Whereas an Educated Pastor Is not a “Dangerous” Thing

It has become the new fad in various Christian circles to declare that seminary/divinity school is a waste of time. I even follow a guy on Twitter who runs a podcast and blog called Seminary Dropout (@beardonbike). It’s definitively not an anti-seminary website, but it’s also no accident that it’s a catchy title and hash tag in this era of Christianity.

Then there are articles like this one, that tell us it’s “dangerous” to require a pastor to have a seminary education (or experience, or a certain marital status).

Let us leave the last two alone for now, and focus a little on the first requirement.

Why is it suddenly a bad thing to expect someone to be educated to do their job?

Okay, I confess: I WENT TO SEMINARY! And I confess again:  I LOVED it, thought it was great, and had a terrific experience. I still talk to friends from my class and professors from good old Pittsburgh Theological.

(Before anyone else can say it: Yes, it’s a Presbyterian (USA) seminary, and some would call it liberal and I really don’t care what you think. They gave me a full ride).

The growing anti-seminary, anti-education trend in Christian circles is an extremely troubling one. Perhaps it is my own sense of bias, or a great desire to justify three years of my life that I cannot get back. Or, perhaps I think that there is nothing wrong with a pastor/minister preparing for his/her vocation.

By the same token, perhaps others feel the need to justify their choice NOT to attend seminary; or perhaps they want people to be drawn to their particular brand of Christian higher education.

Whatever the logic of either side of the argument, there is no need to insult anyone for their position on this issue.

I certainly would not say that it’s “dangerous” for a church, that knows their circumstances and environment, to establish requirements for being pastor. Shouldn’t this decision be left to individual congregations? Doesn’t the church and/or its advisors understand their reasoning better than someone reading the classifieds?

No, seminary is not required for someone to do ministry (I have several friends in ministry that never attended). But there is certainly nothing empirically “dangerous” about a church asking their pastor to be well-educated.

The problem begins with a fundamental misunderstanding of what seminary is supposed to do. People seem to think that ministers should come out of seminary knowing how to be a pastor. In fact, some pastors come out of seminary thinking that they know how to be a pastor! What they need to think is, “Hey, now I’m ready to learn how to be a pastor!”

When people discover this little caveat, they sometimes take it to the next…um…”logical” step. The argument often goes something like this: “You can’t learn to be a pastor by going to school, so seminary is useless!”

And that is 100% legitimate. Education, for the most part, isn’t intended to make you good at something the minute you graduate. It is intended to prepare you to begin a journey of getting good at something.

I don’t think that going to medical school makes you a brain surgeon, but I’m not going to let someone cut open my skull unless they have a medical degree. You don’t need a degree to work in auto repair. But before I put my money down for you to work on my car, I want some assurance that you have some kind of training in your craft.

You absolutely cannot learn to be a minister in school, but you can learn a lot that will help you to become a better minister. The knowledge base, discipline, and relationships that you amass in seminary are certainly not bad things and can prove to be valuable tools.

Jesus DID spend 30 years of life preparing for a 3-year, whirlwind ministry, and He spent much of those three years teaching and training 12 guys to take the ball and run with it after His departure.

There is no doubt that seminary–like the church–needs a massive overhaul, and some of that is already happening. Even traditional seminaries and divinity schools are looking for creative ways to “fast-track” individuals who are called to ministry. I am all in favor of anything that reduces the amount of student loan debt for people in this country, particularly for pastors.

Changing the system does not mean eliminating it altogether, and it certainly doesn’t mean insulting those who choose to value the discipline. Christian higher education certainly needs to modernize, adapt, and lower the cost of the process; but they need to do so without devaluing the process.

Seminary trains you to be a minister much in the same way church trains you to be a Christian. It provides you the teaching, tools, knowledge and support to do what you need to do; but, the only way to ultimately learn is to go out and put it into practice.

But, in doing so, I hope that I don’t demand that my impression of the requirements for ministry are the only requirements that matter. There are plenty of opportunities to serve without a divinity degree, and that service is equally valuable to the Kingdom of God.

At the same time, I fear that we are coming to a place where we belittle those who want to further their education as well as those who expect their minister to do so. And we have no right to do either.

While it is essential to recognize that all are called, in various ways, to serve the Lord, criticism of a church for having certain expectations borders on being divisive and judgmental. Perhaps those who do not value seminary education can trust that God may still work through churches that do, and vice versa.

While I certainly fall on the “pro-seminary” side of this, I hope that I do not diminish those who feel the opposite way.

Expectations for ministers may vary from church to church, or ministry to ministry. Calling out others because their expectations are different is much more dangerous than the expectations themselves.

 

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