I regularly have conversations with young men and women who are trying to decide whether to go to seminary. I’ve noticed a recent trend away from formal theological training, particularly among young men who hope to be church planters or pastors.
Often they object to the concept of seminary on biblical grounds. After all, Jesus’s disciples never attended some formal school of theology.
Some are more pragmatic in their objections. “[Famous podcast preacher] never attended seminary, and look at his enormous and successful ministry today!”
I’ll acknowledge that seminary isn’t for everybody. However, I do believe that everybody hoping to enter some sort of public ministry ought to first build a foundation of godly character and theological knowledge. In fact, that’s the pattern I observe in the Scripture and in the lives of great leaders throughout church history. Seminary or no, a lifetime of ministry requires preparation. In most cases, it requires years of preparation.
I frankly worry about men and women of exceptional gifting who haven’t taken the time to deepen their knowledge and character prior to entering ministry. In too many cases, I’ve seen giftedness become a poor substitute for Christian character. When that happens, the result is either catastrophic moral failure or a slow loss of ministry vitality. That’s why I wouldn’t make [famous podcast preacher] a model for how to approach ministry training. It’s quite possible that he’s an exceptional case, somebody who is effective in spite of his lack of training rather than because of it.
While seminary training is not a cure for spiritual catastrophe, the training I received at seminary helped me to lay a foundation for a lifetime of effective ministry. Although it’s not the only way to prepare for ministry, it does provide certain benefits that are difficult to find elsewhere. Here are a few concepts I learned in seminary that may or may not have been part of the official curriculum:
1. I learned that I still have a lot to learn. I grew up going to church and listening to sermons. I joined nearly every youth group and college Bible study available to me. By the time I was finishing college, I thought I knew most of what there was to know about the Bible. I was horribly, horribly mistaken. After 4 years and 40+ courses, I hadn’t even scratched the surface of what there is to know about God and His Word. Realizing my own ignorance humbled me and motivated me to be a lifelong learner.
2. I learned how to think theologically. I tried to listen carefully to the way my professors structured their arguments and discussions. I didn’t always agree with their conclusions. In fact, seminary isn’t (or shouldn’t be) primarily about learning what other people think so you can parrot it for the next 40 years. Instead, it’s an opportunity to discuss biblical and theological concepts with others who are grappling to understand them. Although I learned certain facts and a great deal of useful information, what I really learned was how to think about God. I found that methodology was ultimately more more valuable to me than information.
3. I learned that knowledge and application are vitally connected. It’s a huge fallacy to assume that knowledge will always lead to spiritual dullness. When we pursue knowledge as a means of understanding God and representing His character, it actually enhances our ability to obey Him. The oft-discussed “conflict” between head-knowledge and heart-knowledge is actually a false dichotomy. Yes, it’s possible to be full of information while simultaneously being a self-righteous jerk. It’s also possible to be completely ignorant of anything theological and still be a self-righteous jerk. For my part, I’ve found that knowing more about God and His Word provides me with more and more reasons to worship and proclaim Him.
4. I learned how to endure when a task is difficult. In my opinion, this is the least-appreciated benefit that seminary provides. It’s not necessarily written into the curriculum, but seminary taught me how to persevere. It was difficult financially: Shannon and I watched our friends from college buy large houses and nice cars while we struggled to buy enough food for the month. Seminary forced us to examine our priorities: Would we commit to keeping our marriage strong, even though academic and financial pressures tempted us to work constantly? Would we persevere when well-meaning friends and family members asked, “Are you still in school? How long is that program, anyway?” The discipline it required to endure a four-year training program helped equip me for a lifetime of serving Jesus. Seminary isn’t the only way to learn that discipline, but it’s an effective way. There is simply no shortcut to character development, and I worry that too many young men and women are trying to find one.
Should every minister attend seminary, then? Not necessarily. I do think, though, that too many people avoid seminary for the wrong reasons. Too many are eager to jump into leadership without taking the time to prepare. Seminary seems like an unnecessary delay, when in fact it provides some important training. The critical issue is this: Have I taken the time necessary to develop my mind, my character, and my spirit so that I can be effective for a lifetime? If you haven’t, then seminary is one excellent way to do so.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Obviously this post is not comprehensive regarding the benefits of seminary. What do you think, though? Is it overrated? Is it necessary?
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