Why Seminary Can’t Fully Train Pastors

Why Seminary Can’t Fully Train Pastors July 17, 2018

John Owen, one of the most esteemed and seminary-educated puritan scholars of the 1600’s, was once challenged by King Charles as to why he wanted to go hear John Bunyan preach. A metal-worker turned preacher, Bunyan was uneducated by Owen’s standards and, on the surface, an unequal to many eyes. Owen wisely replied to the King, “I would willingly exchange all my learning for the tinker’s power of touching men’s hearts”.

Owen recognized that while a Christ-centered education is beneficial, it is not the same as spiritual maturity and genuine faith. Authentic, Christ-centered spiritual maturity is only found when one is deeply connected to the person of Jesus and His gospel. Preachers with this attribute have something to say worth hearing. Its lives deeply transformed by the gospel that are the most effective at winning souls. Raw knowledge without love puffs up, as the Apostle Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians.

Fast-forward to modern times and many evangelicals make the same mistake King Charles did: we confuse the accolades of academia with spiritual maturity. We often associate someone’s ability make a sound theological argument, quickly recite scripture, or having a seminary degree as evidence of maturity in Christ.

I recall a pastor in the Dallas area who was well-known for citing, by memory, the entirety of Matthew’s begats within the pulpit to start a sermon. The crowd would clap and cheer each time he finished, forgetting that, by itself, this was a very minor accomplishment; anyone with enough time can memorize a section of scripture. Such demonstrations of knowledge, when separated from a life practicing the gospel of Christ, are potential spiritual hazards. This dangerous dichotomy of knowledge without doing is causing many pastors and their congregations agony.

Ill-equipped and unprepared to spiritually shepherd a flock, many pastors are surprised to find the job unfulfilling and difficult. Seminary may have prepared them to write an exegetical sermon, but it didn’t prepare them to love their neighbor, put to death sinful, sexual desires, handle harsh criticism, or circumcise their heart. Struggles, like these, are causing pastors to leave the ministry in rapid fashion. Worse, some press on when they shouldn’t and end up committing devastating moral failure. Sadly, there is example, after example of this.

As Paul David Tripp points out in his book Dangerous Calling, if pastors are to avoid these failures they must not only preach the gospel to their congregation, but to themselves. The pastor’s identity must first and foremost be in Christ and not in a ministry or church attendance goals. He must recognize that he is fighting a war and the greatest battleground will always be within his own heart. All men, regardless of vocation, are fatally flawed and in desperate need of the transforming grace of God. This is true whether you have never trusted Christ a moment of your life or if you have been faithfully serving in the pastorate for 40 years.

Tripp offers some tips for churches and pastors to help bring sobering clarity to a culture that can inflate and emphasize a false sense of spiritual maturity. I found these particularly points helpful and wise. He suggests:

  • The pastor attend a small group he doesn’t lead
  • The pastor should seek out a spiritually mature person to mentor them at all times
  • Establish a pastors’ wives small group
  • The pastor should be committed to appropriate self-disclosure in his preaching
  • Church members should regularly invite the pastor and his family to their homes
  • Make sure there is someone regularly mentoring the pastor’s wife
  • Make sure the pastor and his wife have the means to regularly get away with one another
  • Make sure counseling help is always available to the pastor, his wife, and his family

What’s interesting is these ideas are not revolutionary and ground-breaking. Many are the same things Christians have been doing for centuries. It’s odd we are reluctant to apply the same logic towards clergy. I fear many will read this list and assume their pastor already has measures in place. Don’t assume that. I suggest you ask him and use it as an opportunity to build community. Ask him how he is doing and listen careful to his response. It might surprise you how many pastors feel alone and disconnected from the congregation they serve.

As a church, we must learn to define spiritual maturity, not by a degree on a wall, but by a life demonstrating confession, repentance, and trust in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Seminaries are good things. In fact, I think all clergy should receive a seminary education, if possible. But knowledge is best applied when a heart is seeking after Jesus.

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  • Salvatore Anthony Luiso

    I generally agree with this article. I’m glad that it addresses a very important, yet commonly unnoticed, subject.

    Regarding “The pastor should be committed to appropriate self-disclosure in his preaching”: This prompts the question: What is appropriate? That is a good subject for another article. Inappropriate self-disclosure can have very bad consequences. It can be the source of false and harmful rumors, e.g. “I myself often struggle with lust” may be retold as “Last Sunday the pastor said he is always lusting after women”. It can permanently damage a pastor’s reputation and thus permanently impair his ministry. At the least, it can distract from Christ.

    I suggest using Christ as a touchstone for self-disclosure–as He can be for so many things. If the self-disclosure would bring people closer to Christ, it may be worthwhile–but if it would bring people away from Christ, it may be bad. Example: If at the end of a sermon the congregation is thinking less about how good Christ is than it is about a foolish or evil thing the preacher has just admitted to doing, it may be an instance of inappropriate self-disclosure.

    Regarding “It might surprise you how many pastors feel alone and disconnected from the congregation they serve”: I think that this may always be inevitable. A leader is by definition unlike all the other members of a group. As kind and supportive as they may be, the leader is always unique, and has responsibilities which can be burdensome. To lead well, one must resist becoming too close, too attached, to the people one leads. I have the sense that Moses, Samuel, Elijah, the Lord Jesus, and Paul all knew the loneliness of leadership.

    I do not see why Tripp suggests “The pastor attend a small group he doesn’t lead”. I think that that is likely to be frustrating for a pastor.

    I have another suggestion: The pastor attend a small group of pastors. They could take turns leading. Their meetings would not only be times of learning, but of fellowship. (Of course, the purpose of such a group would not be to continue theological debates which have gone on for centuries, e.g. Calvinism vs. Arminianism.)

  • Rudy Schellekens

    Please take note: Jesus did not send his disciples to Seminary, nor did Paul. THEY were the teachers, the mentors, as were the other apostles. Paul DID go to Seminary… and it did not help him much 😉
    Mentoring is such a better idea than Seminary. Reality does not exist in an academic environment (Been there, done that!)

  • dbcoffin2

    I am still trying to work in the ancient church heresies I learned in seminary. When is there to be a text on the Monophyte or Tritheism controversies? I also learned that Martin Luther had hemorrhoids. Riding a horse or a wagon on a dirt trail probably reached havoc on the journeys away from hom.

  • phdavids

    In reading the article I thought it interesting that suggested things that Roman Catholic (and Orthodox) seminaries are already doing. In the traditional Anglican seminary process one learned intellectually in seminary and practical theology was left to one’s curacy in which one helped to pastor a congregation or pastored a daughter congregation under the watchful eye of the vicar, whose goal it was to train the curate to the point that he could take on his own parish. That was better than what I received in an evangelical seminary, for it assumed that practical formation in ministry was needed, but it was only as good as the vicar. Sometimes it amounted to slave labor and slow starvation, even if the man were not married. Jumping over some intervening experiences that I have had, the present Roman Catholic seminary has four areas of formation: intellectual (the traditional seminary curriculum), ministerial (courses and practica such as homiletics and counseling and all the other things a deacon or priest will do), spiritual (there are courses on spirituality, but there is also mandated spiritual direction – the director does not reveal the content of the sessions, but does indicate whether the man came regularly – daily use of the liturgy of the hours, daily communal worship, retreats, and the like), and human (the formator who oversees the man’s formation regularly meets with the man and discusses their emotional and social progress, including observations on how the man relates to others in the seminary community). There are also a series of term-long or year-long practical assignments, so the man has worked in a nursing home or a ministry to the poor or something like that, and the man has worked with youth or some such ministry in a local parish, perhaps in different ministries in more than one parish of different types, and finally a diaconal year, when the man, now ordained as a deacon, not only takes the deacon’s role in the liturgy, which would often include some preaching, but also in visiting the sick, etc., although the time is limited to their need to also be involved in the on-campus seminary program during the term. During the summers there are other experiences, such as CPE and language study (most must learn Spanish, at least in the USA). And it is also typical for there to be a pastoral year in which the man spends a full year in parish work between two of his last years in seminary. All of this builds on (1) a period of discernment that precedes seminary and often precedes their entry into minor or college seminary, and this includes psychological testing, medical examination, and meeting with a committee of experienced pastors, among other things, and (2) minor or college seminary itself, in which is BA level work in philosophy and other subjects that will underlay the theological seminary/major seminary study. Of course, there are also background checks and training in sexual abuse detection and prevention, which has been especially strong since the Dallas Charter came into force. Furthermore, the first assignment that a man usually has after ordination is as a parochial vicar, i.e. the assistant to a pastor who will continue to guide and develop his character and abilities. Also note that during the years in seminary some men “discern out,” i.e. discover that they were not really called to a pastoral role or perhaps that they are not willing to pay the price. That is a success, if a sad success, for it means that a man who might blow out of ministry later leaves the seminary in good standing but with all agreed that pastoral ministry was not for him. Note also that if one includes college seminary, seminary is a 8 or 9 year process of formation. Thus some maturity has been gained during that process.

    Permanent deacons have a similar four-part formation, but in the programs with which I am familiar there are a one to two year pre-formation process (in part discerning the call and in part helping men who have been out of formal education for a while get used to it again) and then a four-year formation process, but in their case part-time since permanent deacons are often, perhaps usually, employed and since they are also usually heavily involved in their parish during formation. Furthermore, they may well be married. If they are married, their wives must commit to being involved in the spiritual and human formation of the program (which includes an examination of their marriage relationship), and their wives are encouraged to take what they can of the intellectual and ministerial formation. Finally, they are not allowed to be ordained until age 35, so they have some natural maturity as well.

    In the Orthodox world the wives of men in seminary are mentored and formed for their eventual role in the church. Thus neither in the case of the Roman Catholic permanent deacon nor in the case of the Orthodox priest does the man get to go into formation without buy-in from their wife: she commits to formation as well, or else it is clear that the person is not yet ready for seminary, for their wife is not ready.

    What does this say for evangelical seminary formation? First, it says that the process I experienced of applying to seminary because I felt called and only towards the end of the seminary process being selected by a mission or denomination (with a lot of men and women blowing out of ministry in the first year or so – the average length of ministry for a Protestant seminary graduate was 5 years the last time I heard the statistics. Instead the church or denomination should be actively involved in a discernment process before seminary, stay involved in the formation during seminary, and expect to offer a job – which might be to support the man or woman in a parachurch ministry, such as a mission – after seminary. Second, it says that seminary education should be formation of the whole person, including formation of the spouse/marriage, if the person is married. More and more evangelical institutions are teaching spirituality or spiritual formation, but there are other topics that are also part of a well-rounded formation. Third, the sending church or denomination needs to be prepared to pay for seminary. Typically, a Catholic diocese pays about half of the costs of college seminary and all of the costs of theological seminary. That is big money, perhaps $35,000 per year for five years (since the man would be paid by someone during his pastoral year), not counting the costs of the summers. But you get what you pay for. And, of course, in the evangelical world one would have to consider that there may well be a spouse who perhaps could earn their own support, assuming that the couple does not have children, but will have to keep some of his or her hours free for their own formation experiences. And I might add that Catholic diocese do not allow one to enter seminary with significant debt (there are voluntary organizations that work with potential seminarians to coach them and assist them in getting rid of debt before seminary) so that they do not graduate with debt (salaries are low – but this also affects the evangelical church where some men and women cannot afford to take a small church because it cannot pay them enough to live and service their debt, so small churches go begging and talented, gifted, men and women leave church work because they cannot find a job that they can afford to take). In other words, I am talking about a transformation in the mindset of how men and women move into ministry through theological education (which should be theological formation), what seminaries are expect to provide, and who pays for them. This would mean smaller seminaries in many cases, but the quality of the graduate going into ministry would be much higher. I am not optimistic that this will happen, but until it does we will continue to get the results that we have been getting.

    Much more could be said, but this is a response to a post, not a rounded formation policy. There are, literally, books on that. I am just writing out of 40 plus years of seminary teaching, including my recent experience in vocations/clergy formation in a Roman Catholic setting.

  • Joshua Sonofnone

    While I agree with the main point of this article that seminary cannot teach one all things pastoral, I would not take anything for my seminary education. I will say, however, that the twelve apostles had the greatest seminary professor ever and they were able to fellowship with Him all day and every day. One area in which seminaries used to be lacking was the area of spiritual disciplines, which is important to maturation of believers – this has and is being dealt with in a variety of ways be seminaries – some better than others. Meeting on a regular basis with other pastors is also a good idea and something I did for many years – it was helpful, indeed.

    • I’m right here if you want to “fellowship” with me. Everyone’s too busy with Churches and religions to remember God hates Abrahamics for destroying a 4.5 billion year old planet – I’m the only person I know that wants to “free the genie.”


  • John

    My seminary stressed and tried their best to partner with the churches of the students. They recognized the place of the church is to work on the heart issues, sin patterns, disciplines, accountability and so forth. Seminary is not the place for those things as it is educational in structure and focus. To conflate the two is problematic. The problem I see is that churches fail to assist their seminary students in this manner. Either they don’t know how, are an ill-equipped pastor themselves, or simply have a focus elsewhere. From my experience, it was the small minority of seminary students that really got spiritual support from their church. So, if you want to blame seminaries, go ahead. That is all too easy. But if you care to really get at the issue, then consider the role of the local church, pastor and elders to work with and further equip students rather than expecting an educational institution to do their work for them.

  • tovlogos

    Excellent article, Jack — it is far more important than one may discern…one statement should be a hashtag for all ministers:
    “if pastors are to avoid these failures they must not only preach the gospel to their congregation, but to themselves.”
    The difference between the flesh and the Spirit (or spiritual realm) is at the core of spiritual comprehension (with a little help from John 3:3) — without which
    it appears that often people try to figure out the ‘spirit’. it took Son of God to enlighten many who were struggling to make sense of Scripture. In Hosea 6:6: “For I desire steadfast loyalty and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Obviously, this didn’t mean we should stop assembling or begin eliminating all edifying traditions, of which God reminded mankind in numerous ways of what’s more important to Him — “Woe to you Pharisees! You pay tithes of mint and rue and every herb, but you disregard justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without neglecting the former.”
    The principle is unmistakable — and on both wings of the Bible. Yes, of course, thanks God for a good education, but never having become
    imbued with the Spirit leaves one’s house/temple empty of any value from the perspective of heaven. And heaven forbid our temples should be empty…
    (cf. Luke 11:24-26).