Should You Go to Seminary?

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Should you go to seminary?

As a young man I was a member of a Pentecostal Church in my hometown where the Senior Pastor told young men such as myself—those who showed some interest in serving the Church—that the best thing we could do was develop a trade to sustain us and then either assist in an established Church or “plant” one ourselves. It was unthinkable to this man that someone who was seriously committed to serving the Church would spend too much time receiving an education. Maybe one could take a community college class or two, but overall education was more likely to corrupt “pure faith” than it was to establish and strengthen it. While I’m no Ivy League student it is obvious from my current path in life that I disagreed with him and did so strongly. Now that I am not part of the Pentecostal circles in which this man lived I know for a fact (he has named me in his sermons in the past) that he sees me as a “case-and-point” example of what not to do with your life: go to college and apostatize!

Sadly, it isn’t just hyper fundamentalist, sectarian Pentecostals who downplay education. There are many Christians who do so either explicitly or implicitly. We have pastors spending thirty thousand dollars on their M.Div program who then oversee a Church of fifty who pays them a wage of forty thousand annually while some charismatic persona uses crafty oratory and fancy stage antics to draw a crowd of a few thousand. One cannot enter the medical field this way or the study of law. Sadly, if the “clergy” of many of our Churches is skilled as public speaking and community organizing, voilà! spending time and money in seminary is proven to have been a bad idea. The end justifies the means, right?

So, why should we encourage our future pastors to give their time and money to educating themselves and why in biblical and theological studies? Would the best path be to “learn a trade” the aforementioned Pastor argued? Would it be better to receive an education in something “secular” like business or law in order to have a “fall back” career if the pastorate doesn’t work?

If a young person asked you why they should or shouldn’t go to seminary of divinity school what would you tell them? Would you encourage them? discourage them? If so, what points would you make to persuade them?

Personally, I want to be careful when I say one must receive a seminary education to be an effective Pastor or to the serve the Church in some other similar capacity. I am well aware that some people don’t have the resources to go to seminary. Seminary is expensive! Seminary demands that someone has had the privilege of going to college already! It would be elitists to argue that one can’t respond to the divine call without graduate level education. Also, I think it would be reactionary to people who poo-poo education.

That said, Pastors and others who serve in similar roles work with people, real people. These people are troubled by the Bible, or by someone who has told them something concerning about Christianity, or more day-to-day things like raising children, paying the bills, going through a divorce, or planning their parent’s funeral. While I will not say that the undereducated can’t serve these people I will say that rejecting the opportunity for further preparation, if it is offered, is foolish. You don’t want people to come to you for marriage counseling then suddenly have to “learn on the job” with that much at stake. You don’t want to be part of a local congregation on the verge of splitting and then have to wrestle with your ecclesiology and doctrinal position on a contentious matter. Now, I’m not going to say you’ll settle everything while in seminary. That would be a lie. I’ve been out of seminary for a few years now and I have a lot of questions, but I’ve also had practice thinking. Seminary doesn’t offer the best answers most of the time, but it does allow you to be in a place amongst other people where you learn to think through important issues in a safer environment than the life-and-death situations of local parish life. That is why I’d advocate going to seminary or divinity school if the opportunity arises: thinking takes practice and bad thinking is better done where it can be corrected than where it could cause extensive damage because of the lack of practice.

Is seminary “worth it”? ($$$)

In my previous post I asked about how we should respond to the question, “Should I go to seminary?” For many the answer is “yes” if you have the finances and you sense a “calling” of some sort. For others it may be “no” or “yes with caution” because of things like the fear of misguided indoctrination or the impact of one’s studies on their familial and social life, but it seems that the most prominent concern has to do with money.

I’ve seen the inside of seminary operations to some extent and I remain baffled by the problem: somehow seminary costs continue to rise, yet many schools don’t pay their faculty better or hire better faculty, or upgrade their facilities and libraries, or do much of anything that shows that the money is going to good use, yet there is usually no reason to suspect unethical mismanagement of the funds. I don’t know where the money goes—health care? the cost of accreditation? marketing?—but it goes somewhere. The problem is that the cost of seminary education is experiencing inflation that far surpasses that of the local economy and often even that of other institutions of higher learning (at least, without a in-depth study to cite, this has been my observation when working in higher ed), but the people graduating from seminary will continually be on the low end of the wages spectrum.

Now, I know, ideally, we say that a calling is a calling, or service to the Church is service to the Church, so money shouldn’t be a thing, but that may be overly optimistic. Many people may not find a job right out of seminary, but the debt is there. Others may find a job, but it is low paying, and while Pastor Sue may be able to embrace poverty her spouse and children may not. Similarly, because Pastor Sue owes thirty grand in education debt that she accumulated in order to be a minister she is shackled when it comes to guiding her Church. She may want to make some changes, be a prophetic voice, shake the dust off of a complacent congregation, but she needs her job, so she plays the role while her heart sinks as she realizes that seminary didn’t prepare her for this sort of survival.

Now, some schools affiliated with denominations do assist financially, but this can lead to learning being stymied a bit. If you know you have to check off a list of affirmed beliefs to continue to receive financial assistance you may find that you ignore where your studies take you because you know if you go down that path you’ll no longer affirm all that [insert denomination/organization here] demands that you affirm to receive support. I don’t blame these denominations or organizations for requiring people to affirm their vision and values to receive their support, but it can be a drag on one’s learning experience that results in hypocrisy-for-hire.

We know the problem, but what are the solutions? I’d like to hear your thoughts on some of the following:

  • How can seminaries and divinity schools better use their finances, especially those who are tuition driven without strong endowments?
  • Should students attend seminaries and divinity schools that are tuition driven or is this a warning sign?
  • Should more smaller seminaries and divinity schools consider mergers to pull together their resources?
  • How can schools make their budget without driving up the cost of a credit hour?
  • How can schools access more scholarship money?
  • How can we convince wealthy Christians to invest more in our seminary and divinity school students so that those Christians with excess wealth can help future clergy and other Church leaders avoid disabling debt?

[originally posted at Near Emmaus, but has had some limited modification for republishing]

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • jeffcook

    I pastor a church in Colorado. I have a graduate degree in philosophy and did not go to seminary. I do think getting a solid grounding in theology and the study of the Bible is indispensable, but may be gained in a variety of ways. In my experience pastoral work is much more a craft that should be learned as an apprentice than one that can be understood through books and lectures.

    If I’m hiring, I imagine I would opt for the person who spent 4 years serving daily under the guidance of a solid church, than the green seminary graduate. Getting a chance to converse about hermeneutics and theology can be very valuable personally. Whether it translates to better church leaders is another question.

  • brianleport

    Jeff,

    Jeff, thank you for your comment.I agree quite a lot with the idea of pastoral work as being more or less an apprentice model. That said, one argument I’d make for seminary is ideally one will receive a more diverse education that merely serving in a Church under an established Pastor or two. You did qualify your statement with the words “a solid church” and that is important, but there are a lot of unhealthy Churches as well as Churches where their mission is (probably rightly so) directed specifically to a local context in a way that will not prepare someone for serving in another context.

    Now many seminaries and divinity schools can be as myopic and closed as a local Church, and it is possible for a student to enter an echo chamber rather than having their ideas challenged while being presented by new ideas, but ideally seminaries and divinity schools will stretch students introducing them to professors and other students with diverse world views and experiences that can broaden that of the student. This would be where I’d advocate seminary education in conjunction with apprenticeship style experience rather than just good apprenticeship style experience.

  • jeffcook

    I can see that ideally seminary is very valuable, (yet very expensive, very time consuming, and often overly theoretical). It does place some folks in difficult financial positions if they are unable to sustain themselves/families through ministry afterward. And burn out in ministry is no secret (see expastor.com)

    If the question is would you encourage someone to go to seminary, my answer would be, “Go apprentice for 2 years and then reassess.” Apprenticeship costs you nothing, is highly valuable both in professional experience and in understanding “the day job”. Going to seminary cold is risky.

    But I agree. Ideally, you will have a solid seminary education.

    Much love. Jeff

  • brianleport

    Good point. It is probably well worth doing some sort term apprenticeship prior to making the commitment of time and finance seminary requires. Wise advice.