Why Attend Seminary?
For the better part of a decade, my life has orbited around two ministerial arenas—local churches, and seminaries. Until recently, the local church I gave my time to was a church plant in Kansas City, Missouri (U.S.A.) (where I attended a residential pastoral ministry program, was ordained as an elder, and eventually came on full-time as a staff pastor) and the seminary was Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (where I earned my MDiv and PhD, served as an admissions counselor for a stint, and eventually taught as an instructional faculty member). Now, on the other side of the world, my life still orbits around a local church and a seminary. The local church in which I serve as a member is an international church in the heart of the United Arab Emirates, and the seminary in which I serve as a professor in Systematic Theology is The Gulf Theological Seminary—the first evangelical seminary in the heart of the Arabian peninsula.
Why have I given so much of my life to these two worlds? Because I believe in them. I commend their value wholeheartedly. Invariably, having spent so much time around the seminary, a question I have grown familiar with is something along the lines of, “Why should I attend seminary?” I thought it might be helpful to jot down some of my typical reflections on this question.
What Seminaries Are For
Seminaries are institutions for higher education, so in one sense, their value should be intuitive to anyone who believes in the value of education more generally. Except that’s not all there is to say. In our world, higher education has become “professionalized.” Higher education, for most of us, is a concept synonymous with “career preparation.” In this light, describing a seminary simply as an institution for higher education can lead to the disastrous impression that seminaries are something like vocational schools for pastors. Some people go to medical school and become doctors. Others go to trade school to become electricians or plumbers. Seminarians go to seminary to become pastors. All education, we have come to believe, is solely about the transference of information and skills for the preparation of careers.Education used to not be so much about the transference of information and skills as it was about the transformation of the person. Click To Tweet
In reality, a seminary education is far closer to the old (and sorely needed) idea of education known as the liberal arts. Commonly mistaken for a “useless” educational track, the liberal arts are the backbone of education as we know it. This form of education, as its name implies, works to shape and form the free man—the “liberated” man. Education used to not be so much about the transference of information and skills as it was about the transformation of the person. The information and the skills were not the end of education, but were rather the means to the higher end of ordered loves. Such is still the case for every seminary worthy of the name. Seminaries are concerned with forming their students into particular kinds of people—God-honoring, Bible-loving, theologically literate people whose souls are strengthened as well as their intellects, demonstrating the fruit of virtue and academic competence that comes as a result of rigorous studious labor.
Further, seminaries worthy of the name are profoundly local church oriented. This point is crucial because seminaries do not have the authority or the competency to produce pastors or church leaders on their own. Such a task is not their business, but is rather the local church’s. To say this much is not to say, however, that seminaries do not strive to shape their students in the same way, and along the same lines, as local churches. They most certainly do. But since the Church, alone, is the earthly institution that has been deputized by God to ordain and install and send out church leaders, seminaries are involved in this process strictly at the supplementary level. Seminaries are useful insofar as—and only insofar as—they come up under and alongside local churches to resource them with theological training and expertise and scholarship. It is not for nothing that my alma mater’s slogan is “For the Church.” In a real way, it should be every seminary’s slogan. A seminary degree does not a local church pastor make. It’s the church that makes the pastor.
That being said, seminaries can be a tremendous gift to the Church. While formal seminary training may not be strictly required for the pastoral office, some kind of biblical and theological training most certainly is. Seminaries, at their best, bless the Church by helping to equip her future and present pastors with the training they are required to get somehow—if not by seminaries, then some other way.
Who Seminaries Are For
What I just said above, however, may inadvertently reinforce a very common misconception. This misconception is that seminaries only exist for pastors and future pastors. Granted, there is nothing wrong with a seminary maintaining this as their primary goal, if it is so inclined. It is entirely appropriate for seminaries to prioritize reaching out to potential full-time, male, MDiv students. We must focus our attention somewhere, and as a service to the Church, this demographic seems as good as any. But pastors are not the only members of the body of Christ who should be biblically and theologically literate. Which means pastors are not the only members of the body of Christ whom seminaries stand to benefit. A good seminary, if it truly endeavors to be a gift to the Church, will willingly resource the Church with theological and biblical academic resources. In my own context in the Middle East, for example, there is a strategic benefit in equipping our sisters in Christ to minister to women here, since evangelistic opportunities among women in this region are replete. We serve our local churches significantly by equipping our sisters in a formal, seminary context.Seminaries are concerned with forming their students into particular kinds of people—God-honoring, Bible-loving, theologically literate people whose souls are strengthened as well as their intellects. Click To Tweet
Seminary, then, is most certainly for the aspiring pastor who—with his pastors’ blessing and encouragement—desires to be biblically and theologically equip to faithfully occupy the office of an elder. But it is also for the student who is on the fence about pastoral ministry (for such a student, seminary can be a great place of exploration and development of discernment), or the student who wants to serve the church somehow but does not (or cannot) aspire to the pastoral office, or the student who simply has the opportunity and the means and the desire to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ. Seminary, in other words, is for whoever wants it.
This is because seminary, as a former professor of mine used to say, is “formalized discipleship.” As a form of discipleship, it invites the participation of disciples of Christ—which is to say, Christians. As a formalized pursuit, seminary has standards and expectations. It is discipleship with the additional accountability of tuition, and fellow classmates, and due dates, and grades, and required reading curated by seasoned “rabbis,” and the defined relationship of student and professor, etc. I speak from experience when I say that such accountability structures can be a surprising and effective blessing in the Christian life.
In Person or Online?
This all brings us to another contested question surrounding seminary training, which becomes increasingly pressing each passing year: should I attend seminary online or in person? Before I say what I’m about to say, let me first state my profound gratitude to God for the common-grace gift of technology, and the online education it makes possible. Online education can be a tremendous gift for students who have no other conceivable way of getting such training. When utilized in tandem with faithful local churches who can give proper oversight to their online-student-members, online seminary can be effective.
This much being said, I should like to state in the strongest of all possible terms that online education is in every conceivable way inferior to an in-person experience. Shockingly, this is a contested point in some circles, and so apparently, I have to make explicit that I mean every word; I do not in the slightest speak with hyperbole. If given the choice between online and in-person seminary, all things being relatively equal, a student who chooses online chooses the lesser portion. Comparatively speaking, it’s a worse choice and therefore an imprudent investment. Always choose in-person, if you can manage it. (Is there any other way I can say it? Choose in-person; it’s better than online!)Seminary, in other words, is for whoever wants it. Click To Tweet
Now, you will perhaps read from education gurus, well-versed in the latest trends in pedagogy, whose sentiment starkly contrasts with the one I just communicated. They will tell you that, pedagogically speaking, online education can actually be better for equipping and teaching students. They may even cite statistics. The data, they will tell you, suggests that online education is somehow superior to residential education.
Don’t believe a word of it.
Such “paradigm-shifting insights” are predicated on the kind of outcome-and-skill-based measurable standards that are entirely appropriate for judging trade schools, and entirely inappropriate for judging seminaries. The measurements used to reach such a conclusion conveniently favor outcomes conducive to online-based education, but they don’t pass the sniff test. They are predicated on a vision of education that is a far cry from the lofty soul-shaping one I’ve just described. They are predicated on the loss of education as “virtue formation”—education as “formation of the person.” They are predicated on the assumption that seminary education is something other than the biblical and theological equipping of the churchman or churchwoman, the formalized discipleship of the saint. They are predicated on the idea that judging the effectiveness of an education is possible by judging someone’s ability to regurgitate information on a standardized test (a standardized test, mind you, that one takes on the internet, where all the answers to all the questions are a click away). But if seminaries are what I’ve described in this article, there is no question that an in-person experience is far superior to one entirely mediated by screens.
The Stewardship Consideration
From time to time, I will receive the objection that one can simply teach oneself the content taught in seminary. “This is quite true,” I typically say, “you are right that, unlike medical school or law school, the textbooks required in most seminary contexts are incredibly affordable. You can purchase elementary and intermediate Greek and Hebrew grammar textbooks, theology books, exegetical resources, preaching and pastoral counsel books. You can sit down and write your own position papers on any number of topics. It is possible for you to put in the abnormal amount of work and self-discipline to learn all these things on your own. But be honest: will you? For nearly every one of us, the answer is assuredly no. We need the structure and the discipline and the benefit of formal mentors in our professors to give us assignments, teach us, give us due dates, and give us feedback. Let us be realistic.The church is the most sacred institution on planet earth. Why not give her our best? Click To Tweet
In the end, to attend a seminary or not may not be a question of right or wrong—must or must not—but rather a question of prudent stewardship. For the person who has the time, means, opportunity, and desire to attend seminary, it is less a question of “why attend?” than “why on earth not?”
The stewardship consideration is particularly pressing for the aspiring pastor. Seminary, like every time and money and energy commitment, is an investment. Is it not a wise investment? Four or five years of training invested so as to receive dividends over the course of four or five decades of faithful ministry! To invest in seminary education is to invest in one’s future congregation(s)—a several-year commitment for the sake of a lifetime of devoted service. Will not one’s future congregation be far better off if her future pastor takes several years on the front end of his ministry to invest in biblical and theological training?
The church is the most sacred institution on planet earth. Why not give her our best?