All else being equal, I believe most pastors will have deeper, broader, and longer-lasting ministry if they invest in a good seminary education as a key component of their pastoral training.
I know the model that says pastors should have a three-year academic degree from an accredited seminary is not found in Scripture. I know it is of relatively recent historical vintage. I know that a full-blown seminary education is impossible for many pastors around the world and even for some would-be pastors in the West. I know there are scores of faithful, fruitful men who have pastored and are presently pasturing without a seminary education. I think of some of my pastor friends without a seminary degree and how gladly I would sit under their ministries.
And yet, all else being equal, I believe most pastors will have deeper, broader, and longer-lasting ministry if they invest in a good seminary education as a key component of their pastoral training.
Yes, there are more theological resources in this country than anywhere else in the world at any time in history. There are more ways to learn than ever before: through conferences, online sermons and lectures, by blogs and interviews and apps and videos. But I believe the church still needs the seminary. There are things the seminary can do that the even the biggest, best, and brightest church won’t be able to accomplish.
Our present model is far from perfect. Church, seminary, and denomination/ordaining institutions need to work together more effectively. It’s too easy for each entity to assume the other is doing the hard work of vetting potential candidates for ministry. I’ve overheard many conversations where the church assumes the seminary will train their ill-suited member for ministry, where the seminary assumes they are only handing out academic grades, and where the denomination assumes that if a man has been put forward by his church and has an M.Div. that he is ready to be ordained. There are bad seminaries that undermine the fundamentals of the faith. There are dry as dust seminaries that mint scholars more than pastors. And there are overeager seminaries that try to do everything under the sun, all the while neglecting the bread and butter of pastoral ministry: a competency to rightly handle the word of God and to teach it to others.
Nevertheless, I urge every man preparing for pastoral ministry to make every effort to go to seminary. Yes, actually go there, take classes in a building with other students, and get a degree. Again, I recognize there are exceptions to this rule. But I hope those pursuing pastoral ministry will diligently and sacrificially pursue a seminary education unless providentially hindered.
- Even a decent seminary will be better equipped to teach the original languages, systematic theology, church history, and biblical exegesis than the best church. This does not mean the church is negligible in the process, for our seminary professors should all be dedicated churchmen and our sending churches and denominations have a vital role in preparing pastors in other aspects of ministry that are just as important.
- Without a seminary education, even the smartest pastors will have big gaps in their understanding of the Bible, history, and theology. Our learning will be more provincial, more derivative, and less likely to be drawn from primary sources and older texts.
- Those without a seminary education are often at a disadvantage when it comes to using all the exegetical and theological resources a pastor needs to stay fresh, energized, and well grounded over a lifetime of ministry.
- Those without a seminary education may have a more difficult time entering into important discussions and controversies. There is more terra incognito on the doctrinal landscape.
- Learning in a flesh and blood community—with professors you can know personally and with students you can fight with and learn from—cannot be duplicated by online cohorts or virtual education. Not even close.
- A good seminary education gives the pastor confidence in what he should know and enough humility to know what he doesn’t know.
- By studying in person at a seminary you will develop lifelong friendships and important pastoral and professional connections.
None of this is to suggest a seminary education is all you need to be a good pastor. In fact, I think seminaries often try to do too much and are expected to do too much. Many aspects of ministry cannot be learned in the classroom. That’s why we need more rigorous internship programs and why the church needs to take more responsibility to evaluate, support, and prepare men for ministry. All I’m saying is that in most cases I believe it is a mistake with long-term ramifications for aspiring pastors to voluntarily forgo the seminary education they could have had with a good dose of discipline, creativity, sacrifice, prayer, and hard work.