Pastors still need seminary degrees
Gordon-Conwell is selling its main campus – where I live and go to school – after their enrollment has steadily declined by more than 50% over the past 10 years.
While more than a third of Americans continue to identify as evangelicals, the decline of their seminaries is a bit of an enigma. One explanation is how some evangelicals view seminary: as an obstacle — and increasingly unnecessary.
I was invited to attend a local church planting meeting on Monday mornings in the summer between my first and second year of undergrad. Morale was high, as they had just reached an all-time high with their Sunday morning attendance. Scanning through the business cards, they noted in amazement that just a year later, it had been their “most successful Sunday to date.”
As an aspiring young pastor, I was curious about how churches track and measure progress. So, I asked, “How do you know it’s a good thing?” The pastor thought for a minute and then replied, “Well, healthy things grow. This is our philosophy.
If this guy is right — that getting fat is undoubtedly and invariably a sign of spiritual growth — then we might as well assume Gordon-Conwell is headed for the grave. But if we seriously believe that the spiritual value of something cannot be determined in an Excel spreadsheet, we need a new framework to think about what it means to grow and prosper. Rather, we need an ancient framework – the cross – where death becomes the site of life and defeat is the site of triumph.
Gordon-Conwell may be down, both in terms of enrollment and budget, but it’s still a place where living things grow, where souls become attentive and come to life. In other words, we need the seminaries to continue to do their job well, reminding us of mysteries that calculators cannot understand.
Seminary has long been understood as a way to become a pastor. I am now an MDiv – and it is expected that once you get the MDiv you will get the job. Well, it turns out that evangelical churches care a lot less about step one these days, so aspiring pastors are told that seminary isn’t necessary, if not a really bad idea.
I’ve had this advice myself, and the argument usually goes, “Why seminary? It’s financially irresponsible, you risk burnout, it’s a lot of work…” Yes, those are all good points. But if they are dealbreakers for you, I have to ask you, why are you pursuing vocation ministry?
If you hope to spend your life working in the ministry, committing to a three-year full-time seminary program is not an unreasonable expectation. Think of doctors and lawyers, you wouldn’t let an autodidact saw off your leg. Similarly, the seminar is a way to formalize and communicate your commitment to your profession. But more than that, it sets the trajectory of dedication and patience for your calling as a pastor.
And yet, some in the evangelical world seem to have lowered their standards dramatically when it comes to expecting formal training from pastors. Stanley Hauerwas calls pay attention to this problem:
Quite simply, no one nowadays believes that an insufficiently trained priest can harm his salvation; but people believe that an insufficiently trained doctor can harm them. So people are much more concerned about who their doctor can be than who their priest is. That this is the case, of course, indicates that no matter how seriously we may think of ourselves as Christians, we may well be living lives that betray our belief that God matters.
However, it is not impossible to acquire rudimentary knowledge and skills for the pastorate outside of a seminary, it is clearly done. But the convenience offered by the information age does not make formal theological education unnecessary. Even the best Bible reference tools available on the market cannot provide the same kind of holistic training as a seminary degree. Not only that, but self-directed study doesn’t involve the same sacrifices of time and money.
Although the increased interest in more informal theological training is beautiful and necessary in the church, it cannot replace what accredited seminaries provide: a reliable and universal method of confirming a certain degree of competence and, perhaps more importantly, dedication.
There are no shortcuts, even for those who do not attend seminary. Preparing for the pastorate requires a great deal of study and soul work. And for those who can afford it, the seminary is an ideal place for that. As Zena Hitz argue“the retirement required by intellectual work” need not be a form of escape, because it offers the opportunity to create “a healthy distance, a place to set aside our agendas to consider such things that they really are”.
Ultimately, seminary is a unique opportunity for spiritual growth. It provides the space and time for deep mindfulness and formative solitude that normal life does not usually provide – allowing students of theology to develop their faith in “fear and trembling” in the context of a favorable environment.
For some, the spiritual trials and crises of faith that many students face in seminary might be seen as setbacks, somehow standing in the way of the ultimate goal. But one does not avoid becoming jaded by fleeing from situations or environments that could give rise to cynicism. We live in a fallen world – and the pastor’s job is not to tiptoe around suffering and doubt, but to pray through them.
This work begins within the pastors themselves when confronted with their own baggage. Like Dostoyevsky’s Shatov in demons commonly said, “If you want to overcome the whole world, overcome yourself.” And so for the pastor – if you want to take care of your flock, take care of your soul. Take care of it during the long hours of study. When you are tempted by detachment and pride, wrestle with God. Your ministry will always begin here.
Like Paul’s instruction to Timothy, pastors must be prepared to “be patient whether the weather is favorable or unfavorable” (2 Tim. 4:2, NRSV), ready to give of ourselves in every season of the season. life. Bernard of Clairvaux distinct between a channel, which “pours out what it receives”, and a reservoir, which “evacuates the overflow without loss for itself”. He observed that tanks were “far too rare” in the church of his day – and how much more so today?
In his book Waiting for GodSimone Weil—20th century French activist, philosopher and mystic—argued, “The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attentiveness.” She believed that learning to keep up with her studies, whether math or theology, was essentially a training in prayer. After all, without the ability to attend, how can one close one’s closet door and pray to our God who is in secret?
We come to seminary not to be “conformed to this world”, but to be “transformed by the renewal of [our] the spirits, so that [we] can discern what is the will of God, what is good, acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2, NRSV). Through this work of transformation, pastors will come out prepared, not to satisfy the world and its measures of success, but to lead the church and its people into the ways of Christ.
Seminary is a place of learning to let go of life and “growth” as we know it. It is in this erased task that we have the opportunity to discover God in all his transforming glory. This interlude season is not a task to be accomplished but a destination. And this is why the seminary is not only a means; it is also an end in itself.
So go ahead, predict the expiration of Gordon-Conwell and other evangelical seminaries. We will always be there, writing our papers, loving our neighbors and waiting for God.
Noah R. Karger is an MDiv student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a research assistant at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity.