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    Why We Need Seminary

    How Christian leaders—and the people they serve—benefit from graduate theological education.

    Since 1998 Daniel O. Aleshire has served as executive director of the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Association of Theological schools in the United States and Canada (ATS). The ATS consists of more than 250 graduate schools that provide post-baccalaureate professional and academic degree programs to educate persons for the practice of ministry and for teaching and research in the theological disciplines. The organization's Commission on Accrediting accredits member schools and approves the degree programs they offer.

    In an interview with freelance writer Randall L. Frame,Dr. Aleshire, an ordained minister,discussed the relevance of graduate theological education and the challenges confronting seminaries and graduate schools. Aleshire addresses similar topics in his book Earthen Vessels: Hopeful Reflections on the Work and Future of Theological Schools (Eerdmans, 2008).

    In Earthen Vessels, you discuss your experiences growing up in three different churches. You said you recognized differences between the pastor who was seminary trained and those who were not. What are some of the signs that a pastor has not been to seminary? And, conversely, what kinds of attitudes or behaviors on the part of the pastor indicate that he or she has been seminary trained?

    is seminary graduate school really needed todayMaybe the most important thing to remember about that comment is that I was growing up in these churches. They are recollections of childhood and teenage years and need to be taken as such. Nevertheless, here is what I remember. The first congregation had perhaps forty or fifty people on a good Sunday and had never had leadership other than local lay pastors—none of whom was college- or seminary-educated.

    One pastor, I remember, was a used car salesman. The church became deeply divided. The presenting issue was whether it should supplement its income with bake sales or with other fundraising events. (My family was on the non-bake sale side, by the way.) This small congregation needed thoughtful pastoral guidance, and the only thing I remember my family talking about was his proposal that the church have two Sunday services with one group attending one service and the other group attending the other. I was young, but still perceived that this did not seem to be a particularly wise course of action for a church of forty people.

    My family left that church and became very active in another. It had a full-time pastor who was committed to his ministry and very faithful. He had attended college but not seminary. When I was fourteen, my father, who was a deacon in the church and the adult Sunday School teacher, was killed in an accident. Our family was understandably torn, and the church was affected as well.

    I remember trying to talk with that pastor about what I was feeling. While he was attentive and he listened—he even found things for me to do around the church office from time to time—I don't think he knew how to be present with my immature grief or how to hear my questions in the middle of what I was saying. At least that is the way it seems to me now. He was a good person and an engaged pastor, but this family tragedy, which continued to unfold in many directions both in our family and in the church, seemed beyond his ability to address in any helpful or meaningful way.

    I struck out on my own and, in high school, went to a third congregation. This one had a pastor who had gone to college and seminary. It was a church that seemed to know exactly what its business was and how to go about doing it. I think it reflected the pastor's leadership. Maybe it was because I was older, but the preaching seemed different to me. This pastor used the Bible more engagingly, and his preaching exposed me to much more of Scripture than I remembered being exposed to in the preaching of others. None of these pastors were bad, but still I decided as a teenager that seminary most likely contributed a perspective and quality that does not occur as readily without it.

    Most Christians know of one or more pastors who have never been to seminary, yet they seem perfectly capable of leading a church effectively. This leads them to ask, "Why do we even need seminaries?" How do you respond?

    Some people learn to play the piano beautifully without ever earning a college music degree or going to a conservatory. Some people become brilliant business persons even though they don't have an MBA. However, most excellent musicians have gone to schools of music, and most successful executives have engaged in some form of advanced education.

    Schools are an effective way to convey overall knowledge, perceptions, and skills to a large group of people. Some individuals will be able to get the same knowledge and ability without a school to help them. However, most people, including pastors, will benefit by going to a school. They will acquire the knowledge more systematically and at an earlier time in their ministry.

    My brother and I are both ministers. We pursued different tracks. I went to school and stayed in school longer than anyone in our family ever had. He entered vocational ministry in his late thirties, first as a part-time, bi-vocational pastor and then full time. He did not have the opportunity to go to seminary. He has gone to classes and training events. He has learned a great deal. But seminary could have provided some of the resources and knowledge that he had to find on his own. It could have helped him to learn what he now knows at an earlier point in his ministry.

    Some contend that the most important things a pastor needs to know about ministry can't be taught (or learned) in a classroom. To what extent is this an accurate statement, and what are the implications for the relevance of a seminary education?

    Much of what is learned in seminary is the kind of learning that occurs best in classrooms. Learning the Bible, learning church history, learning biblical languages, learning theology—these are the very things that are learned best in a classroom setting. Keep in mind that most congregations think classroom learning is important, which is why they have classrooms for children, youth, and adults for teaching about the Bible, the church's history, Christian understanding, and other topics needed for Christian growth and discipleship.

    It's absolutely true that not everything that needs to be learned for ministry can be learned in a classroom. That is why theological schools require credits in field education, mentored ministry, clinical pastoral education, and other areas. It is why many courses are structured as lab courses so students can gain hands-on experience in a variety of pastoral skills and practices. These efforts have grown considerably in the past thirty years.

    Had the pastors from my youth gone to seminary—complete with both classroom education and ministry field experiences under the watchful eye of teacher-mentors—both they and the people they were trying to serve would have been much better for it. I know of no seminary that would claim to be able to teach students everything they need to know, both in terms of "book knowledge" and field experience. However the seminary experience provides a trustworthy foundation for both on which to build.

    The fact that many important lessons in ministry cannot be learned in classrooms does not mean that much that is crucial for ministry cannot best be learned in those settings. The truth is that neither the classroom nor the church setting provides the best place to learn all there is to learn. The range of skills, knowledge, and perceptions necessary for good ministry requires both.

    It is difficult to learn how to exegete a passage of Scripture while engaged in the often frenetic life of the congregation. It takes a classroom and the structured process of a course. It is not possible to learn in a classroom what it is like to minister to a young couple who has just lost a child. It takes the painful and graced-touched moments of working with people in the trauma of life to learn that aspect of ministry. Good ministry requires both kinds of knowledge, and seminaries and congregations need to be good stewards of the kind of educational setting that each can provide.

    Over the years, some in the church have perceived seminaries as places where people go to lose their faith, or at least to lose some of their "fire" for the Lord? Why does this perception persist? To what extent is it legitimate?

    I think this perception persists for a couple of reasons. One is that a strain of anti-intellectualism is present in American Protestantism. A second reason it persists is that some people have seen it happen to someone or heard of it happening to someone.

    Seminary changes people. Not everything they thought was true about life or faith or the Bible when they arrived at seminary holds up in light of the most faithful reading of the text or an honest reading of church history or a critical assessment of the human condition. "Fire" based on misconception is certainly fire, but it burns like a wildfire and, in the end, will burn out. I also think that the choice between "fire for the Lord" and knowledge is a false dichotomy. John Wesley wanted "to unite the pair so long disjoined—knowledge and vital piety," and that is what I hope good theological education does.

    Ministers need both burning passion and sophisticated understanding. Ignorant zeal is no improvement over passionless knowledge. For many seminary students, the "fire" deepens and matures in seminary. When it does its work well, theological education equips people for the long run of Christian ministry and educates religious passion into long-term capacity for ministry. When it does its work well, a seminary cultivates a disciplined fire that does what the church and the gospel most need.

    Historically, conservative-leaning believers, including evangelical Christians, have been perceived as being anti-intellectual, an attitude that does not bode well for graduate theological institutions. To what extent does this attitude persist today?

    The Association of Theological Schools has more than 250 schools with about 78,000 students enrolled when classes began in the fall of 2008. Sixty percent of these students are in seminaries that ATS would classify as evangelical Protestant. While there may be an anti-intellectualism among some conservative Protestants, it has not had the effect of limiting educational systems.

    Evangelicals take the Bible seriously, advocate its study, and expect people to learn the life of faith. They often have more Christian education opportunities in their congregations than liberal Protestants do in theirs. These patterns of congregational education are intellectual efforts. As best I can tell, evangelical seminaries require more courses in biblical languages and study of the text than do other seminaries, and learning Greek or Hebrew is a sophisticated intellectual activity. These courses are required because these schools serve communities with a high view of Scripture and educate religious leaders to be able to teach and preach it with integrity.

    I don't think that the "anti-intellectual" label means that people are opposed to the serious, intense study of the Bible or the life of faith. What I think they are opposed to is the use of knowledge to "lord over" others or the conclusion that abstract wisdom is superior to practical wisdom.

    In what ways have seminaries over the years served to advance the evangelical cause (for example, by giving evangelicals academic/intellectual credibility or, given evangelicals' high view of Scripture, helping to unpack the Bible's meaning and relevance)?

    Two years ago, I participated in a meeting, hosted by Overseas Council, of more than one hundred presidents of evangelical seminaries in Asia, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Many of these schools were working under very strained conditions, sometimes in environments where Christianity is a minority religion.

    These schools had been founded in the hope that, in places such as Africa where Christianity is growing fast, enough pastors and church leaders can be trained to support the church. In places where Christianity is literally under fire from time to time, these schools have been working in the hope that the gospel message could be conveyed in hostile settings and pastors given the skills they need to be faithful. These seminaries have been working to advance the evangelical cause. Faculty in evangelical seminaries in the United States and Canada have been doing the hard work of both theology (articulating the reasons for the faith that Christians hold) and biblical studies (to help Christians understand the value and meaning of the text for this time).

    Evangelical schools have advanced the evangelical cause by giving it a home. Charles Fuller's Old Time Revival Hour had a mission that took long-term root in Fuller Seminary, the largest school in the ATS membership. The hope of charismatic renewal in Oral Roberts meetings took root in a university and its School of Theology. A particular Reformed understanding of the Christian faith took root in Westminster Seminary, and a dispensational understanding of the Bible has a home at Dallas Theological Seminary. These schools have become centers of evangelical witness and commitment.

    What role can graduate schools of theological education (schools that are not seminaries) play in supporting the church and its mission?

    The church's mission needs an educational ecology to support its leaders and future leaders. It needs Bible Institutes for pastors and leaders who do not have college degrees. It needs Bible Colleges and Christian colleges that have programs in religion and ministry. It needs schools that operate at the graduate level, as ATS schools do. It needs new-paradigm churches that have learned new and innovative forms of ministry to host short-term education events that help experienced church leaders think in new ways about their work.

    Congregations, especially evangelical ones, find their leaders in many different ways, with many different levels of education. What is common is that all of these leaders need education—in how to do the work of ministry and in the texts and tradition of the Christian faith. There is no way to squeeze all the diverse educational needs that the church has through one educational system. At its best, an ecological system has different elements that do different things.

    Evangelicals need the Ph.D. education offered at Fuller, the Southern Baptist seminaries, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. They need the Spanish language programs at Gordon-Conwell's Center for Urban Ministry campus and the unnumbered institutos that educate Spanish speaking pastors of storefront and neighborhood congregations with no more than a high school diploma, and sometimes not even that. They need the denominational formation that schools like Church of God, Cleveland, and Mennonite Brethren provide. And they need the baccalaureate education that countless Nazarene and Assemblies of God colleges provide.

    I work with graduate theological education, and I think it is extremely important for the work, ministry, and integrity of church and religious leadership. However, these schools are not the only environments in which religious leaders are educated, and their value is in the education they provide, not in their being the only legitimate providers of ministerial education and formation. To value more than one kind of education is not to undervalue the unique contribution that ATS schools make to the work and witness of the church.

    In what ways is the seminary experience different today from what it was like 30 years ago?

    I graduated from seminary thirty-six years ago, in 1973. I had gone to a denominational college, then to a denominational seminary. Both were related to the denomination of the congregation I had belonged to throughout high school. Before I went to seminary, I had a denominational heritage, assumed that I would work in that denomination after graduation, and had a good sense of the mores, culture, and practices of that denomination. I had been a student pastor in college, then a youth minister.

    Thirty-five years ago, none of that was unusual. It was typical. None of this is typical with today's seminary students. The primary difference in theological education now from the one I had is that seminaries cannot assume denominational identity, cannot assume that students have prior ministerial experience, and cannot assume the students will graduate to serve in the denomination they claimed before they began seminary, if they claimed one at all. This is all especially true of evangelicals. Theological schools used to be able to work with formation from an agreed-upon starting point and, for the most part, an agreed-upon ending point. Now, all of that is far less clear. Contemporary theological schools have a much more complex educational task.

    Of all the things seminaries accomplish, if you had to single out one function as being the most important, what is it and why?

    First, I want to emphasize that seminaries indeed do many things. They provide settings in which faculty do research and advance our understanding of effective ministry, the Bible, the history and doctrine of communities of faith, and the relationship of the church to the contemporary world. They provide the environments where persons are educated for ordained and non-ordained professional ministry in congregations, as well as a host of para-church and church-related agencies.

    Seminaries also provide service and support to the religious constituencies to which they are related. Seminary faculty members can often be found preaching in churches, teaching in the adult education classrooms and Bible conferences, and writing for or speaking at denominational educational events.

    These are all important functions. But if you make me choose only one, which I think this question is doing, I would choose the education and formation of leaders: pastors, educators, counselors, lay leaders, and others who lead the people of God in doing the work that God has called them to do. A few years ago, ATS conducted a series of conversations between pastors and theological educators. We asked the pastors about their seminary education. Most of them, twenty and thirty years after they graduated from seminary, said that the biblical and theological foundation they had received in seminary was still guiding their ministry. That's a profound effect. So if I had to chose one thing, that would be it.

    If a seminary is doing what it is supposed to do, how will a person be different upon graduating from how he or she was upon enrolling?

    If the seminary is doing its job well, graduates will know the Bible and the theological context in which it is used and interpreted. They will know the history of the believing community through the ages, and they will understand the nature of sin and the hope of glory that the Christian faith offers.

    If the seminary is doing its job well, graduates will know how to do the work of ministry well, at least in the initial settings in which they will serve. And, if the seminary is doing its work well, graduates will be more mature in their faith, more sensitive about the human condition, more aware of the world and the factors that make it what it is, and more aware of individuals and the way in which their lives are formed and shaped, shaken and broken.

    What are the biggest challenges facing seminaries today, and what can they do to address them?

    The challenges that confront them are legion, and these schools must work hard, remember their calling, and do what they were invented to do. The first and most immediate challenge is financial. Theological schools have never been funded at the level of other higher educational institutions, and the current financial conditions in the United States are stressing the schools a great deal. Students pay, on average, about a third of the cost of their theological education, and they are increasingly going into debt to do that. Schools need to find viable financial models that provide enough money to do the job well and that do not burden graduates with so much debt that it threatens their ability to serve in ministry positions.

    The second challenge is to find the educational models necessary for the wide diversity of students preparing for a wide diversity of forms of service in a wide diversity of settings. This is a very complex educational task, and schools are working hard at finding ways to educate twenty-five year olds and fifty-five year olds in the same classes (they tend to prefer different educational strategies); racial/ethnic majority and minority students (who have often served in very different ministry contexts); and students from a wide range of confessional traditions and from none at all.

    Third, to serve this diversity of students and educational purposes, schools need to get better at their ability to assess the way in which and the extent to which graduates have achieved the learning goals of the school's degree programs.

    Fourth, schools need to find the patterns of relationship with the church that will serve the future. The church and the school need each other, but the old denominational patterns that defined that relationship are weakening, and new patterns are still being identified. This has always been an issue for many evangelical schools, many of which were not founded as denominational seminaries. It is further complicated in the evangelical world by its looser ecclesial structures compared to mainline Protestants.

    What is your counsel to seminaries concerning how they ought to regard churches?

    To the extent that seminaries are primarily in the business of educating religious leaders, there must be close and intimate relationships with churches. The schools need to know the church well enough to know the kind of leadership it needs, and they need to have patterns of connection that bring the right students to seminary and connect those students with ministry placement when they finish.

    Christianity is a congregated religion: people gather in small or large communities where they worship, learn, reach out in service and witness, and care for one another. Christianity is not a religion where people claim particular beliefs and live them out in isolated ways. Seminaries need to pay careful attention to the congregations, because they are central to the way in which Christianity is practiced as a lived religion. It has been said that the church could live without the seminary, but the seminary could not live without the church. I think that is true, both at a very functional level (where students come from and graduates go) and at a theological level (the nature of Christian community and how the work of the Gospel is accomplished).

    Conversely, what is your counsel to churches concerning how they ought to regard seminaries?

    Churches need educated pastors and leaders. They can invent whatever system they want to provide that education, and I think they have invented an excellent one in theological schools. Congregations live in a fast-paced world where change is crucial and the work is often frenetic. They need a setting charged with the responsibility to remember the long tradition and to do the careful study of the text in the context of the current intellectual and social moment.

    Churches are sometimes critical of seminaries because they do not change quickly and seem irrelevant for what is needed this year. However, the Christian tradition is two thousand years old and counting. It needs to say something about this year in the context of the past two thousand, and the church needs environments that do not change quickly precisely because the church must itself change quickly. I fear that churches sometimes get frustrated with seminaries because they do not do what they were never invented to do. They get frustrated without appreciating the things seminaries do very well and without fully realizing that the church needs these things very much.

    In your book, you offer something of a "cautionary tale" focusing on what the church in general would be like were it not for seminaries. If all seminaries were to close today, what would be the short- and long-term effects?

    I doubt if people would notice the difference, at least right away. The influence of a good theological education lasts decades, and so it would take decades for the good that seminaries have already done to dissipate.

    As seminary-educated pastors retire, what is known about the Bible and the story of our faith would begin to diminish. People would learn how to do the job, but they would have less understanding of the long tradition on which that work is based. The tradition wouldn't go away, but its memory would diminish, and ministry would be more susceptible to "every wind of doctrine."

    Pastors would likely know how to make churches work effectively and implement the practices that a good business education could teach about work with non-profit organizations. Pastors would certainly have biblical knowledge and theological perceptions, but these would be limited to what could be learned on the fly, as they study Bible notes and commentaries for sermon preparation. Over time, the understanding of text and tradition of the community of faith would become less rich and textured.

    Theological education is to the church what infrastructure is to a community. The community can go decades without fixing the leaks in the water and sewer lines; it can go decades without repairs to the bridges. But over time, the infrastructure that holds the community together will weaken, and when it does, the community will weaken as well.