Stop Blaming the Seminaries

There’s almost no way for me to write this post without sounding like I’m just defending my profession. But, of course, that’s because I am. Our seminaries are far from perfect. We probably spend too much time on some things, too little on others, and almost certainly do not run as efficiently as we could. But, seminaries are not the root of all our ecclesiological problems.

I began reflecting on this a few weeks ago when I met with a group of Portland-area pastors to discuss how we can do a better job as a seminary of training pastors. And, they came up with some great ideas. Very helpful stuff. Toward the end of the lunch, though, one of them stopped the conversation to point out something he thought had been lacking in the conversation to that point: the role of the church in training its own pastors. He wanted to make it clear that the responsibility for pastoral formation lies primarily in the hands of the church. He quickly emphasized that he thinks the seminary has an important role to play in the process. But it can’t, and shouldn’t, do it alone. If it tries, it will necessarily fail in its mission. Effective ministry training requires churches and seminaries to work together, both doing what they do best.

This conversation came to mind recently as I read yet another post castigating seminaries for failing the church and causing its imminent demise. (Okay, it wasn’t quite that bad. But it was close.) In this case, the problem was that seminaries are not turning out truly spiritual leaders. We major in things like theology, Bible, languages, history, and other esoterica, but we fail to develop the spirituality of our students. So, pastors enter the pulpit ready to preach, but unable to pray.

I have at least three problems with that argument.

1. I’m not convinced that it’s true. I haven’t taught at other schools, so I can’t speak for them, but the students I’ve met at Western Seminary are almost all deeply committed to their own spiritual development. Of course, that comes with its peaks and valleys, and the rigors and challenges of seminary can lead to a valley for some. But for most seminary is a deeply formative experience.

2. The problem isn’t necessarily with the seminary. What if pastors are leaving seminary spiritually ill-equipped for ministry? Does the problem lie entirely, or even mostly, with the seminary? Of course not. Keep in mind that most seminary students have been Christians for at least a few years, and they spent that time in some church somewhere. And, they’ll also be a part of a church during their seminary years. So, why assume that a failure in spiritual development lies with the seminary, which, even after several years, will still comprise a relatively small portion of a student’s Christian experience? Shouldn’t we be looking instead at our churches and wondering why they are producing spiritually ill-equipped leaders. Why focus on the seminaries?

3. The whole argument reflects an unhealthy tendency to separate the seminary from the church. Most importantly, this way of thinking necessarily implies a separation between the church and the “academy” that is unhealthy and has itself contributed to many of our problems. The “seminary” hasn’t caused a problem that the “church” has to fix, as though the seminary were not a part of the church and created to serve the church. We’ve made this mistake before, separating the academic from the ministerial, the tower from the table, and it never goes anywhere worth visiting.

Seminaries aren’t perfect, but they’re not the sole problem either. We do need to improve ministerial training. But, simplistically blaming all our problems on one institution won’t get us anywhere. As always, we need to look deeper.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on August 3, 2011, in Leadership, Spiritual Formation and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. Amen and amen. I can accept three basic reasons for not going to seminary: (1) finances; (2) there is no seminary near one’s current location and it isn’t possible to travel for classes; and (3) one’s ministry in a church doesn’t necessarily require seminary (i.e. pastor of house churches/small groups or something similar). Of course, there are other scenarios like a death of a spouse or a sickness, but those are rarer excuses.

    Bad excuses are that seminary doesn’t prepare someone for ministry. I’ve spent most of the last decade in San Francisco, CA, and Portland, OR. Most Christians consider these places pagan. Some churches have conferences on how to reach the “postmodern” peoples of cities like these. I can say that seminary has been an essential part of my development in living and witnessing in these places. Sure, I am not a pastor, and I am not in the pulpit each Sunday, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had to wrestle with church and ministry relates issues over the years.

    Seminary is one of those places where you get a return on the investment you choose. If someone wants seminary to produce them into the Robocop of Pastors like some sort of factory they’re the one’s with a faulty mindset. Seminaries shouldn’t be assembly lines producing cookie cut leaders. It is a place where you are stretched by others–professor and fellow student alike–to think in ways you may not have thought and to look at things from an angle formerly unknown. And seminary creates a community and a culture where you can find co-laborers in the gospel that may become friends for life.

    But I’ve already said too much. Maybe I should write a post from a student’s perspective! 🙂

  2. I think that one problem might be when pastors spend too much time engaging and refuting critical, unorthodox theories from the pulpit. The average church goer does not know that the latest book from whichever author (perhaps Bart Ehrman) destabilizes all of Christendom. Nor do they need to hear their pastor tackle these sorts of issues. He just needs to preach the Bible. It always bothers me when a pastor preaches against critical academic scholarship. Most in the pews probably are not aware of the issue, and stand the chance of leaving with some doubt. And the pastor is probably not going to offer a prevailing view over the thinker he is combating.

    • That’s one of the reasons that I draw a distinction between teaching and preaching. The pulpit just isn’t the best place to deal with certain issues.

  3. It almost sounds like the issue is that churches might recognize that they are ill-equipped to effectively pastor to up and coming leaders, spiritually, so they believe that sending that person to seminary will solve the problem. So it almost sounds like churches believe in the potential of seminary to do something transformative in the lives of its students.

    But I would agree with all three points. Is it frustrating to love the church and endeavor to serve her by trying partner up with local churches in order to figure out what a seminary can do to play its role, only to be constantly bombarded with the reality that there are those who think it is to blame? I imagine so. Thanks for your love for the church, Marc.

    • It would be more frustrating if it wasn’t for the fact that I know so many pastors who are excited about working together with us for effective ministry training. Unfortunately, as in so many areas, it’s the negative voices that receive most of the attention. That part is definitely frustrating.

  4. Here’s an interesting comment that came in via Facebook:

    I agree.
    I had a conversation with another pastor and he asked if I felt ill-equipped by seminary, now that I out and in the thick of pastoral ministry. I replied that I thought my seminary education was very good; theological and practical. Yes, I’m ill-equipped for pastoral ministry. But that’s not my seminary’s fault, it’s mine. All the junk in my own life is creating several (though not all!) of the problems I’m having in my pastoral life.
    And from that I’m coming to a tentative conclusion. The next time I hear some guy blame his seminary for his lack of preparation, I might explore that a bit more and see where his own personal ‘stuff’ may actually be the issue.

  5. There is another aspect of seminary training that is perhaps far less addressed and in much more desperate need of work. As a clinical therapist I see, almost regularly, the results of pastors who are vastly under qualified to deal with real life situations. I have a long line of clients who have gone to their pastor for help for depression, anxiety, marital and relational strife, etc. only to be given the more inane and flagrantly unprofessional counselling. Pastors are considered ‘go to’ people for hurting individuals but usually have no real idea what is needed. If I hear one more client tell me their pastor told them to “get on God’s team” or “just pray about it” I’m going to hurl.
    If pastors are going to be trained with the skills they have been given in seminary then there needs to be a comment about pastoral counselling that they should “leave it to the professionals” if it is in any way complicated. Those pastoral counselling classes (and I have taken them) are a joke.
    Is there training for real life?

    • I’d like to believe that we offer training for “real life.” The challenge for pastoral training is that the real world responsibilities of a pastor are so diverse that there’s really no way to develop all of them in-depth during their seminary years. So, we try to tell our students that we’re only giving them the foundation in key areas (e.g. counseling, preaching, administration, etc.). They’re job is to continue building on that foundation after seminary. Unfortunately, that frequently doesn’t happen. (Continuing education for pastors is one area that I think seminaries can definitely improve on.)

      Another part of the problem that you mention is a divide between the pastor and the counselor that is similar to the divide between church and academy. I frequently hear people express concern when pastors refer people to counselors because they are sending them “outside” the church for help. But why view the Christian counselor as outside the church? A closer partnership between the two would help us see the well-trained Christian counselor as a gift to the church rather than someone operating in competition with the church.

  6. As a 50 year old, with significant “lay” exeperience in the local church and Christian ministry in general, I have been thrilled with Western Seminary. However, I don’t think we can speak of “seminary” in general. There are some really bad seminaries out there, where the Gospel is not confirmed and strengthened in the minds of the students, and where Scripture is undermined at every opportunity. The value is in the systematic biblical education by professors who love Jesus Christ and live out their faith. Any other type of seminary education is probably a waste of time.

    • You’re right that “seminary” in the abstract isn’t terribly helpful because individual seminaries are so different. And, I’m sure there are some pretty bad ones out there. But, I will say that the ones that I’m most familiar with are actually quite good. (None as good as Western, of course. But they’re trying.)

    • And, thanks for the encouragement! It’s always nice to hear from people who appreciate what Western is doing.

  7. Marc,
    I deeply appreciate this post. My friends and I talk a lot about the relationship between the church and the seminaries and I think you have made some great observations. I can’t speak for Western but DTS doesn’t seem to have a strong church presence on campus. Sure, we have Swindoll as our chancellor and several other profs serve on elder boards, but I wonder if there is a way for the local churches in Dallas to have a stronger presence on campus. Honestly, I don’t really even know what that would look like. Dozens of churches are represented in the faculty but I wouldn’t say any of the congregations have made themselves known by being involved with the students. How much of that is the church and how much of that is the seminary?

    • Thanks Daniel. I can’t speak for DTS or the situation in Dallas. But, I do know that for a long time the model has been for churches to identify likely pastoral prospects (at best, sometimes it’s just individual students deciding for themselves that they’re qualified) and then handing them off to the seminary for training. That may have served the church well in the past, but I’m not convinced it’s the best model moving forward. Although it doesn’t need to, it does create an environment conducive to seeing church and academy as completely separate institutions with different purposes (rather than partners in the same mission). I think that a much closer partnership between seminary and church is vital for successful ministry preparation in the future. Either way, though, we simply can’t make the mistake of thinking that the seminary is somehow separate from the church. That’s a death sentence for both sides.

  8. Seminary is a seed bed and part of those persons’ spiritual narratives who are moved to take that on as part of their journey. Looking in the rear view mirror some thirty years post seminary, the plantings of Greek, Hebrew, theology, church history, missiology etc have been watered, cultivated, and grown into varying seasons and yields of spiritual harvest thereafter. Seminary seemed spiritually arid at times back then, but so seems the soil beds in which seeds are planted in any garden. Like those beds, spiritual fruit is not evident immediately. The weeding, watering, and fertilizing of life plus time will tell what fruit comes to fore. For those in the church and other whiners that want to see their fruit immediately…perhaps a good study of 1 Cor 3:6ff is in order. For me,I remain grateful for the privilege of seat time before those imperfect yet zealous teachers of truth who expended their lives in the pursuit of kingdom planting.

  9. Marc,

    I do not think that seminaries are to blame for spiritual coldness, bad preaching, or whatever other things people blame them for.

    I will say that if a seminary does not require a competency in the Biblical languages before graduation, in any degree program, it has stopped preparing its students to interpret the Scripture.

    A lot of times students are to blame, but when students are not made to understand that Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic are indispensable tools for interpreting Scripture they will graduate without those tools at their disposal. So, when seminaries fail to require biblical language skills for graduation, they have made themselves, indirectly, to blame for the fact that a statistical minority of preachers can read their Greek New Testaments.

  10. In the past few years I have been considering the pastoral ministry. Without really knowing where to start, I inquired at seminaries (Western was one). I’m grateful that I was able to also talk to a pastor at my church and he urged me to first be evaluated within the church. If this is truly something I’m gifted for, then we can evaluate what kind of training and education I need. This has been immensely helpful in seeing how the church and seminary can compliment each other. I feel like I will be more prepared for seminary and better able to find the right focus if that’s the way I go.

    One of the other factors that I don’t know how to address is the cost. I completely understand the value of seminary but the idea of taking out large loans is a real challenge, and I’m sure there are others that have to weigh this too. Again, not blaming seminaries, but there must be a more collaborative way to solve that too.

    (as an aside, I just found this blog but I love it, especially as someone living in Portland)

    • I love the idea of having churches more actively engaged in assessing prospective pastoral candidates. Some churches do this very well and become active partners in the process. But, all too often we get students who really have never had anyone speak into their life about what kind of ministry they should be preparing for. We’re happy to work with students like this as well, but it does put us in a role that I think is better performed by local churches.

      Cost is always a challenge, and every good seminary is wrestling with how to control costs and remain as affordable as possible. Our solution at this point has been to be as flexible as possible with our scheduling options so that students can stay in their jobs/churches while going through seminary. It takes longer that way, but it’s more affordable for most students. And, it has the advantage of not uprooting students from their current situations where they are hopefully engaged in meaningful ministry already.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. Always good to hear from someone in Portland!

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