Monday, March 16, 2009

Seminary Sirens

Perhaps you've heard the tale. Don't go to seminary. You'll lose your faith... or at least your vitality. Seminaries teach you useless stuff and don't really prepare you for real ministry in the real world. It's a waste of time, a waste of money. AND, you have to uproot your family and go live somewhere for three years when you could actually be DOING it!

OK, some of these things are true... or at least used to be true. And some of them certainly have been experienced that way. But let me give you my perspective on what is real here and what isn't.

1. "You have to uproot your family an go live somewhere for three years"...

False. There are still of course seminaries where that's true, but for the most part it simply isn't. You can get an MDIV at IWU, Asbury, or Bethel and never move anywhere.

2. ... "when you could actually be DOING it!"

False. The fact that you can go half time without moving anywhere means you can be "doing it" WHILE going to seminary part time. In fact, in IWU's new MDIV, you HAVE to be doing it or you can't be in our program.

3. Seminaries teach you useless stuff and don't really prepare you for real ministry in the real world.

Well, that's a matter of perception. But the fact that so many seminarians perceive it to be that way means it is certainly a reality of some sort. If the goal of teaching is learning (rather than just talking), then seminaries have apparently done a horrible job of communicating what is valuable about what they do teach. And that's a failure of a fundamental sort.

People go to college these days mostly to be able to get a job. I strongly believe college should be about much more than this, but that is the presenting itch that gets warm bodies in the seats. So most ministers would value seminary if they actually felt like it gave them the tools they needed to actually do the things that scream at them every day in the church.

Seminaries by and large, I think, do NOT typically do a very good job of scratching this itch. IWU's "seminary" has been designed to bombard the student every class not just with I CAN use this but you will actually BE USING it, with your church as the patient :-)

On the other hand, this is not to say that much of the other stuff is not useful, helpful, or even essential. The undergraduate student just looking for a job, but if we can trick them into being better thinkers, able to see things from other people's points of view, give them a sense of where we are in the flow of history and ideas, help them appreciate the blessings of humanness--these are things that make for better humanity. They are actually more important in the long run than getting a job, but they don't seem important if you are hungry.

In the same way, understanding how to read the Bible in context, what Christians have believed for 2000 years, or knowing where you stand in the flow of Christian history can prevent a load of Christian mess and disgrace. These things provide depth; they redirect misguided trajectories, they point out gaps and incomplete ministry.

So the problem is the priorities and lopsided nature of seminary education, not the elements themselves.

4. You'll lose your faith... or at least your vitality.

This was the line that brought on my title. There are some who hate seminary, not because they think it is impractical, but because they think it is spiritually dangerous, and they claim that statistics back them.

On the one hand, this is a curious line of thinking. It's as if the voices of seminary are like the sirens of the Odyssey--once you come under the spell of their singing, you can't resist them. Your ship is destined to crash on the rocks. What is this great power that seminaries have, that takes a vigorous, vibrant Christian and inevitably forces them to lose their faith?!

What great power, to take away the free will of vibrant Christians! Why these seminaries are apparently more powerful than the Holy Spirit! If we take the rhetoric seriously, the beguiling singing of seminary professors is so strong that only those who tie themselves to the mast can safely pass through the waters of Scylla and Charybdis without losing their faith!

I think there is a problem here, but the problem surely can't be what the anti-seminarians say it is. After all, if the problem is wrong ideas, then the zealots would simply tear the arguments to shreds. Surely the problem has to be that the ideas are mostly convincing, but seminaries don't do a good job of helping students grow spiritually to handle them.

My own experience of seminary was destabilizing, even though Asbury was by my accounts a very conservative place. Even Oswalt this morning reminded me of how conservative he is. Didn't the Egyptians practice circumcision? He treated circumcision as if it were invented by God just for Abraham. I thought it was (to irritate Viola) a pagan practice that God sanctified. Not my field, I could be wrong.

My thoughts on this subject are 1) the heart of the pre-seminary church is mostly right but 2) it's head usually can't go the distance. Traditional seminaries adjust the head and lose the heart. I can't come up with a more plausible explanation. And the seminaries that form their identity around fighting the ideas of the other seminaries--they're the most worthless of all for they neither train you how to do ministry nor preserve the pre-seminary heart.

The ancient-future movement, for lack of a better room, makes a space for traditional orthodoxy in a (post) modernist world. Hate the bad parts of postmodernism if you will, but the good parts have made a space for heart and head to coexist going forward. I am not now speaking of IWU's seminary... just calling it how I see it.


Doug Chaplin said...

Of course, the brain-dead culture of many of the churches form which the prospective seminarians might come could also have something to do with it

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I don't like church being considered an experiment, as these are real people with real lives. Theology, i.e. bible interpretaion, is an implausible way of coming to terms with truth in real life.

Truth in real life is political reality, as political reality says a lot to the individual about their value and meaning and importance.

Evangelical consevatism just moves the spiritual into the political realm and says "that no matter what kind of government one is under", God is really in control. That is least in the 'real world" tells individuals that no matter what their "lot in life' it is "god's training field" to make one holy...that again is absurd.

Reason is the entrance point to an individual's development, which is not about religion, or tradition, per se. It is about coming to terms with values and ethics.

Brian Small said...


I'll comment on a couple of your points. There is nothing wrong with going away to seminary to prepare for ministry. Some people think that we should dive right into ministry without the proper preparation. Paul, apparently, took 14 years or more before he engaged in his ministry, and Jesus was perhaps around 30 years old before he began his ministry. Shouldn't they have been out saving the world much earlier than that? What took them so long? I believe that it was a time of preparation for their ministries.

Second, yes seminaries should provide practical courses, but they should also provide the theoretical basis for ministry. It should provide a grounding in theology, Bible, church history etc., because once one gets into the pastorate, or other type of ministry, it is difficult to get a good grounding in these areas because one is too busy doing the ministry. Besides much of ministry is on-the-field training. When I was in the pastorate there was just too many things that came up that seminary just couldn't prepare me for. For example, what does one do when a couple comes knocking on the church door at 10:30 on Saturday night and wants to get married--and the would-be husband is clearly drunk? How does seminary prepare one for such an unexpected situation? It would be nice if seminaries required practical experience alongside the theoretical teaching, but this could add more years to the M.Div. degree, and as you know, the M.Div. is already the longest Master's degree in any field.

In one of my churches I had a parishioner who began pastoring a small local church in a denomination that didn't require seminary. It came time for him to be ordained in that denomination, so I went to his ordination service. During the service some pastors from other local churches in that denomination asked him some questions on theology. I must say his answers were not very good. I thought to myself, "If I had answered those questions that way, I would never have gotten ordained." So, although seminaries get a rap for not being practical enough, I must say that there is something to be said for proper training in the theoretical bases of ministry as well.

Anonymous said...

Can you explain in more detail what you meant by finding your experience of a seminary education as "destabilizing?"

Mark Schnell said...

I pastored right out of undergrad for fifteen years. I wanted to get out there and "git her done." But then I went to seminary. I now believe that almost everyone should go to seminary as a pre-requisite or co-requisite to ministry. I have stood on both sides of this issue and here is why I think seminary is needed:

1. Being able to understand how my church and I stand in relationship to church history is infinitely valuable. I understand where Luther, Calvin, Wesley and all the rest come from and how they relate to one another and how they relate to me. I can also have an understanding of many of the heresies of the early church that are constantly recycled throughout history.

2. I can carry on a theological conversation at a fairly deep level with a Muslim, a Jehovah's Witness, and a spiritual post-modern thinker. Before I came to seminary I used to dread conversations like that. I simply didn't have that understanding and was too busy in ministry or too clueless to find it on my own.

3. I am middle aged already but for young pastors to have an extra three years to grow up is pretty valuable. Especially in light of the delayed adolescence that Keith Drury just wrote about in his Tuesday column.

4. As pastors we are dealing with eternal matters. Doesn't it make sense that we would want to be as prepared as we can possibly be. My goodness, how many church folks have to be screwed up before a pastor figures out many of the things that can be worked through in seminary.

Now I have to share the usual qualifiers: 1. A seminary education done in a vacuum (outside of a ministry context) is never going to be as valuable. You need the context of the real world to compare to what you are learning in class. Hopefully your seminary matches them up well. 2. Anyone can get the knowledge you can get from seminary on their own. But it is so much more valuable to learn in community led by mentors. 3. No seminary will give you common sense or a work ethic. Seminaries are like anything else, you get out of it what you put into it.

Thanks Ken

Mark Schnell said...

I have conflicting thoughts on Angie's comment of church being considered an experiment. I did the IWU online MA program. I always felt the assignments I did using my church as a laboratory were well planned out. They benefitted both me and my church as well. People told me many times that they could see me growing as a pastor during my time it that program. I'm assuming the IWU MDIV will use those same kind of projects.

Now, on the converse, I was working in a smaller church while in the MA program. I got the feeling at times that my church members would cringe when I asked them to fill out another survey or sermon analysis form that I needed to do as my assignments.

I affirm this style of graduate ministry education. I just hope that your team will keep the amount of work that is demanded of the local church members to a minimum. If not, they might feel like they are just an experiment as Angie mentioned.

Anonymous said...

I just want to make sure my question is not lost in between long (and very good) posts. Ken, could explain what you meant by finding your experience of a seminary education as "destabilizing?" Thanks.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks for all the comments!

Not sure what your agenda is, Anonymous but 1) my first year of seminary I conceded that the King James Version probably wasn't as accurate a reflection of the original text as I had thought.

2) My second year (to put it in the kind of reformulated terms my seminary didn't provide me) I acknowledged that the New Testament often interprets the Old Testament "spiritually." My Thompson Chain Reference prophecy fulfillment chart had mislead me. This was not the New Testament's problem at all. It was a problem created by false expectations I had caught from somewhere or another.

3) I was taught to read the Bible in context. My thirst to listen to the Bible for what it actually was trying to say soon came into tension with some of the traditional expectations I had of the text. Just to give one prominent example, I soon had to accept that the Day of Pentecost was not about entire sanctification but was instead the beginning, that receiving the Spirit in the NT is consistently about the entry experience of a believer rather than a second experience.

Those are a few of the destabilizing moments in my seminary education. All the conclusions that were destabilizing, as far as I can tell, were movements toward a better and deeper understanding. The question is did seminary come alongside me in the process.