Not long ago, a group of youth pastors attended a meeting held at Denver Seminary. During a question-and-answer period, Denver Seminary President Craig Williford asked those in attendance how many planned to pursue graduate-level theological education. According to Williford, one brash youth pastor responded, "I do not need seminary. I pastor high school students. They need me to love them and teach them about life, so a seminary education is not necessary."
Williford challenged the young man to consider the fact that Scripture is the best source for understanding life. The youth pastor agreed, but said that since the Bible moved him personally, he had no need of formal theological training.
That anecdote would make virtually anyone who teaches at a seminary cringe in light of the admonition in Proverbs 19:12 against "zeal without knowledge." Assuming this young man holds to his way of thinking, he will never know how much a seminary education might have done for him and his ministry efforts.
Seminary education and fitness for ministry
Just how to portray the relationship between seminary education and fitness for ministry puts seminary administrators in a bit of a quandary. On the one hand, they have personally experienced and witnessed many times the powerful contributions theological education makes to effective ministry. Yet few, if any, would state without qualification that a seminary degree is prerequisite to ministry. After all, Jesus' disciples were, on the whole, a fairly uneducated lot.
As for the corollary, no right-minded seminary professor or administrator would ever contend that an M.Div. degree in and of itself qualifies a man or woman for Christian ministry, including pastoral ministry. As R. Fowler White, dean of faculty and professor of New Testament at Knox Theological Seminary, puts it, "Theological education is necessary, but it is not sufficient for effectiveness in ministry."
To claim that God cannot call and use someone who has not earned a seminary degree not only smacks of elitism, but it is also in conflict with the way God has worked through history and continues to work today. On the other hand, no one can deny that the preparation for ministry offered at theological seminaries has supported in immeasurable ways the mission and ministry of local churches and of the church in general.
Kenton C. Anderson, dean at Northwest Baptist Seminary, says, "I am aware that [the seminaries that are a part of the Associated Canadian Theological Schools (acts)] grew out of the Bible college movement, which was originally a grassroots movement against the perceived elitism of the institutionalized training centers of the past." Nevertheless, says Anderson, "I'm concerned that if we don't give adequate attention to theological training, the church will lack discernment in evaluating the various fads that come to our attention."
Those searching for biblical support for theological education do not have far to look. To name just a few, Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Scott Rodin cites Romans 12:2, which states that believers are called to "be transformed by the renewing of your mind"; 2 Timothy 2:15, which refers to a workman who "correctly handles the word of truth"; and 1 Peter 1:13, which admonishes readers to "prepare your minds for action."
But again, must this exercise for the mind take place in the context of formal seminary education? Tarris D. Rosell, assistant professor of pastoral care and practice of ministry at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, observes that those who demonstrate competency in ministry first had to have received an education from somewhere. Perhaps, says Rosell, it was the proverbial "school of hard knocks." Or maybe ministry competency emerged from on-the-job training or was the result of good mentoring or self-motivated study and reading. The salient question, according to Rosell, is not education or the lack of it, for no pastor can be effective without education. The true question is, "Does training for ministry have to be a formal seminary education?"
In response, Rosell believes it is possible for sufficient theological education to result from "ad hoc means," that is, sources other than an accredited seminary. But, he adds, "the 'ad hoc' approach is problematic in that it cannot be counted on to be available in any particular case, it involves no defined community standards, and it likely involves more 'trial and error' learning than is necessary given the prevalence of many excellent institutional alternatives."
To put it another way, few would deny that it is possible to acquire the theological knowledge and the required ministry skills in places other than theological seminaries. As noted, it is possible to earn a seminary degree without acquiring the knowledge and skills prerequisite to effective pastoral ministry. But without doubt, going to seminary increases one's odds and does so incalculably.
As Ken Swetland, academic dean and professor of ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, puts it, "Although very self-disciplined people can study on their own to learn what is needed, there is no substitute for the formal experience of being required to take classes in a well-designed curriculum to prepare one for a broad ministry as a pastor." He adds, "The community aspect of being in seminary exposes one to a variety of experiences that mirror life outside of school, and this in itself is good preparation."
Those surveyed for this article cited several, interrelated specific areas in which seminary training has undergirded the church's mission. They include guarding the purity of the church's mission, maintaining doctrinal purity (i.e., protecting against heresy), providing the church with sound leadership, shielding the church from negative cultural influences, renewing the church's life and mission, and providing spiritual formation for church leaders.
Guarding the church's mission
Joel B. Green, dean of the School of Theology and professor of New Testament interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary, says, "The history of the church reveals how easily the church can become self-legitimating, how easily we have mistaken or even substituted our word for the Word of God. Theological education at its best enhances our capacities for discerning the rhythms and patterns of God's activity that impinge on our lives as his people so that we as the church might get in sync with God's ways."
Green adds, "Apart from theological education, the vision and commitment of a church easily become parochial, and the church becomes disoriented from its primary role of serving God's agenda. God's purpose has a universal scope, a historical depth, and a future aim that keeps the church from becoming myopic and self-centered and locates the local church within the great mural of God's work."
David K. Clark, dean of the Center for Biblical and Theological Foundations at Bethel Theological Seminary, observes that theological training is an antidote to the "perpetuation of a simplistic hermeneutic in churches." Says Clark, "Many students come to seminary with an a-historical approach to Scripture. They perceive that the Bible speaks directly to them without much awareness of the fact that there was an original audience for the biblical message that predates them by a couple of millennia."
Clark adds, "Seminary education helps future pastors move beyond a naïve hermeneutic in which Scripture is viewed as a grouping of individual oracles spoken directly to the church today. In its place, seminary education tries to develop a more nuanced interpretive method that recognizes the historical nature of the Bible and seeks to apply its message with relevance and power to the twenty-first century church and culture."
Protecting against heresy
According to the team of responders from Dallas Seminary, "Apart from formal training, one risks slipping into theological imbalance, error, or even heresy." Elaborating on this point, Daniel L. Akin, academic vice president and dean of the School of Theology, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, believes that "tremendous problems can arise in a church as a result of a lack of theological education among its leadership."
Says Akin, "Our churches overall are grossly anemic in their basic knowledge of biblical and theological truth." He adds, "Many of our churches are vulnerable to the latest theological fad or 'wind of doctrine.' False teachings such as open theism, salvific inclusivism, and annihilationism can slip in unchecked if pastors are not instructing and exhorting their people in sound doctrine and, as stated in Titus 1:9, refuting those who teach error." Akin continues, "Theological education can assist a minister in knowing both what he believes and why he believes. It can help him understand the great theological debates throughout the history of the church and to more readily recognize theological danger and error when it appears."
Knox Seminary's White cautions, "A well-meaning but untrained minister might fall into doctrinal error or even heresy and take his congregation with him. The congregation expects the minister to be the 'expert' on the teachings of the biblical text. Thus, the minister's error may have far-reaching implications."
Providing sound leadership
According to Donald L. Brake, vice president and dean at Multnomah Biblical Seminary, in the absence of theological training, leadership "begins to listen to the strongest personality or the methodology of the secular world instead of the Bible." He adds, "Theological education must not only teach hermeneutical, biblical, managerial, and people skills, but it should also model how the Bible and theology permeate decision-making. Rather than merely teach about the Bible, seminaries, when they are doing their job, teach the Bible and demonstrate how to derive helpful principles and guidelines from Scripture. Rather than teach a theological position, seminaries provide methods for students to develop their own biblical theology." This theology, of course, informs all aspects of church leadership.
Marilyn S. Gamm, director of admissions at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, says, "When there is a lack of theological education, the church is often shortchanged in its efforts to nurture the divine-human relationship. It is shortchanged through overly simplistic, pat responses to the many and varied moral and social issues confronting contemporary congregants."
Gamm continues, "Theological education not only grounds one's pastoral ministry on a solid foundation, but it provides resources and insights into the complexities of human life and faith beyond what the typical layperson develops from devotional and church-school materials." This more solid grounding, adds Gamm, provides pastors with "the confidence to admit we do not and cannot always know all the answers."
The team of responders from Dallas Seminary adds, "Without the exposure to a diverse community, the minister may lack the interactive skills and theological sophistication that a larger [seminary] community encourages."
And speaking of leadership, Bert Downs, president of Western Seminary, believes that the greatest contemporary danger for seminaries may be shifting too far in the direction of a pragmatic extreme—that is, the "if it works, use it" approach. Says Downs, "At the extreme, we see programs and approaches to ministry being developed that have little or minimal theological basis. Perhaps this is most evident in the wide adoption of business models within the operation of churches. Education must help address this by developing students who can think and evaluate from a theological basis."
Shielding the church from negative cultural influences
Eastern Seminary's Rodin says, "The church is being set upon from every conceivable angle today by a society that is sliding from immorality to near hedonism. The attacks are sophisticated, yet also very basic. I believe that God is calling the church to return to the Word, to prayer, to repentance, to wholly committed discipleship, and to evangelism. Pastors must be able to handle adeptly and responsibly the Word of truth. They must be able to read and understand the signs of the times and to know how to respond."
In a similar vein, says Gary T. Meadors, dean and professor of Greek and New Testament at Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary, "The lack of a deep biblical theology—one that goes beyond proof texts to a thorough conceptualization of a Christian worldview—in pastoral ministry means that the church will think and act like the world while thinking that it is Christian in thought and life. Modernity and postmodern models will be adopted uncritically. No more than a fish feels wet will the church perceive its own cultural 'wetness.'"
Renewing the church's life and mission
Chuck Conniry, director of the doctor of ministry program at George Fox Evangelical Seminary/George Fox University, says, "A lack of adequate theological education among pastoral leaders is what accounts, in large part, for much of the spiritual anemia of the postmodern church. When ministry is engaged in without sufficient theological 'intentionality,' it is very common for pastors to succumb to the Siren's Song of success, as defined by secular paradigms and pragmatics.
"This lack of theological understanding takes its toll at several levels," Conniry continues. "Take, for example, the Sunday morning worship service. What drives a pastor's efforts at worship renewal has everything to do with the level of theological sophistication he or she brings to the table. What guides our decisions about what is best in corporate worship? Its contemporary feel? Its effectiveness in bringing in new members? Or are our decisions regarding worship renewal driven by a deeper theological reality?
"How one goes about conceiving a sermon series; counseling the bereaved or morally fallen or soon-to-be-married; how one leads a board meeting or casts a vision for ministry. All of these processes are guided by the overarching theological matrix that gives meaning to one's world. Some of these matrices are better than others. And it is theological education that makes the difference."
Spiritual formation for pastoral leaders
In times gone by, a seminary education consisted mainly of "head knowledge," primarily in Bible, theology, and church history. In recent years, however, seminaries have become far more intentional in their efforts to nurture spiritual development in students during their seminary years. This, according, to C.W. Brister, Hultgren Distinguished Professor of Pastoral Care, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, constitutes one of the most important contributions of the seminary experience.
One aspect of spiritual formation is emotional maturity. Says Brister, "Leaders with unresolved or unaddressed personal developmental issues or unhealthy identification patterns tend to take emotional pathogens into ministry settings. Conflicts, even disasters, may ensue." Brister maintains that theological schools need additional strategies "to enrich standard classical studies by addressing spiritual formation tasks, encouraging mentoring with healthy models, and requiring supervised practice of ministry experiences."
Seminaries have become increasingly aware of—and have attempted to address—the related problems of clergy burnout and dropout. Asbury's Green says, "Many of us can count on one hand the number of persons who graduated from seminary with us who are still engaged in pastoral ministry. Work on this issue can and ought to come through finding good mentors, but it is also an issue that should be addressed in seminary education."
Regarding spiritual formation and seminary preparation, Al Mawhinney, academic dean at Reformed Seminary, observes, "Personal growth in godliness can never be 'taught' in the classroom. It can, however, be nurtured in a broadly envisioned learning environment."
In sum, while seminary education is not a universal prerequisite to becoming a pastor, its contribution to effectiveness in pastoral ministry is virtually incalculable. Says Denver's Williford, "The process of theological education can provide an environment for comprehensive, systematic Bible study and personal reflection under the direction of dedicated and highly skilled mentors that few people will find anywhere else or at any other time in their lives."
Eastern Seminary's Rodin concludes, "While some of the basic abilities for the tasks required for pastoral ministry may be innate, deeper theological and biblical understanding needs to be learned, and the practical skills for ministry need to be honed if the Lord's work is to be as effective as possible. We give God our best when personal faith and innate abilities are combined with serious study and comprehensive preparation for ministry. And why wouldn't we seek to give God only our very best?"
Randy Frame, a freelance writer and editor, also serves as Executive Director of Marketing and Communications at Palmer Seminary.