Seminaries: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

This post is part of a Patheos symposium on the Future of Seminary Education.  You can see all of my posts in this symposium here.

There’s lots of good stuff being written in the Patheos symposium on seminaries.  Most of the good stuff, IMHO, is being written by folks who are not in leadership in seminaries.  The posts by seminary leaders are, I think, pretty timid.  Here’s some of the latest, best stuff, with some commentary by me:

Brian McLaren says “Seminary Is Not the Problem — The Church Is:

But too many seminarians step out of seminary and straight into a brick wall. When they arrive in a local congregation, they experience nearly the opposite of their positive seminary experience.

My Take: I think Brian has a point, but I think he’s letting seminaries off the hook too easily.  Seminaries have exacerbated this problem. Congregations push around their pastors because too many seminary-trained pastors are not good leaders.  The reason that the church is oftentimes a retrograde organization is because leaders are wanting.  That’s a seminary problem.

Kyle Roberts writes, “For Men Only? An Open Letter to Women in Seminary:

Along with the bleak outlook in certain vocational areas of church ministry, women seminary students can regularly experience forms of oppression or derogation, whether striking or subtle, that can add up to a heavy burden. In many evangelical seminaries, this can be compounded by predominantly male faculties, predominantly male textbook authors, and even by male colleagues who question your right to be there. Of course, each experience is different and each seminary is different, but studies suggest that the increasing number of female students in seminary during the last 40 years has not always equated to a hospitable reception and nurturing environment.

My Take: An open comment to women: Don’t go to a seminary that has a single professor who is a “complementarian.”  That means, don’t go to Bethel (where Kyle teaches) or to many other evangelical seminaries.  If there’s even the possibility that you’ll be taking a class from an instructor who thinks you’re not qualified to get an M.Div. because of what is (or is not) between your legs, then you shouldn’t go there.

And an open comment to men: You shouldn’t go to a seminary like that either.

Tim Dalrymple posts, “More Sex in Seminary: A Response to Tony Jones:

Tony came to PTS as a well known writer and public speaker on issues relating to youth ministry, as a doctoral student, and lived for two years with his family amongst married students a couple miles from campus at the CRW apartments (where I too lived after I married).  Those are very different worlds.  He says he talked with students in their dorm rooms, but it’s not the same.  Since I was not training to be a pastor, and since I at least participated in the drinking, it was easy for others to confide in me or at least not to feel as though they had to wear a mask.  Tony’s “I never knew of unmarried students having sex” is like Ahmadinejad’s “We don’t have gays in Iran.”  If you were living promiscuously, would you tell Tony Jones?

My Take: Comparing me to a lunatic dictator is a nice touch.

More responses on other posts as they roll out.

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  • bob c

    Tony, thanks for reflecting on this stream.

    This simple statement:

    Congregations push around their pastors because too many seminary-trained pastors are not good leaders.

    ought to be a communal conversation on its own. Bravo.

    Tim Dalrymple’s comment – um, c’mon. I detest it when people wrap snide comments in a smiley happy sheen.

    And honestly, you are no Ahmadinejad – I think of you as more of a Galifianakis, particularly with the beard you are developing

  • Charles

    Why anyone would attend a old school seminary is beyond me. In our neck of the woods United seems to be the Union of the mid-west.

    I liked Brian’s post, actually. But then I like and admire Brian for his tenaciousness in addressing the stagnant Christian church of today. (And also you, Tony.)

    Our little church is in the process of looking for a new pastor (current pastor retiring at age 66). When candidates learn how progressive we are, even though we’re “mainline,” some get very excited. They are intimidated be the “leadership” (usually money folks) of their current church and long for a congregation with a wide open theology. I think progressive seminaries are doing an adequate job – it’s the church that’s the problem. Which is Brian’s (and Tony’s) point.

    • Charles

      oops, sorry for the hanging italics after “old school”

  • bob c

    Let me preface this by stating by my seminary experience was on par with the work of Michael Bay & Wes Craven. Most of this was by my own actions. 6 years later, I have just begun to exit the church witness protection program

    With those as context, the wisest insight I have ever heard on what congregations do to faithful people with seminaries:

    avoid having your ministry institutional unless it is clear & absolute imperative

    Then again, I hear from Tim that a seminary is even better than Whole Foods or a gymnastics meet to — what is it the kids say nowadays – hook up ?

    • bob c


      avoid having your ministry institutionalized unless it is clear & absolute imperative

  • AndyH

    Tony is far too dismissive of the complementarian perspective. As one who also affirms women in ministry, I am open to hearing from and being challenged by those with whom I differ. There are simply too many sound complementarian voices to say “Don’t go to a seminary that has a single professor who is a ‘complementarian.'” I have a lot of respect for tradition and am reluctant to assume as much as Tony on this incredibly complex debate.

  • Erik

    In response to the comment, ‘Don’t go to a seminary that has a single professor who is a “complementarian’:
    I understand what you’re getting at Tony. My sister attended seminary where there were a couple complementarian professors and the environment, although frustrating for her at times, has helped her be much stronger now that she has spoken with search committees and teams who have not exactly hidden their frustration with being both female and single. Much of the church still isn’t fully comfortable with women in lead pastoral roles, even if their ‘position’ on the issue says otherwise. Granted, there is a difference between having a complementarian or two on the faculty and having mostly complementarians.

  • Gus Kroll

    I’ve really enjoyed this series that you’ve been doing and I’ve been trying to sort out what it means for folks like me who are concidering seminary…or…what? Would love your thoughts on this: Great ideas David, but I do wonder where it puts those of us still considering Seminary and weighing our options.. Is it still worth it? I tried to develope some of my thoughts a little more extensively for those who are interested:

    • Gus Kroll

      Oops, my bad. After the Collin it’s just supposed to be the web address.