interest in discipleship) the student is exposed to a broad variety of passions, emphases, philosophies of ministry, and interests. The experience gained from such a cloud of mentors cannot be replaced in any single local church setting.
The third reason has to do with the library resources available to students. In the course of a Seminary master’s degree, students will use a variety of Bible commentaries, as well as resources related to youth ministry, pastoral ministries, missions, and issues in church life. By the time the student graduates, there is a deeper awareness of what kinds of resources are most helpful for the student’s specific calling and gifts in ministry. Commentaries and other resources are expensive. By the time the student graduates, he has a mental list of favorite writers, and publishers and styles that will prevent much waste of money in the decades ahead.
And so, while it sounds attractive to train ministers “on the front lines” the fact is, Seminaries offer the best opportunity for upcoming candidates to try their gifts, develop their understanding of the things of God, and to gain knowledge and tools that will go with them through a lifetime of effective ministry. Pastors and churches should encourage young people called to ministry to attend seminary, and should educate themselves as to what seminaries such as Liberty University’s have to offer in terms of degree programs and opportunities. Churches should forge an alliance with seminaries in expectation of sending young people there, and should invite the Seminary to supply them with part time ministers, volunteer help and pulpit supply in an intentional effort to come to know the Seminary better. The Seminary will benefit, as will the churches, and especially those churches that receive well trained and ready leadership, able to maintain a steady hand while guiding the spiritual growth of the congregation.
- C. Fred Smith, PhD
Associate Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies