Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

What They Don’t Teach Lawyers…or Ministers

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theologyand culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • 2011 Nov 28

“How do you get a merger done?” asks Scott B. Connolly, an attorney.

There is silence from three well-dressed people in their early 20s, sitting at a conference table in a downtown building in Philadelphia.

“What steps would you need to take to accomplish a merger?” Mr. Connolly prods.

After more silence and an embarrassingly wrong answer or two, it becomes painfully clear:  nobody knows.  The dilemma is that the three well-dressed people being asked are associates at a law firm, hired to handle corporate transactions.

And they have each spent three years and as much as $150,000 for a legal degree.

As New York Times reporter David Segal notes, “What they did not get, for all that time and money, was much practical training.  Law schools have long emphasized the theoretical over the useful, with classes that are often overstuffed with antiquated distinctions, like the variety of property law in post-feudal England.  Professors are rewarded for chin-stroking scholarship, like law review articles with titles like “A Future Foretold: Neo-Aristotelian Praise of Postmodern Legal Theory.”

“The fundamental issue is that law schools are producing people who are not capable of being counselors,” says Jeffrey W. Carr, the general counsel of FMC Technologies, a Houston company that makes oil drilling equipment. “They are lawyers in the sense that they have law degrees, but they aren’t ready to be a provider of services.”

In truth, as Segal notes, “the essential how-tos of daily practice are a subject that many in the faculty know nothing about — by design. One 2010 study of hiring at top-tier law schools since 2000 found that the median amount of practical experience was one year, and that nearly half of faculty members had never practiced law for a single day. If medical schools took the same approach, they’d be filled with professors who had never set foot in a hospital.”

“Law school has a kind of intellectual inferiority complex, and it’s built into the idea of law school itself,” says W. Bradley Wendel of the Cornell University Law School, a professor who has written about landing a law school teaching job. “People who teach at law school are part of a profession and part of a university. So we’re always worried that other parts of the academy are going to look down on us and say: ‘You’re just a trade school, like those schools that advertise on late-night TV. You don’t write dissertations. You don’t write articles that nobody reads.’ And the response of law school professors is to say: ‘That’s not true. We do all of that. We’re scholars, just like you.’ ”


Now go back and read everything that you just read again.  Only this time, substitute the word “seminary” for “law school,” and practical knowledge about lawyering with practical knowledge about ministry.

There are wonderful exceptions, I know, but by and large, the contemporary American seminary mirrors the contemporary American law school – and in all the worst ways.

As I wrote in the introduction to my book What They Didn’t Teach You In Seminary, I’m not trying to pick a fight.  My life has been lived, largely, in two vocational worlds:  the church, and the academy.  I am the founding and senior pastor of a church; I am a professor and former president of a seminary. 

So I would only be picking a fight with myself.

More than that, I loved seminary.  I loved learning about church history and theology, philosophy and ethics.  My pulse quickened the first time I was able to stand behind a podium and say, “In the Greek, this word means...”  I loved building my library with works from Augustine to Zwingli.  Adding entire multi-volume reference sets, such as Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, made my hormones bubble.

I was the classic, three-year, residential M.Div.

But toward the end of my seminary degree, just before I started my doctoral work, I received a call from a church near the school asking me to consider coming as their interim pastor.  It was an established denominational church in a county seat town near the seminary.  The interim turned into a full-fledged invitation to serve as their senior pastor. 

Yet when I, as a new pastor, was asked to officiate my first wedding, my first funeral, my first baptism, and my first communion, I was totally clueless.  So why did they ask me to be a pastor?  It was assumed that since I was nearing my graduation from seminary, I knew what I was doing.

I didn’t.

It didn’t get any better.

I needed to raise money to meet the church’s budget, and there had never been a class on that. 

I wanted to try and grow the church numerically by reaching out to the unchurched, and my coursework had never touched on it. 

I had a problem with a combative and disagreeable deacon, and I searched through my seminary notes and found nothing. 

I found I needed to be in the office for administration, in my study to prepare my talks, in people’s lives to stay connected to the community, and in my home to raise my family – and there hadn’t been any instruction on how to manage that. 

It was becoming painfully clear how little my seminary education was actually preparing me for the day-in, day-out responsibilities of leading a church. 

I knew about the Council of Nicea, but no one had ever told me how to lead my own council meeting. 

I knew about the Barth-Brunner debate, but not how to handle the breakdown between two Sunday school teachers when one was asked to start a new class, for the same age-group, from the existing class. 

I knew the significance of the aorist verb, but not how to parse the culture to know how best to communicate. 

I could tell you the leading theologians of the 16th century, but not about leading and managing a staff.

This is why so many people look back on their seminary education with a critical eye. 

It’s why pastors will go to a two-day leadership conference headlined by seasoned leaders passing on their insights for effective ministry, and feel like they gained more in those two days than they had in their entire three years of seminary education. 

It’s why quickly after graduation, Melanchthon gets dropped for Maxwell, Luther for Lucado, and the seminary’s continuing education program for the latest Catalyst event.

We need seminary.  We don’t want to lose the necessary academic side of things.  But we also need seminaries to realize they do not exist to serve the academy, but to serve the church.

One of the more promising movements of late is the partnership between larger churches and seminaries.  The idea is to use churches stocked with resources (adjunct professors, students, buildings) to bring seminary back into the life of the church. 

As opposed to a three-year residential program tilted away from the day-in, day-out life of ministry, these new partnerships would blend the academic with the practical, the scholar with the practitioner, the student with the church.  Many of these partnerships never require the student to leave their ministerial setting, except for possible short visits to a nearby campus, but instead, bring the seminary to the church.

Meck is in conversations for just such a partnership, and I couldn’t be more hopeful.

So while law schools need to step up and get better at teaching lawyering, they aren’t alone.  Seminaries need to step up and get better at teaching ministering.

And the place to start just might be partnering with who it is they are trying to serve.

James Emery White


“What They Don’t Teach Law Students: Lawyering,”  by David Segal, The New York Times, November 19, 2011. Read online.

James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You In Seminary (Baker, 2011).

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