Why People Aren't Going to Seminary

Why People Aren't Going to Seminary

Seminary used to be a given for anyone wanting to pursue a life of vocational ministry.

Not anymore.

It is increasingly common for individuals who are called to plant a church or join the staff of a church to do so without any formal theological education. The 2009-2010 Annual Data Tables from the Association of Theological Schools of FTE (full-time equivalent) students bears this out, barely bottoming out this year after a multi-year several thousand student decline.

I would suggest that there are several reasons for this:

  • Many are entering the ministry later in life when uprooting their family and moving to a three-year residential program is at best problematic.
  • Increasing numbers of churches are hiring "from within" and have already invested heavily in the discipleship and training of present and future staff. Further, they cannot afford to hire someone, and then send them away for three years.
  • Many pastors no longer trust seminaries, and thus do not recommend them to their staff or members. This distrust is usually founded on the fear that seminary professors are more prone to indoctrinate than educate in light of their own theological and methodological biases. I know of one pastor who stopped sending his staff to a well-known seminary, and when asked for the reason by the president, the pastor said, "I sent you three of my very best staff, and you turned every one of them against the way we do church. Why would I send you more?"
  • Seminaries are perceived as being out-of-date and out-of-touch with real-world and/or contemporary ministry. Many professors are perceived to have limited pastoral experience (usually a short seminary pastorate and then later interim roles), or to have not led churches of any significant size for any significant length of time. They are often viewed as theoreticians rather than practitioners.
  • Many pastors feel they have gained more in post-seminary leadership conferences, such as the WCA Leadership Summit, than they did throughout their entire Masters of Divinity degree program. They learned about the Council of Nicea, but not how to lead a council meeting; they learned about the significance of the aorist verb, but not how to parse the culture to know how best to communicate. This leads many to look back on their seminary education with a devaluing eye.
  • Many churches, particularly large ones, have long felt they were better positioned and better qualified to train individuals for the practice of ministry. And now they are offering courses in theology, biblical studies and church history - courses long held to be the domain of the seminary.
  • Many seminaries have lost the ear of young leaders due to the frequent and perceived ill-informed critique of the very kind of churches and approaches to ministry they long to pursue.
  • The passion of the professors often seems to be for the academy rather than for the church, which then influences the passions of the student. This worries both potential students and the sending church. As one graduating seminarian commented to me, "I've seen too many people enter seminary on fire for the church, only to see them three years later bowing before the altar of the academy."
  • Many current church leaders have little or no seminary experience, yet lead large, thriving ministries, preach biblically sound messages, and have members who are grounded and growing in Christ. This makes seminary seem more of a nicety than a necessity.
  • Seminary education, outside of certain denominational support networks, is incredibly costly. Students today are already graduating with thousands of dollars of debt from their undergraduate degrees, and adding tens of thousands more - and then attempting to pay it back on a minister's salary - is daunting at best.

My goal is not to start a war of pro-seminary vs. anti-seminary in the comment section of the blog. And I am certainly 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.

In truth, I just love the church, and want to see her optimally served in light of the culture of our day.

And there are lessons for everyone in this round-up of anti-seminary conviction (or better put, pro-seminary apathy, as few have real axes to grind).

For seminary professors and administrators: wise-up to the reasons increasing numbers are avoiding your hallowed grounds. It does not matter whether the reasons I've listed are accurate. It does not matter whether the reasons I've listed are even fair. What matters is that they are real in the minds of those choosing not to attend. If you wish to serve the church, and I trust that you do, wake-up and address the concerns that are causing a breach.

For pastors and church leaders: if you are going to downplay seminary in the minds of your staff or members, then develop a plan "B". And make it a good one. Create a leadership development process that goes beyond sending them to Catalyst and reading books by Jim Collins. They need theology; they need biblical studies; they need to know the flow of Christian history.

For those wondering whether to go to seminary: Yes, it is fair to wonder out loud whether it's even necessary. It is even more critical to discern why you want to go in the first place. No one should go to try and find themselves, get fixed, get healed, get spiritual or figure out what they want do when they grow up.

Save your money and go to a good Christian counselor.

But it is not to be avoided because you simply want to microwave your life and don't want to pay the dues necessary to prepare optimally for a life of ministry.

So who should go?

Three types of people should strongly consider it despite the many reasons that exist to bypass the investment:

  • If you are going to be a teaching pastor, getting the best of biblical studies, languages, theology and church history is essential. There can be little doubt that most seminaries have this training down to an art, and no matter what anyone says, such training would be hard to duplicate on most local church levels.
  • If you feel called to work within a denomination or ecclesiastical structure that requires it.
  • If you feel called to academia.

But even if you go, I've got some news for you.

It won't teach you all you need to know. It will play to the theoretical more than the practical, the theological more than the methodological, and the intellectual more than the spiritual.

So if you go, you'll get one education.

Then you'll graduate and start on another.

James Emery White 



2009-2010 Annual Data Tables from Association of Theological Schools at http://www.ats.edu/Resources/Publications/Documents/AnnualDataTables/2009-10AnnualDataTables.pdf

Publication date: November 1, 2010