Editor's Note: This article is part of an online symposium, "Does Seminary Have a Future?" hosted at Patheos this month. Read other perspectives here.

The church needs professionally trained ministers just as much as we need professionally trained physicians.

Some wax nostalgic for the days when ministerial training was all done on the job, maybe even under persecution, and spiritual disciplines were so crucial to everyday Christian living that they just "came naturally" with discipleship. There were definitely some advantages to that. We can likewise wax nostalgic for the days when most doctors made house calls. But country doctors of Wild West days had the equivalent of a high school education, too. Do we really want to go back to that? Likewise, we perhaps should be slower to romanticize the notion of a non-professional clergy, too.

Professional training for soul care and cure is as beneficial and necessary as professional training of physicians for physical bodies. Let's tease out some of the parallels: good training of physicians engages in the best research and latest findings in medical science, but should never forget how important and basic is good beside manner. Good training of medical doctors will incorporate the latest technological advancements in medicine, but without failing to remember that a mother's love is in itself some of the best medicine. A good physician, no matter how well trained, knows that two aspirin or a bowl of chicken soup is a decent cure for many ailments a general practitioner is likely to encounter, And, no matter how hard one tries and no matter how far advanced medical science progresses, the common cold will likely be with us forever.

Similarly, professional training of ministers is a benefit, and is especially crucial in a context like ours in which so many churches are sick and dying. For seminary training to be useful, though, it needs to train ministers to not lose the common touch and to be focused and disciplined in maintaining the basics of personal maturity, character and relational development, and spiritual formation. Here are some thoughts on what makes for good seminary training, along with some common missteps.

  1. 1. Good seminary education grounds one in competent knowledge of the Bible, church history, and theology—but always with a view towards practical ministerial service. Seminary is the place to ensure that a minister gains competence in biblical, theological, and historical knowledge. These are as basic as anatomy and physiology to a physician. This knowledge, however, is not an end in itself. And herein lies a common misstep: too often courses in Bible, church history and theology are taught for scholarly interests, not for the interest of ministerial practice. A Bible course that invests the student heavily in the archaeological findings at Tel-Dan may be interesting and fun, and as exotic as a course in abstract art—and nearly as useless for the minister's actual calling.

    It is this common misstep, I suspect, that has provoked much of the backlash against higher academic ministerial education. But that's an overreaction - or perhaps a reaction to the wrong thing. It is good to have seminary teachers who have done in-depth research and are abreast of the latest discussions, findings, and research in theological matters and interpretive issues. But they must discipline themselves - or have supervisors willing to give disciplined oversight - to ensure that they are teaching for the needs of the student and practitioner, not just indulging their own academic curiosities.
  2. Good seminary education promotes and fosters spiritual maturity; it is a common mistake to think that intelligence and maturity are related. Because, as the apostle Paul warned, "knowledge puffs up," increased knowledge actually brings with it an occupational hazard: arrogance. There may be nothing worse than an arrogant pastor who goes into the ministry to fulfill some narcissistic aspiration. Because academic environments naturally reward the giving of "correct answers" or for successfully accumulating knowledge of facts, or for making a compelling argument, attention to deeper spiritual formation can be neglected. Matters of personal character maturation and spiritual formation need to be deliberately and conscientiously pursued as a goal of the curriculum. Consider: is "making a good argument," or "being a know-it-all" helpful skills to cultivate in a minister?

    Once again, the issue here is not inherent to seminary education per se; it's just a common mistake in delivery. A lot of the issue can be resolved by ensuring that the people who teach, whatever they teach, themselves display mature Christian character and well-formed spiritual development. We need to look for more than academic competence in the interview process.
  3. Finally, good seminary education focuses on the needs of the church and the context of ministry; and teaches students to be people-sensitive and context-savvy. Substantive historical and theological content can be oriented to such a direction, but it has to be done deliberately. It is not bad for there to be some sociology, psychology -certainly some missiology—in a seminary's curriculum. It is a common misstep to deliver courses in the seminary curriculum as though each course is a disparate, abstract silo; this ends up driving the whole curriculum into further and further abstraction, the opposite of what is useful for ground-level ministry.