Your Seminary Isn’t Responsible For Your Education

Your seminary isn’t responsible for your education.  You are.

In the past week, I’ve had the chance to visit with a few current and just-graduated seminarians, and some of their observations have been strikingly similar:

  • The seminary environment is too academic.
  • The assigned readings are too long, and not really related to the subject matter.
  • If I do everything they ask me to, I won’t have a life at all.
  • How can I learn to pastor from profs who’ve never pastored?

Most seminaries are built on an academic model, focused on seeing that you master a theological knowledge base in an insulated environment removed from the real world of ministry.

One recent graduate remarked, “It’s one thing to talk in class about the practice of church discipline, it’s another thing to do it sitting down and looking them in the eye.”  The disconnect he saw and lamented was that the ones teaching church discipline in class had never had to actually do it.

Which leads me to emphasize again: Seminary does not prepare you for ministry.  Not by itself. The traditional seminary environment can only provide one (albeit very important) piece of the total picture of your ministry preparation.  Seminary grants to you a theological knowledge base, and provides a credential supporting your desire and calling to serve in ministry.

The rest is up to you.

You must take responsibility for your own ministry preparation.

  • You will need real world experience in ministry-so go get some.
  • You will need a mentor in your field-so go find one.
  • You will need to be with people outside the Christian bubble-so go make some new friends.

If you immerse yourself in the seminary environment in the way students are tacitly encouraged to-reading every book, completing every assignment, and focusing on the subject matter presented in class-two things will happen.  First, you will have spent two to four years isolated from the world, and will be unaccustomed to living with the real, lost people in the world to whom we have been sent.  Second, it is highly likely that you will emerge as a theological egghead, with lots of knowledge but not much love.

Another student I spoke with, no doubt in the middle of mid-term madness, was aghast at how excessively his professors overburdened him with readings, papers and assignments.  “No one could do all this and have a real life,” he complained.

Answer: so don’t do it all, and go have a real life.  You must set your own life agenda… just like you must when you’re in a church.  If you allow the institution to dictate your life, well, then that’s what you’ll get.

A few questions:

  • Are you fully plugged into the life of a local church?
  • Do you know your pastors well, and do they know you?
  • Are you serving at your church?
  • Have you sought out someone more experienced in ministry for mentoring?
  • What exposure do you have to people who are far from God?  Unless you plan to stay buried, irrelevant in the Christian ghetto, you need to make being with lost friends part of the fabric of your life.
  • When’s the last time you ignored an assignment in order to do something more important?

My parting suggestion:

  1. Sit down with a blank sheet of paper, and design for yourself, from scratch, a ministry preparation program.  What do you need to know?  What do you need to be able to do?  What kind of experience will you need?  How can you get it?
  2. Then compare your program to what you’re doing now: your ministry assignments, relationship, and degree program. Show this comparison to someone who’s been out of seminary and in ministry for several years, and get their input.
  3. Adjust your life accordingly.


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7 Replies to “Your Seminary Isn’t Responsible For Your Education”

  1. I like the way you laid this out. I am in my first year at Dallas Theological Seminary, and I can see both the focus you detail as to how the seminary approaches educating students as well as the student complaints.

    I have the benefit of a lengthier career behind me (and the detriment of less runway in front of me!) than the average seminary student so I am very focused on making the most of my time in my studies.

    I view my seminary education as an adjunct to my ministry, which I believe is going to draw upon my 30 year business career. I am already involved in other ministries lending them my financial expertise as a way to help minister to those who are ministering to others. I am trying to network within the local business community as a see myself as someone who can bridge business (I am fluent in that language) and ministry (I am conversant in that language) and seminary (I am learning to speak that language).

    I urge my fellow seminarians everywhere not to bury themselves just in seminary but to explore and experience ministry while they are still in an academic environment. A business degree does not necessarily get you ready to function in the day to day world of business, I know that from experience.

    I do not expect it to be any different in seminary. Education may be a great foundation to practical application, but it is education, not experience.

  2. Thanks Andy. I appreciate the comment.

    I find often that those who come to seminary later in life often have clearer big-picture perspective and better life management skills than those coming to seminary straight out of college or who are starting families. You confirm that trend for me.

  3. I am a graduate from Dallas Theological Seminary and a current DMin student of the same SCHOOL! Remember men, seminary is a school. One of the sad things I have found is when young men enter into seminary totally unprepared to do so by their respective churches. I believe there haas been far too much “coddling” of the saints in ministry and it’s reflected in these very comments found here.
    I remember one day when there was a couple hundred of us sitting in class waiting for it to begin. Most of us had the syllabus in our laps grumbling about the amount of work that was required of us in this particular class. Prof walks in and hears all this racket! He quickly straightened many of us out with these simple words, “Men and women, those of you who are about to enter into ministry for the Lord around this world. This time at seminary will be the easiest time you have in all that you will do in ministry. Be absolutely sure that it is the Lord who wants you here!”
    After that, we never whined about or disrespected the training we were receiving for carrying the Gospel of Jesus Christ to this lost world we live in.
    I served as a Marine during the VietNam war and that was a piece of cake compared to what serving the church that Christ died for has been.
    It’s graduate school boys and girls. And more than that, it’s for the Lord!

  4. Pastor Olson,

    Appreciate your words of admonition. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that many younger generation pastors, since we and our peers HAVE been coddled our whole lives might be less prepared for the rigors of ministry (and life, for that matter).

    Always good to have a reality check from the front lines. Thanks.

  5. Sorry if I sounded a bit harsh. Didn’t really intend it that way, but dear ones, time is short. I love being a pastor and my son has just been “called” into the pastorate. We need men and women who can stand against the wiles of the devil. Satan, on the other hand, HATES pastors. Thank all of you that have answered the call to attend seminary in preparation of living your lives in service to our Lord Jesus. I’ll pray for you. Please pray for me.
    Roger Olson

  6. I agree with Pastor Olson and with Mark. My husband graduated from NOBTS this month and begins his MDiv at Southern in January. We will be paying for a theological education…. it’s our money and our time…. we expect to have to do the work that earns the degree, otherwise, well… you just didn’t earn it.

    Secondly, in most American churches you’ll receive plenty of “application” type ministry and close to no “academic” or “theological” training or even discussions for that matter.

    My husband has been on staff at a “seeker” church for about 5 years. We were very involved the 6 years before that as well.

    Heather Young

  7. When I went to seminary, I decided to work hard and get top grades. I did, but you know what? When I went to interview for church jobs, nobody asked me about my grades!
    A few more suggestions- take classes in leadership and conflict resolution (pure gold!), and learn all about the 12-step group process (AA, Al-Anon, NA, GA, SA, etc.) These are practical tools that will literally save your butt!

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