The Seminary Bubble

Back in the 1990s I enrolled in an evangelical divinity school on the north side of Chicago.  I am not sure why I was there.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a pastor or a missionary, but I knew I liked studying and had an ongoing fascination with theology and church history.  I spent three years in divinity school. After I finished I did not go into the ministry, but my experience in divinity school prepared me to think about the world from a Christian perspective.

A lot of my classmates at divinity school were there because they they wanted to pastor evangelical congregations.  Some of them left careers or good-paying jobs to following God’s call on their lives.  Many of them had spouses and children.  A lot of them were going into debt in order to fund their divinity education.

I thought about these fellow students when I read Jerry Bowyer’s post, “The Seminary Bubble.”  (Thanks for the link, Russ Reeves).

Bowyer writes:

Imagine an institution that requires its leaders to attend not only college, but graduate school. Imagine that the graduate school in question is constitutionally forbidden from receiving any form of government aid, that it typically requires three years of full-time schooling for the diploma, that the nature of the schooling bears almost no resemblance to the job in question, and that the pay for graduates is far lower than other professions. You have just imagined the relationship between the Christian Church and her seminaries.

Read the rest here.

8 thoughts on “The Seminary Bubble

  1. Since leaving seminary [23+ years], I have told to “Be prepared to become a worker-priest.” With that in mind, how many years of education and debt should a pastoral candidate accrue knowing that he or she will have to “moonlight?” There has been many articles and books written about the “post Christendom” church and reality. How are theological seminary as institutions adapting to this reality?

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  2. David: Thanks for weighing in. I wonder if mainline seminaries do a better job at preparing pastors than evangelical seminaries.

    Though I have an MDiv, I took most of my elective courses in theology and church history because I knew I was not going to become a pastor. But I do think that their were many “practical” courses offered that I could have taken if I chose to.

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  3. David: Thanks for weighing in. I wonder if mainline seminaries do a better job at preparing pastors than evangelical seminaries.

    Though I have an MDiv, I took most of my elective courses in theology and church history because I knew I was not going to become a pastor. But I do think that their were many “practical” courses offered that I could have taken if I chose to.

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  4. LD: How do you know that seminaries are not producing “competent pastors” in the way that you define it? I am not trying to challenge your assertion here as much as I am trying to understand it.

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  5. My seminary experience did much to prepare me for being a pastor. “Field Education,” i.e. being assigned a local church to attend and help (including preaching after completing the first year homiletics class), was a big part of that, along with the fact that ~1/4 of my coursework was in the “practical” department, with a class on congregational dynamics among the best and most useful classes I took. Many of the other courses tried to be applicable to future parish work, with exegetical classes modeling how to do Bible study research, although some taught us to be professors more than pastors.

    Not all courses were as helpful (Pastor as Educator took 6 weeks of educational philosophy, 3 weeks of teaching a religion class in a Lutheran school, and hasn't helped me lead Bible studies or teach confirmation class). The fact that the third year (of four) is a vicarage (year long internship) did open my eyes to parts of parish life that I hadn't experienced before, and led me to focus my 4th year studies to remedy those lacks.

    In contrast to the seminaries described in the article, my denomination assigns us to our “first calls,” and provides a food bank and re-sale clothing store on site to help the married students. Challenges still certainly remain, though. I'll be interested to see what the follow-up article brings.

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  6. I had barely started seminary when I decided to switch to a PhD program; there were several reasons, but one of them was financial. How bad is it when I can look back and think going into higher education was a smart financial move compared to the alternative?

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  7. The reason that seminary training is often worse than useless is not because it doesn't churn out riveting preachers, but because it doesn't produce what most congregants are looking for: competent pastors.

    Whatever “the natural leadership gifts” are for being a pastor in the author's estimation, good preaching style must really be the last and least on the list. People will sit through abysmal sermons Sunday after Sunday if the pastor is a conscientious shepherd of his flock during the week.

    The answer to the seminary bubble is not to get the guys into homiletics class sooner in their seminary career; it's to disabuse students of the notion that being a pastor means spending most of the time in your study working on your sermon.

    There is a real pastoral benefit to theological training, but that benefit is utterly wasted if students imagine that the discourse community of seminary has any resemblance whatsoever to a congregation.

    Anyone who thinks he is “called to preach” needs to re-frame what he thinks it means to “preach,” and how precious little of preaching has anything to do with oratory, or even with words.

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