How Can Seminaries Shape Christ-Like Students?

How Can Seminaries Shape Christ-Like Students? November 4, 2011

This marks the end of “seminary week” for me here at Philosophical Fragments.  We’ll return to the regularly scheduled programming next week.

In “Sex at Seminary” (and followup pieces here, here and here), I’ve made the case that seminaries should give greater attention to the moral and spiritual formation of their students.  In some cases, seminaries striving for credibility within the academic world have raised the quality of their faculty and their course offerings but not (yet) raised the quality of their spiritual formation program.  I’m aware of some healthy developments along these lines at PTS and elsewhere, but I just want to offer my thoughts.

Emphasize Obedience

As I argued in “Does Obedience Matter?“, there is a profound and enduring relationship between practicing obedience to the will of God as best we understand it and enjoying a healthy, growing and maturing spiritual life.  It has been, absolutely without exception, the times when I have most disregarded the ethical teachings of Jesus that I have experienced the greatest distance from God and the greatest regression in my faith.  Christ consistently calls for those who love him to follow him, keep his commands, and feed his sheep.  All of these are matters of obedience.  Lest I be misunderstood: our obedience does not win our salvation from God.  It is not the basis upon which we are saved.  But obedience matters.  It matters a lot.

The reasons should be made plain to seminary students.  We imitate Christ when we obey his command to love our neighbor and pray for those who persecute us; we imitate Christ when we obey his command to care for the least of these; and we imitate Christ when we obey his command not to look lustfully upon a woman who is not your wife.  We honor God when we respect his Word and steer clear of adultery, fornication, impure thoughts, and unclean talk.  In imitating Christ, in following in his footsteps, we enter into the experience and life and love of Christ — we come to know Christ and the God he reveals.  In honoring God, we are reminded of God’s Lordship and his goodness.  And in seeking to live lives of obedience, we turn to the power of the Spirit, and more and more we experience the indwelling of the Spirit.

This, I believe, is why the Psalmist speaks of loving God’s law.  As Paul makes clear, the Law convicts us of our sinfuless and prepares us for the reception of divine grace.  But it also teaches us about the cares and the character of God.  As Kierkegaard would say, we should be grateful because we know what the task is.  Do you know what a blessing that is?  Do you understand how much time the world can waste in wondering what we are supposed to do, how we are supposed to behave, and how we are to care for one another?  The ethical teachings of the Bible provide us with the answers to those questions.  They tell us how we should then live.  And they give us a path into the company of God, a path to spiritual maturation.

I’m not advocating a seminarian’s version of a police state where adherence to biblical teachings on personal ethics is enforced with flashlights and batons.  (There is something to be said for codes of behavior, and some seminaries have gone too far, and some not far enough, in setting standards of behavior for their students.)  But I’m talking about the kind of prevailing ethos that’s cultivated and fortified by what the faculty and administration say in public venues.

Combatting the Idols

Some of the idols at the seminary I attended were high learning, intellectual ability, and pastoral gifts and talents.  Simple faithfulness, and daily obedience, were too often left behind in the pursuit of flashier, sexier goals.  The temptation was to believe that if a person possessed these things, then mundane matters like daily faithfulness and obedience didn’t matter much.  We who possessed such insights into profound theological matters, we who could provide chapter outlines of Genesis and Romans and etc by memory, we who read the Bible in the original tongues, could look down upon those who lacked these things but were, in fact, far more obedient than we to what God has shown them.
I’ll just speak for myself.  I was tempted, at times, to believe (if you’ll forgive the grammar) that “God and me are good.”  I had a special relationship with God, right?  Hadn’t I been a leader in various ministries up to that point?  Hadn’t God done some extraordinary things in those ministries?  And didn’t I see that God could work through me in the chaplaincy and the youth ministry?  I thought I was “a man after God’s own heart.”

Sometimes seminarians can feel like “the chosen ones.”  We can get away with the little things, because we’re giving our lives to God’s service.  And just like the favored child or the favored student feel like they can push the boundaries a little further than the rest, sometimes we (I) felt that I could let the little things slide.  I didn’t need to spend time in the Word because I was studying Hebrew.  I didn’t need time in worship because I was exploring the glory of God through the writings of Karl Barth.

It was the idol of Christian intellectualism that led me to scorn the name of Jesus.  As I explained in “Finding Jesus (Again) at Seminary,” I had stopped using the name “Jesus” and preferred names like “Christ” or “The Son of God” — names that would go down a little easier at a cocktail party.  But in doing so, I had lost touch with the beating heart of my relationship with God: an ongoing personal encounter with Jesus, God-made-personal, the same Jesus who shared my joys and shared my sorrows and shared my sin and gave me his life and grace and righteousness.

I don’t claim to have learned many important lessons yet in life, but I have learned the vanity of intelligence and knowledge in themselves, and the emptiness of a worldly intellectualism.  Anti-intellectualism is also a problem, of course, but honestly I feel that the pull of the idol of intellectualism is so strong that I’d be better off amongst the anti-intellectuals than I would amongst the worshippers of intellect.

Paul’s right.  It’s all rubbish — compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.  So by all means study your theology and history and language textbooks, but remember that they are means to the end of knowing Jesus and making him known.

Recover and Restore the Spiritual Disciplines

I saw some green shoots in this area when I was at seminary, and I know that folks like Dr. Bo Lee have done more along these lines in the years since.  That’s fantastic.  More, please, and faster.

Seminaries should be, among other things, communities in pursuit of holiness, communities in search of spiritual maturity.  The classic spiritual disciplines have so much to teach contemporary Christians.  I would love to see seminarians read — together, and preferably at the outset of their program and then repeatedly throughout — Bonhoeffer’s Life Together and Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ and other works that emerged from communities living intentionally in pursuit of God.  Unfortunately, I did not feel that sense of togetherness and common purpose — and I understand it must be extraordinarily difficult to achieve.  I felt that there was a conferral of professional capacities, and of the knowledge that pastors, it was felt, should possess.  There was a sense that we were, together, pursuing the skill of pastoring (although I was more an academic student, I also wanted the pastoral training).  Yet I would have loved a deeper sense that we are, together, pursuing an ever-deepening and ever-maturing relationship with Christ.

Discipleship too should be a critical part of any seminary education.  Pairing students with individual faculty or other pastors in the area who can speak truth into their lives.  Also, though a Protestant, I’m a deep believer in confession.  A friend of mine, Adam McHugh, has made the case that all pastors should be in therapy.  I would say that all pastors, and all pastors in training, at least need places where they can confess and be held accountable.  From the feedback I’ve received from this series, I’m gathering that too many seminary students feel alone — separated from meaningful relationships with peers who share their convictions, but also without the help and guidance of an older generation.  A network of disciplers, perhaps even a different discipler each year, would be a worthy investment for any seminary.

Finally, I think it would be beneficial to set seminary students on “rounds” similar to what medical students receive.  I got insight into prison chaplaincy and youth ministry, but (even though I enjoyed those immensely) I think I would have benefited even more from spending a couple months in prison chaplaincy, and a couple months in youth ministry, and then a couple months each in hospital chaplaincy, military chaplaincy, parish ministry, elder ministry, evangelical outreach, and so forth.  This would take a significant investment in the infrastructure to pull it off, but I believe the payoff would be huge.

So what do you think?  What else can seminaries do to strength the moral formation they provide their students? I don’t believe for a moment that this exhausts the list of solutions.  It’s only, at best, a beginning.  Let’s think creatively together.

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  • Tim, I generally agree with you but I think seminaries are in dire need of even more radical change. I’ve started to post on why I think seminaries need to adopt a wholly different model rather than a tweak here or there. ( Blessings,

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Yep, I’ve been reading your thoughts. I’m speaking here to seminaries that are already up and running and not likely to fully reinvent, but the questions you raise are certainly helpful too. Thanks, Matt!


  • At the seminary I attended, Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, VA (Episcopal) there was a threefold rule–go to class, go to chapel, go to lunch. Tuesday mornings were spent in small group worship and sharing at the home of our faculty advisor. Other weekday morninggs were spent worshipping in out beloved chapel (which sadly burned to the ground a year ago). The idea was that in addition to the importance of learning, the experience of being in worship and in fellowship with one another was formative. And so it proved to be, and deeply so. It is so easy to fall into the trap of being “professional Christians” who are paid to be good, when we really should be good for nothing (double-meaning intended).

  • Mark Brown

    I see great danger in some of your recommendations while at the same time being sympathetic. The sem I went to had a traditional curriculum (Exegetical, Dogmatic, Historical and Practical). And it had bolt-on pieces of “experience” building. My problem, as soon as you start talking practical and experience you moved into the realm of stuff that you can only really learn by doing. And the best place to do that? The congregation. You just don’t get the same experience in the sem hot-house. You ended up with this bloat of stuff in the seminary that the seminary was just bad at. And the stuff they were really good at – building theological tools, got pushed out of the center. There was one practical class for 4hours that was pretty evidently – “stuff a rich layman picked up the phone and complained to the seminary president/institution president about instead of having that conversation with the young pastor directly in the context”. And the four hours was just stuff you can’t learn in a classroom.

    I’d push the other way. One big problem with sem is expense – at least where I went. I always thought instead of a bloated 4 year curriculum, wouldn’t it be nice to have an intense 2 year study the bible as brothers curriculum. If congregations and institutions are worried about “practical skills” they should develop the pipelines or mentoring things outside of the seminary curriculum.

    I’m also aware that I’m railing at the wind in these regard because nobody ever says I wish our pastor knew greek better, or knew his bible outside of the gospels. What they are really asking for might be better put under the headline – good inputs equal good outputs. Find the family with three or more kids that seems to have it on the ball and convince one of them to go to seminary and you’ll do more than adding another practical class.

  • Timothy,

    My name is Mike Bradley and I am the President of a small seminary in St. Paul called The Master’s Institute. One of the tenets of our philosophy of education here is spiritual and character formation, but it is not merely an academic addressing of this important topic. This is part of our culture, part of the atmosphere in which we move. We are committed that our graduates will come out of MI thinking, speaking, and acting more like Jesus, not just knowing more about Him. Toward that end we involve students in the practice of holy habits, one on one mentoring, spiritual and character formation small groups, and as needed, inner healing prayer and counseling. It would be great to dialogue with you even more on this, or, have you visit our website at We are seeking to set theological education in the context not only of good work in the classroom, but learning through hands-on ministry internships concurrent with classroom experience, and the spiritual and character formation component.

    Mike Bradley

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thank you for this kind note, Mike. I think you’ve understood the problem well and it sounds as though you at MI are doing the right things to address it. I’d be curious to hear from some of your graduates about their experiences and how they think their training at MI prepared them for the ministry world afterward. Would you mind dropping me a note at EvangelicalPortal – at – patheos – dot – com?