Many of you know that I will begin as a faculty member at Northern Seminary, in Lombard IL, this Fall. I will be teaching Synoptic Gospels, New Testament Theology, Paul, Kingdom of God, and the Ethics of Jesus — and I am very excited about teaching each of these courses. I began my career teaching seminary students, shifted to undergraduates for seventeen years, and now will move into the seminary again. This move has driven me to think and rethink what seminary provides the church, or what the church provides the seminary. Today’s post offers ten reasons for going to seminary, and I know full well that many today both find seminary irrelevant and contend they are “successful” ministers without seminary. I’ve heard not a few of said contenders say that they think seminary would have hurt them. I disagree mostly… and, yes, the MDiv or a seminary degree is the union card or accreditation level for many churches … so here then are ten reasons to attend seminary:
1. Gift enhancement. Seminaries will not “gift” a person but seminaries can almost always enhance the gifts God has given to a person. I have argued for years that seminaries work best when they are populated by ministers and not by folks who think or want, but aren’t sure, if they are gifted or called. What seminaries do well is enhance gifts.
2. Biblical and Theological enhancement. Seminary students will study the Bible, the whole Bible, and that will be a first for some. And, they already have a theology; seminaries can enhance that theology, both by way of subtraction (getting rid of some careless ideas) and addition (adding better ideas). Students have the opportunity to study great theologians, and pity the seminary that assigns textbook-ish theology books, and I’m thinking here of Athanasius and Augustine, Aquinas and Anselm, Luther and Calvin (and the Anabaptists like Hubmaier), and then into the modern era with Barth and Moltmann.
3. Personal enhancement. There was a day when seminaries assumed seminary students would be praying and reading the Bible and practicing the disciplines and attending church … they assumed formation was already underway. No more. Increasingly, seminaries are making spiritual formation — personal enhancement — a part of each course in the curriculum. I will be.
4. Dedicated time. Let’s face it, to develop theologically as a minister you need time, and that’s what seminary does. In sociological terms, seminary can be a time of encapsulation: you are isolated from your work, your church, and you are holed up in a class with other students and a professor, and you wander into quiet libraries and you study — it is that dedicated time that seminaries can offer. Most pastors aren’t afforded the luxury to study in big chunks of time, so going to seminary, even if it is as a commuter, offers dedicated time. It probably won’t happen without dedicated time.
5. Access to specialists. One of the problems with seminaries is that they can take on the flavor of a research institution and its professors want to be left alone to do historical and technical research and write books and articles and monographs for the academic guild. I am proud to say at Northern, the aim is for the professors to be both specialist enough to be able to work in the guild but who are shaping their lives toward pastors, toward ministry, and toward the church. Seminaries provide specialists to ministers who need specialists on the topics of the day.
6. Fellowship with peers. How many — I’m asking ministers this question — of your friends are peers you gained in seminary? In my years of speaking and writing and teaching, I have observed that many pastors made their closest ‘ministry peers’ in their seminary years. I sat in the graduation at Northern Seminary and then watched afterwards to see how many of these students have become friends. Adult friends, especially those who are ministry peers, remain friends. At seminary you will find a collection of peers who will form a ministry fellowship for life.
7. Theological diversity. Some seminaries (names omitted) prefer to have faculty who all think alike. I’m 100% persuaded diversity, theological diversity, is the name of the game for seminaries. No two pastors think exactly alike and no two professors think alike, and having theological diversity (within some creedal constraint) that interacts with one another sets a pattern for ministry for years to come. Taking classes from professors who don’t agree with you, or who think differently, will make you a better minister.
8. Languages. Here we go: not all seminaries require Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic. But the professors will know those languages and you will be exposed to professors who read those texts well and who can show why it matters and how it matters and how it matters for sermons, for devotion, and for ministry. At seminary you have the opportunity to study the original languages. Take the opportunity.
9. The New Perspective, etc. The blazing issues of the day, and the New Perspective on Paul is one such issue and I think of open theism and universalism as well, are often complicated enough that ministers simply don’t have the time to read and read and read to figure out what is going on. But what happens if the student can walk into a professor’s office or into a classroom and ask someone who knows and who can reduce it to 2 minutes and point you to what to read and how to think through the issue? Seminaries do this.
10. Who and not just What. When you are done with seminary you will be someone else. So the big advantage is not just what seminary did for your career but Who you became.