A Final Word on Seminary

This is the last post in a series that makes the case, from my perspective, that seminary is a not a good way to equip people for the work of ministry. The other posts can be found Post 1Post 2, and Post 3. This is true whether their ministry role is vocational, voluntary or bi-vocational (like me). There is no biblical argument for seminary and in fact the opposite is true, namely that the fact that the apostles were ordinary, unschooled men, added to the impact they were having. My own seminary experience only reinforced that reality and as I’ve said in an earlier post, most of the people who I know that enjoyed their seminary experience would not be useful to me in my current mission field and context.

That being said, there is some utility to seminary and I tried to point that out in one post. I would like to close this series with some tips on how to maximize the benefits of seminary if you do choose to go in that direction.

  • Seminary is primarily academia. That doesn’t make it bad, but it does mean that you should consider it for knowledge transfer. Anything beyond that is unreliable. Want to learn Greek? Seminary is a good place to do it. But don’t expect seminary to help you understand the way Greek ought to impact your walk with God or ministry to others. It won’t, and many preachers who learned Greek in seminary prove that every week by showing off Greek pronunciation and root words without ever connecting them to real life.
  • Only consider seminaries that have strong connections or are hosted by a local church. One of the ironies of my disappointing degree program in biblical counseling is that the same seminary does what seems to be a great job with a residential MDiv program where students are actively plugged into local church ministry. If seminary is going to have much value, you will want to design as many connections between what you are learning and helping others walk in the light as possible.
  • Distance learning is fine for Greek or Church History, but it is not that useful for anything related to ministry skill. There really is only one way that people grow in their ability to minister to others and that’s by doing it under the watchful eye of someone who loves Jesus and loves them. Having a course on counseling someone with addictions is only of marginal value compared to actually working alongside someone experienced in counseling someone with an addiction.
  • It bothers me to say this because having a piece of paper on the wall was my primary goal, but if seminary is going to be meaningful it cannot be about the piece of paper you hope to put in a nice frame when you are completed. I’m sure this perspective eroded some of the benefit I might have otherwise received from my studies and it will yours also. Professional credentials are fine and they do prove you can learn and recite facts, but they shouldn’t mean anything in the Kingdom. Go into your seminary experience fortified with an understanding that if you grow closer to Jesus but don’t finish your degree it’s a good outcome.
  • Seminary tends to complicate truth rather than distill it. Sometimes it is wonderful to see the multifaceted glory of God from 100 different angles or read an 850 page book on one theological topic. That just isn’t what Jesus did. He looked around and found common things like seeds and sheep and lost sons and towers and talked about truth from there. If you choose to go to seminary, ask the kind of hard questions to get you somewhere that doesn’t leave you unable to make the transition from super detailed theologically worded answers to simple answers that a child can understand. Look at the books written by the faculty and see whether they do this in their written works. If they don’t do it in their books, they won’t do it in their classes.
  • I once heard Darrin Patrick say that Christians reproduce after their own kind. I think that is true and it’s why I say seminary is the place where middle class white people send middle class white guys to minister at middle class white churches.Diversity is not a strength at most seminaries. Basically none of what has been most important to me in my current context came from seminary. They didn’t even discuss it. Try to find a seminary that actually lives out in the present the ministry future you believe God has in store for you.
  • A notable brother in Christ in defending seminary wrote “So even with tuition and exams and papers, the essence of seminary will be sitting at the feet of Jesus.” If this were true, I would be a huge proponent of seminary but it is not because nobody gets graded on how well they sit at the feet of Jesus. Accreditation will not permit it, and seminaries generally want to keep their accreditation. This goes back to my initial point that we all have to remember that seminaries are primarily academia.

Finally, there is an excellent book designed to help those in seminary grow their love for Jesus rather than their knowledge of facts about Him called How to Stay Christian in Seminary. You can purchase it here. There is a related, but shorter series of articles here . These are written by brothers who have a very different perspective on the value of seminary than I do but are still concerned that many people pursue seminary with the wrong goals and unrealistic expectations.  I would commend it to anyone who does decide to pursue seminary.

Seminary’s high points

This is the third in a short series of posts addressing my belief that seminary is actually a pretty terrible way to equip saints for ministry in the local church. In the first post here, I said that seminary is certain not a complete waste of time and money. It simply is not the best use of time and money. In the second post here I shared some of what made seminary a generally less than ideal experience for me. In this post I wanted to share some of the positives about seminary.

I mentioned in the first post that one massive benefit of going to seminary was a class that had as a primary focus to wake us up to the reality that our own walk with Christ matters more than all the book learning we could get. It would be hard to overstate the importance of this and how useful it has been as an accountability measure for my ongoing walk with Jesus. One of the books we used in that process was Dangerous Calling by Paul Tripp. I would encourage it for anyone in vocational ministry if you read it with an open mind.

A older, godly friend once told me that seminary is really about the books you read, and having finished now I would say that’s largely true. I read several books in seminary that I would not have been likely to pick up otherwise and for that I’m grateful. Here are some of the books I read due to seminary curriculum that I would highly commend to the kind of person that reads my thoughts:

  • God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation by Andreas J. Köstenberger, David W. Jones
  • Seeing with New Eyes by David Powlison
  • Why I Am Not an Arminian by Michael Williams and Robert Peterson
  • Tell the Truth by Will Metzger
  • Master Plan for Evangelism by Robert Coleman
  • Shame Interrupted by Ed Welch
  • Relationships a Mess Worth Making by Tim Lane and Paul Tripp

A had a class that required me to memorize Psalm 34. Prior to that I probably never used Psalm 34 in any of my counseling. Since then I probably use it 80% of the time in some form or fashion. Dozens of people have refreshed their confidence in God the deliverer as a result of this assignment. I’d encourage you to go read this Psalm right now and imagine how potent it could be to someone who is stuck in a habitual sin, suffering from a chronic medical condition or just having serious marriage problems.

While it was not as helpful as it might have been, I have gained a few contacts through my program that have been useful to some of the pastoral work I am doing. It’s possible I’d have developed a similar network without seminary, but I doubt I’d have gotten to be personable with these particular brothers and sisters in Christ.

My program required me to have supervised counseling. While I had already done this for my certification and there wasn’t anything new, my supervisor was very helpful for me because I had pivoted off of counseling for a season and was needing to gear back up. Some of the basics he brought me back to saved those I met with during that season a lot of bad conversations and unhelpful homework assignments.