Seminary Grads: Christianity Doesn’t Need You. The (Local) Church Does

Seminary Grads: Christianity Doesn’t Need You. The (Local) Church Does May 31, 2012

If I could give a parting word to seminary graduates, that’s what I’d say.

We American evangelicals love to speak in grandiose ways: transforming society, changing culture, or making a difference in the world. Graduation ceremonies are easy targets for big ideals. And there’s certainly a place for lofty visions and goals.

But there’s also a time to get realistic and focused. Too often, ministry is perceived as a way to achieve personal success–to unleash one’s potential as a creative thinker, as a theological intellectual, as a dynamic leader and visionary, or as an unusually empathetic caregiver. Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with any of these things. God gives gifts, talents and passions. But at what point does ministry become a means for unleashing the minister’s personal capacities, rather than the other way around? For talented, creative leaders, Christianity can be fertile soil for personal achievement.

I wonder if there’s a growing sense in “ministry culture” that full-time church service is a second option? Or it can be a stepping stone to something else: a training camp for broader impact. This is sometimes modeled by “celebrity pastors.” If you sell enough books or speak at enough conferences, your voice must be needed by a larger Christian audience–or perhaps even the larger world. They create a demand that only they can supply. But anybody can serve the church.

Let’s be fair: Women aren’t welcome as leaders in many  conservative denominations. Church vocation is a second (or third? or fourth?) option for many female seminary graduates–especially if you want to teach or preach to adults. It’s often not their call to make.

For intellectually inclined male seminary students, the church is often a second option because the academy is so appealing. For bibliophiles and theology nerds, it’s a romantic life. Studying, writing, teaching in a context of (relative) academic freedom, having conversations about Barth’s ecclesiology or Moltmann’s atonement theology (which, last I checked, rarely happens in the church), can seem like the kingdom come.

Students occasionally look at me blankly when I try to encourage them away from the academy and into the local church. Yes, I feel like a hypocrite. I love teaching in seminary. I know it’s a good gig. I’m in charge of my little domain. I don’t have sniping parishioners and pushy deacons and constant conflict to manage. I don’t worry about budgets, vision, and youth camps.

But the reality is that the greatest need right now for good theologians is in the local church. Not the “broader church.” Not Christianity as a whole. And not “the world.”

I don’t say all this to elevate the church over “the world” or over God’s kingdom. Far from it. I believe the church exists in service to the Kingdom and for the world.  As Barth put it, the church’s vocation is to witness to God’s reconciliation with the world in Christ. But local churches need creative, visionary, theologically informed, and intellectually-aware pastors to prepare those in the churches to help transform society, change culture, and–most importantly–witness to the Crucified One. Ministers shouldn’t worry about impacting Christianity and changing the world. They should worry about impacting and changing the church, so the church can participate in God’s reconciliation with the world.

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  • thanks for this! nice piece. it appeals to me, a PhD in Biblical Studies who serves the local church. I liked your comment about celebrity pastors, but I’ll save my “ranting” for my own blog.


    • Kyle Roberts

      thanks, Dennis.

  • Sara Vanscoy

    Three years after graduation, no congregation has needed me enough to consider a lowly woman…. The other,often ignored, elephant in the room is age…American Evangelicalism is bowing at the alter of youth….at 48, I’m not old enough to be put out to pasture…/but good luck convincing anyone else of that.

    I know it sounds bitter and I truly don’t mean it that way, but “the church” has no use for middle aged women unless we are cooking and cleaning or planning a fellowship or babysitting….

    I think maybe I’ll be a Methodist….or an episcopalian

    • Kyle Roberts

      Sara, thanks for your comment. Yes, there are worse things than being a Methodist or an Episcopalian. I can understand why you’d feel the need to search for greener pastures.

  • Jane

    Sara, I’m sorry your experience has been so hard. It took me 5 years after seminary to get a full-time pastoral job. Hang in there, look at other denominations….don’t give up.

    Thanks, too, for this post, Kyle. For those folks who love theology and wonder about working in the church….I’m astounded how much theology I get to discuss as a pastor… From a folks of all ages asking me deep theological questions before or after church, to smart middle-schoolers asking real questions in confirmation…not to mention translating theological meanings of passages in sermons, there’s lots here to work with. The church needs good theologians who love Jesus and people.

    • Kyle Roberts

      Thanks Jane, that’s encouraging to hear. Your perspective is welcome and needed.

  • As always, you have been a blessing. You are a mentor from afar with your blog. (and once in a while up close in a class!) Being myself engaged in a local vision that follows along with your blog’s contentions I wasn’t prepared for the traditional historical force that pushes against new creativity. Sara’s testimony caused some real emotion for me. The trend will likely be slow but more and more theologians and students of scripture are seeing that there is a solid case to be made for women in the very top leadership positions in the church. I’m sure there is a bit of “superstar preacher” desire somewhere inside of me still but this blog helps to remind me that the gospel mission is for real people with faces and names as much or more than it is for huge crowds preachers never knew.

  • This is a frustrating post to read. I really wish there had been a class in seminary to discuss the dark side of the local church or the politics that go into a community filled with insecure leadership and fearful board members or communities that exist on benevolence but very little justice. I know that there are great communities of faith to work at out there, but not many will allow young seminary students to come in with any problems or brokenness – maybe a little – but not enough to actually be a real person. It takes reality to actually work through a problem or area of maturity that needs work. The church is the least hospitable place for a young leader to work through something like that while the academy and further education is one of the best. This isn’t a copout by any means but there are so many young seminary graduates who need room to fail in church and to grow in their gifts while maintaining the ability to be a broken person growing in maturity. You may want them to go into church work out seminary but not many churches actually want real people to come and work for them.

    Before you invite young men and women into the fray of the local church – they need to know the dark side and realize that there are people in church leadership who won’t want them there as much as you, as their professor want them there. There will be people who won’t want them to succeed, be a real person, have convictions, etc. There is a dark side to the church that one has to invite people into and it’s ugly and can be very ugly. I’m not writing as a cynic but a realist who’s seen too much mayhem. Churches are little kingdoms – you cannot get away from that. Very few live outside of that reality.

    So while there is need to invite seminary students into the local communities of faith, I would issue the same invitation and represent and even greater need in the public square. Professional ministry degrees give one an aptitude for incredible impact in the public square as much as the local church and I would say the need is greater. Thank you for posting your thoughts and allowing comments. Peace


  • Joe Rutherford

    In the army of the Lord Jesus Christ there is always room for those willing to bear the cross faithfully to the end. In that army Jesus is the commander. His soldiers will do as He commands. They all (the soldiers) are precisely equal in rank. Gifts and duties vary somewhat, while all share all essential gifts and duties. That army, the Church, is not an experience for some people to fulfill the desires of the fleshly ego. If and when that happens, someone is breaking the rules. Good advice for all believers in Christ is to live by this: “Not my will but thine be done”. God will be very pleased with that and the saint will be blessed.