Seminary: Who Needs It?

If you survey leaders of megachurches in the United States…if you consider most leaders of the burgeoning house church movement in China…if you examine the leadership of exploding congregations in Africa…you notice one striking commonality: Most of them have little or no formal theological education.

A North American correspondent writes:

“Is theological education necessary for people engaged in occupational ministry? If so, is the contemporary seminary scene the best form for education to occur in the future?

“I have been wrestling a bit with this regarding the emerging church, rising student debt, and the complexity of the postmodern world. I think we live in difficult ministry times that demand excellent formation and education, but it seems the pragmatic opportunities for such education is being limited by ‘market realities.'”

I think this friend puts it well. Every leader does need to be “excellently formed and educated.” Those who seek to lead without being properly shaped as persons and educated as leaders may well attract a lot of followers by dint of charisma and hard work. But the lack of well-formed hearts and well-informed minds will put their congregations and themselves in peril: in peril of narrowness, of shallowness, and of heresy. God certainly has guided the church in the past through people without seminary education–indeed, ever since he called fishermen. But he also provided the early church, and every church since, with educated leadership, such as the carefully-trained apostle Paul.

Does a Master of Divinity degree necessarily produce and then certify a fine church leader? Certainly not. But does theological ignorance and immaturity of spirit somehow improve the picture? Hardly.

Yes, seminaries can and do narrow one’s options, but they are supposed to help students avoid bad choices and make good ones–about doctrine, about piety, about liturgy and evangelism and polity and the rest. Yet sometimes seminaries do narrow the options too much, so that those who are not socialized in such places sometimes are the ones who spontaneously innovate.

Creative people, however, normally have a considerable store of knowledge of a field before they innovate–in a way that produces lasting, influential, and positive results. Anybody can do something merely new in church: that doesn’t require knowledge, insight, or special imagination. Just have everyone who leads the service wear a pink hat, or just have everyone who attends a service keep hopping from one foot to another. (I hope I’m not giving anyone any ideas….) But lasting, influential, and positive results normally come from people who know a given field well–so well that they can see what needs changing and then how to change it for the better.

(A terrific book in this regard is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity [Harper, 1996].)

Still, most aspiring pastors aren’t looking to be especially creative, but competent, compassionate, and Christ-like. So do you need to go to seminary for that?

Well, yes. At least, some people do.

Obviously, for at least some kinds of ministry among some kinds of people, a high degree of sophistication is necessary. To be sure, well-educated congregants have the same basic needs as everybody else. But they have other needs as well that require leaders to have thought about a number of things and to have thought through at least a few of them. So those who are considering pastoral work among university or high-tech populations, therefore, will need to take seriously the peculiar intellectual demands of such work.

Yet ministry among anyone can be improved by good theological education: among kids, among teenagers, among the oppressed, among the interested and the confused of any age and situation.

For everyone asks about the problem of evil. Everyone wants to know about how to interpret Genesis 1-3. Everyone wants to know how to take the Bible’s “tall tales” of Flood, Exodus, Jonah’s fish, and Jesus’ resurrection. And everyone wants to know how to find Christ, follow him, and enjoy his company forever–in a way that avoids extremes, or compromises, or imbalances, or pat slogans.

So who shouldn’t get a proper Christian education? (That’s why I like teaching at a place that educates even more laypeople than it does pastors.) Yes, theological school is costly. But, as the old saying goes, if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.

Okay: so far, this is what you’d expect from a guy who earns his bread at a theological school.

So let’s recall again that lots of leaders around the world today don’t have seminary ed