Would I Still Choose Seminary?

practicaltheologyThere were no books or courses that had prepared me for this moment. I couldn’t recall a single class lecture, academic essay, or engaging podcast that was relevant. I was a pastor, sitting in the living room of one of our members as an acquaintance of hers confessed to be addicted to meth and in need of help. It wasn’t the first time that I felt like I had no clue what I was doing in ministry – it won’t be the last time either. Seminary was very helpful for me in many ways, but it was limited in how much it could prepare me for ministry. In fact, if I had it to do over again I am not entirely sure I would choose to go to seminary.

Most people readily recognize that there are limitations to a seminary education. Professors and courses cannot conceivably cover every potential ministry situation that any given pastor might encounter. Cultural contexts are all so different, the people we pastor are all so different, and the dynamics of a single congregation are all so different than no curriculum could possibly cover everything. There’s a sense in which no one is every really “ready” for ministry; that’s why pastors are to be ultimately dependent on the Spirit of God. I wonder, however, if the current culture of pastoral training common in much of evangelicalism isn’t actually misleading pastors.

I am not anti-seminary, but I went into seminary believing that I was going to be “prepared for ministry,” meaning once I graduated I would be a “professional.” Many of my friends went in thinking the same thing. We would go to classes, read the text books, take the tests, graduate and then we would be PASTORS. In theory, of course, I knew this wasn’t true. I had read John Piper, I knew pastors weren’t professionals. Yet, I continually heard that seminary would “prepare you for ministry.” How would we be prepared? By reading good books.  There’s a book for everything. Need to know how to do Biblical Counseling? Read these books by Jay Adams. Do you need to know how to prepare sermons? You can’t go wrong with Bryan Chappell’s book. Do you need help with your evangelism? Pick your tactic and there’s a book on how to implement it. There was immense value in these books, but I wonder now if I couldn’t have learned as much from good pastors as I did from seminary. Could godly, experienced, and well-read men train me just as well? Could they give me more than just books but also hands on experience, a model, and some personalized time? Could they have done it at a cheaper cost? I think so.

There are many ways to critique my shifting views on seminary. Clearly we might establish that this is a false dichotomy. After all both seminary and mentorship can be valuable in their own right, it shouldn’t be one or the other. Seminary has its place and pastoral mentorship has its place. And of course there’s the very valid point that seminaries train pastor in the original languages. That’s a hard thing to learn outside of the formal academic setting (though not impossible). I am beginning to think, however, that a good pastor could actually prepare me for ministry, and better prepare me for ministry.

The thing I was most unprepared for upon leaving seminary was the messiness of actual ministry. I was naïve when I graduated. This of course wasn’t the Seminary’s fault. I had qualified, competent, and earnest professors. Yet, without blaming anyone, I, and I believe many other graduates, was not prepared for the reality of what ministry is actually like. Rather quickly I learned that seminary culture and the average congregation were very different. In my first church after seminary I learned that not only do people often not care about what this passage means in the Greek, they sometimes don’t even care what it means in English. At that moment what I needed was a wise, seasoned pastor in my ear helping me to learn how to disciple people who were often ruled by their emotions. In seminary we debated the meaning of the text. In this church there were some who didn’t even know that the text applied to them. I had questions about discipleship that I had never had before. I had an elder betray our congregation and no clue where to begin resolving the problems. So, I resigned. I was not ready to pastor.

Early on I learned too that theology without application doesn’t mean a whole lot to people. I was rightly taught in seminary that every pastor needs to be a theologian, but I had not learned the difference between being a theologian and being an academic. I loved to study doctrines in my seminary classes, but I didn’t always know what to do with those doctrines. John Frame would argue that I hadn’t really been doing theology at that point. Until you know how to apply a doctrine you haven’t really theologized. His definition of theology as the application of the Word of God to the world has helped to ground me in more recent years. Fresh out of seminary, though, I was struggling to understand this principle. The girl sitting on the couch before me that night didn’t need simply to know about the incarnation, she needed to know if it offered her any hope of healing from addiction! The guy I met last week who has been harboring the scars of molestation for thirty years doesn’t just need me to point to Romans 8:28, he needs me to walk alongside him and help him believe that God is still good. Again, this failure of application was not my seminary’s fault. I know now, however, that my personality required the need for a constant reminder of the distinction between academics and theology.

The truth is that if I am honest there are more days where I feel like I don’t know what I am doing in ministry than there are days where I am certain of myself. That was certainly true helping to pastor a church full of recovering addicts in rural southern Ohio, but it’s still true helping to pastor a church in the Detroit metro. And what I have found most valuable in ministry are not lessons that I learned in seminary but those taught to me by faithful small town pastors. These men have labored in the same community for over 30 years. The most influential theologian in my life is not a seminary professor. He has never written a book and not many people will know his name, but I know it. Without Frank Tallerico’s experience and counsel I could not be where I am today. It is because of his training of me post-seminary that I can on some days say I am “prepared for ministry.”

If you asked me today would I do seminary over again I am not sure what I would say. Maybe I’ll never really know how to answer that question. After all I did go to seminary and I did reap the benefits of a seminary education, even if I can’t say with specificity what those benefits are. I know my personality, though, and I know that what I have most needed throughout my development are experienced and well-read pastors who could help me apply what they also helped me understand. Simply put, if I had it to do over again I just don’t know if I would choose seminary.

 

Comments

  1. Dave, I appreciate your courage in exploring this subject and admitting your own doubts now that you’re on the other end. While I lean more toward anti-seminary myself, I think there is value in whatever course a person chooses to travel, provided they do it in faith as they follow the leading of Christ in their hearts. But you are right in saying that the essential equipment for ministering to people in day-to-day life are better found in the local church life and the workplace than in the college lecture halls.

Trackbacks

  1. […] This is an enlightening piece on the state of pastoral ministry in America. For five years I had to work multiple part-time jobs just to make ends meet. It was very stressful and often my family or ministry suffered because of my varied responsibilities and schedules. Coming to CBC changed all of this for us, and I am very grateful. I appreciate Wheeler’s exposing this problem and challenging the church to consider how it will continue to empower, assist, and support its pastors. I think the answer begins in rethinking seminary education. […]

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