All else being equal, I believe most pastors will have deeper, broader, and longer-lasting ministry if they invest in a good seminary education as a key component of their pastoral training.

I know the model that says pastors should have a three-year academic degree from an accredited seminary is not found in Scripture. I know it is of relatively recent historical vintage. I know that a full-blown seminary education is impossible for many pastors around the world and even for some would-be pastors in the West. I know there are scores of faithful, fruitful men who have pastored and are presently pasturing without a seminary education. I think of some of my pastor friends without a seminary degree and how gladly I would sit under their ministries.

And yet, all else being equal, I believe most pastors will have deeper, broader, and longer-lasting ministry if they invest in a good seminary education as a key component of their pastoral training.

Yes, there are more theological resources in this country than anywhere else in the world at any time in history. There are more ways to learn than ever before: through conferences, online sermons and lectures, by blogs and interviews and apps and videos. But I believe the church still needs the seminary. There are things the seminary can do that the even the biggest, best, and brightest church won’t be able to accomplish.

Our present model is far from perfect. Church, seminary, and denomination/ordaining institutions need to work together more effectively. It’s too easy for each entity to assume the other is doing the hard work of vetting potential candidates for ministry. I’ve overheard many conversations where the church assumes the seminary will train their ill-suited member for ministry, where the seminary assumes they are only handing out academic grades, and where the denomination assumes that if a man has been put forward by his church and has an M.Div. that he is ready to be ordained. There are bad seminaries that undermine the fundamentals of the faith. There are dry as dust seminaries that mint scholars more than pastors. And there are overeager seminaries that try to do everything under the sun, all the while neglecting the bread and butter of pastoral ministry: a competency to rightly handle the word of God and to teach it to others.

Nevertheless, I urge every man preparing for pastoral ministry to make every effort to go to seminary. Yes, actually go there, take classes in a building with other students, and get a degree. Again, I recognize there are exceptions to this rule. But I hope those pursuing pastoral ministry will diligently and sacrificially pursue a seminary education unless providentially hindered.

Why?

  1. Even a decent seminary will be better equipped to teach the original languages, systematic theology, church history, and biblical exegesis than the best church. This does not mean the church is negligible in the process, for our seminary professors should all be dedicated churchmen and our sending churches and denominations have a vital role in preparing pastors in other aspects of ministry that are just as important.
  2. Without a seminary education, even the smartest pastors will have big gaps in their understanding of the Bible, history, and theology. Our learning will be more provincial, more derivative, and less likely to be drawn from primary sources and older texts.
  3. Those without a seminary education are often at a disadvantage when it comes to using all the exegetical and theological resources a pastor needs to stay fresh, energized, and well grounded over a lifetime of ministry.
  4. Those without a seminary education may have a more difficult time entering into important discussions and controversies. There is more terra incognito on the doctrinal landscape.
  5. Learning in a flesh and blood community—with professors you can know personally and with students you can fight with and learn from—cannot be duplicated by online cohorts or virtual education. Not even close.
  6. A good seminary education gives the pastor confidence in what he should know and enough humility to know what he doesn’t know.
  7. By studying in person at a seminary you will develop lifelong friendships and important pastoral and professional connections.

None of this is to suggest a seminary education is all you need to be a good pastor. In fact, I think seminaries often try to do too much and are expected to do too much. Many aspects of ministry cannot be learned in the classroom. That’s why we need more rigorous internship programs and why the church needs to take more responsibility to evaluate, support, and prepare men for ministry. All I’m saying is that in most cases I believe it is a mistake with long-term ramifications for aspiring pastors to voluntarily forgo the seminary education they could have had with a good dose of discipline, creativity, sacrifice, prayer, and hard work.

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Comments:


49 thoughts on “Why the Church Still Needs the Seminary”

  1. Don says:

    While I agree with your basic premise, there are critical issues that must be addressed in seminary education if it is to remain a viable option in the future. One of the most pressing issues is that of cost. A student graduating from four years of college and three years of seminary is saddled with a student debt load that will keep them off the mission field, make it impossible for most to be church planters, and even makes an entry level pastorate difficult because of the pay level. More and more students are looking for other options (online study, internships, etc.) The seminaries must reconsider the issue of cost to meet the need of an equipped ministry.

  2. Luke says:

    =======
    //
    //
    //
    //
    //
    // o
    From an outsider, #7 would appear to be vital for becoming a leader in the broader pastoral community.

  3. Luke says:

    Disregard the gibberish above my last post.

  4. Bob says:

    Agree with Don above!

    I’m working in ministry and have for 5 years, but not in a preaching senior pastorate. I can take the classes at a local seminary, but they have to charge me $4000 to complete the 12 credit hour internship practicum, even though the internship practicum is doing the ministry job I do now. So basically, the seminary wants me to pay $5000 to do the job I am paid to do now. I’m taking the classes and paying for them, but I will never pay more than two months of salary to do the job I do now just for the formality to get the piece of paper.

    Is seminary education a great thing? Yes! The mantra of too many seminaries is “show me the money”, and this short sightedness is why so many people are circumventing the system.

  5. Bob says:

    *Sorry, in the above comment, the price is $5000 not $4000.

  6. David Axberg says:

    I agree that learning is always to be one of the priorities of the true Pastor/Christian. There are ways to accomplice this. I am not a Pastor/Elder and believe that the pastor with a higher education can/will believe they know more than the “lay Elder” that does not have the higher education. Often times the older-wiser elder without education will know more just for shear years in the Word and practical application. How many of us use our undergrad educations in the called vocation we are now in? Just my two cents. I do value the education but it will never be a mandate as long as I am on the Search Committee. I do think the church should encourage everyone of the pastor/elders to advance in education.

  7. EricP says:

    It would be nice if the commenting software gave you at least 5 minutes to edit your comment.

  8. Hal says:

    With a seminary degree comes an instant measure of respect from church members, when you begin a new position. They assume you probably know what you’re talking about, until/unless you demonstrate otherwise. And you need every advantage you can get, at that point.

  9. Don says:

    The cost of a seminary education is considerable and often prohibitive. Those outside the seminary world may not be aware that this is an intense concern and a constant conversation within seminaries. Most schools I know of, including my own, are working feverishly to find ways to address that. Yet this reservation, along with the observation that often there is lots of wisdom to be found in the church without formal education, do not negate Kevin’s argument. He has wisely and sensitively acknowledged those realities. The fact remains, as he argues so well, that if and when it is possible to acquire a seminary education, it provides resources and formation that are crucial for the longterm health and integrity of the church. Do seminary’s do that job perfectly? Not on your life. Can any seminary provide everything needed for effective pastoral ministry? No seminary that I know of claims that. But what seminaries CAN do is crucial for the church overall, even if many cannot access it. Let’s not let that be lost in the sea of “what if’s” and “yes, but’s.”

  10. Stephen says:

    As a pastor with a seminary degree, I only want to note: the single biggest tangible advantage I have reaped from a degree is simply the initial permission to give my first sermon “because I had a degree”. It happened like:

    – “Why does this new kid get to preach?!?”
    – “Well, he has a degree from seminary”
    – “Oh, why didn’t you say so earlier?”

    I got my degree from seminary MAINLY to remove the stumbling block from others who would require me to have a degree as a prerequisite for ministry. Bizarre, admittedly.

  11. Your article is entitled: Why the Church Still Needs the Seminary. In that one phrase is the arrogance and problem of your post. Rather it should have been: Why the Seminary Desperately Needs the Church! In addition, there was no Scripture content or context for/in your article. Curious, did you learn that in Seminary?

    Schools make students – churches produce shepherds (1 Peter 5:1-4).

    Please reconsider.

    Godliness is a doctrine,
    Pastor SJ Camp
    Acts 20

  12. hamoncan says:

    I can’t disagree much with the article other than to say that seminary seems to create a barrier to ministry such that so many who go to and come out of seminary end up being people who are academic introverts who lack the inclination or people skills to relate effectively to their future congregants as a spiritual leader. Not saying all, or maybe even most – but definitely too many.

  13. John Dyer says:

    Thanks for the great article Kevin. There are plenty of issues with Seminary (cost, academic vs. ministry skills, etc.), but I still think it is a valuable option for the Church as it trains leaders.

    For those considering costs, in my work at DTS we did some research on seminary cost and curriculum that we decided to release. One would need a lot more than this data to make a decision on seminary, but we hope its a helpful part of God’s guidance: http://www.seminarycomparison.com/

  14. Ryan Roach says:

    I’m beginning work on a D.Min. at Western Seminary and found that the entire tuition for 4 years (plus travel, housing, and food) is far cheaper than a secular masters degree. I’m a youth pastor, I live in San Diego, and my wife stays at home with our two boys and we are able to save a few hundred dollars a month to cover tuition.

    Another thing many don’t realize is that every seminary I’ve researched has grants and scholarships. Most of my M.Div. was fully paid for by a grant that gave out millions each year. I graduated seminary debt free while only spending a few thousand dollars because I spent time researching grants and asking the right questions.

  15. anaquaduck says:

    I much prefer a guy just coming up & throwing his coat over me…I suppose I am the product or by product of a minister who was generous enough with his time & academic enough to share his insights & overviews(feeding the flock). In church these things flow through to me depending on the application of the minister at hand. This got me through a bachelor of arts degree as a mature age student. Before that I was in the valley, where mister when your young, they bring you up to do, like your daddy done(working class).Christian Academia can be a real blessing but in many respects its still another world & takes time to understand.

  16. Lew Ayotte says:

    None of your assumptions are biblical, none of your reasons are biblical, and none of your conclusions are biblical… that should tell us a lot about the “vocation” of pastor.

  17. Joe M. says:

    I appreciate this article. I started the “seminary conversation” with my wife just last night. Cost was the primary concern, so we are brainstorming. I trust God’s hand in the matter.

    Additionally, I currently serve as an associate pastor in a small church plant in the Seattle area. I have learned an intense amount of practical know-how that I would not trade for anything.

  18. Roland E. Pittman says:

    This article is pretty one-sided without regard to advances in technology and the evolving picture of education. It is possible today for even a small church to provide ministry training for its young people with practical training in the church and academic training through distance education. The author fails to recognize and deal with the prohibitive costs and time invested in seminary. Although seminary may hold nostalgic memories for many, its time and usefulness is fast ebbing away. It is time to return to a church-based model of ministry-training without sacrificing any of the academic benefits or rigor of seminary.

  19. As a bi-vocational, college but not seminary grad, I will throw my two-cents in here. Kevin is right, there are great advantages to a good theological education , and more points could be added to buttress Kevin’s post(not every seminary gives you a good theological education, and just because you have been to seminary does not make you a good pastor/preacher). Seminary does not make you a good pastor/preacher, but it does provide you with the tools and training to give you the foundation to become a good pastor/preacher.

    I would love to have a good seminary education, for all the reasons above, and a few more. God, in His providence and calling, did not provide the opportunities for me in that area; but I know I would be better prepared and have a more solid foundation if I had one, and I believe that is the point Kevin is making.

  20. john sullivan says:

    i worked with campus crusade and was a member of the calvary chapel movement (whose pastors dont usually go to seminary) awhile. for a while i really didnt think i needed seminary. i really questioned whether it was worth going. i thought it was only for academic questions that don’t really apply.

    now i am in my fourth (and final) year at Westminster (philly). There is ZERO doubt in my mind it has been worth it. ZERO doubt. it has exceeded all of my wildest dreams. and kevin is right in EVERYTHING he is saying here. seminaries should not try to do the work of the church. they shouldn’t do too much. teach men to HANDLE THE BOOK! that is the vital need of every generation. honestly, even if by some unforeseen circumstances i end up out of ministry never to return – i will still cherish the tools i’ve been given and the ways the scriptures have been opened up to me. it’s been an amazing time.

    (but also – i cant imagine a better place than WTS – david powlison, greg beale, vern poythress, carl trueman, ed welch, (ian duguid coming soon)….
    it really is an all star cast)

  21. john sullivan says:

    (also – i hear its a great place to work ;-) )

  22. Daniel Kleven says:

    There are churches who have put together rigorous seminary programs. BCS in Minneapolis is an example, and interestingly they have also made the “prohibitive cost” a non-factor.

  23. While the man-made institution still needs the seminary, Christ’s church does not.

  24. Mike says:

    I would be very interested to hear what you thoughts on The Antioch School. I am a fellow alum of Gordon-Conwell and have truly benefited from my time and degree there. However, I am intrigued by the thought of training in the context of the church. I know everything has it’s limits and goals, so nothing will be perfect, but the seminary and church working side by side needs to be increased and more structured.

  25. DA says:

    Based on what I’ve seen coming out of New Bunswick and Western Seminaries the past 30 years, I would agree with Kevin’s statement “There are bad seminaries that undermine the fundamentals of the faith.”

  26. Zac says:

    Didn’t Jesus say, “Owe no man anything, but love.”? Just cant see a way around that…

  27. Zachary,

    If you will check your context that verse is really an admonition to pay what you owe. Context is king.

  28. Mark says:

    Being myself a student and advocate of learning, I tend to agree with the central propositions of this post. Furthermore, and also because I am a student, I agree with what seems to be a common sentiment: costs need to be addressed. I know that a seminary degree can vary widely in its cost, from relatively cheap to comparatively expensive. It is my hope that 2 things happen: 1) further investment and donations are put forth to help fund scholarships to seminary and 2) there is exploration of MOOCs (massive open online courses) for theological training. I’ve seen some beginnings of this through iTunes U, but it would be wonderful to take advantage of the available technology to make even more theological resources available. I understand that this is, to some degree, counter to what KDY proposes, but it is my feeling/hope that a development like this will work to increase the quality of teaching, open more people up to the possibility of attending seminary, and also increase the level of free theological resources available to pastors.

  29. David Hoffelmeyer says:

    Dude’s who go to a solid seminary and engage themselves fully in learning, while serving actively in a local church will be better-prepared to minister to most westerners. Some who haven’t gone to seminary will inevitably have suspicions of the seminary system. I have my share of problems with it (for example, I’m not a fan of loan debt). However, I’m so thankful for the training I’m receiving from my seminary, and I know I wouldn’t have engaged the Bible and the world of biblical interpretation at this breadth or depth without help from godly Christian pastor-scholars. And to the above guys looking for proof-texts to support the seminary system, you might want to sit in on an introductory class at a seminary. They’ll talk about the difference between proof-texting and responsible hermeneutics.

  30. Paul Janssen says:

    Guys who don’t find biblical warrant for seminary: do you drive cars? The bible knows horses and wagons, but it does not warrant the use of internal combustion engines. I assume you commented with a computer? Cite the passage where that is allowed. You get the point. The argument is fundamentally invalid.

  31. Randy Alcorn says:

    Good post, Kevin. With all your well-stated qualifications, I’m surprised it is considered controversial.

  32. Rick White says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful post, Kevin. Some seminaries are excellent at the purposes you stated. I see the following as needed changes that will warm me back up to seminary education:

    1. Master degree work that does not exceed the 30-40 hours. This is the most unreasonable requirement of seminaries. Most Masters level degrees take no more than this.

    2. Practitioner professors. I realize there is always a need for permanent/career professors. But we need FAR more local pastors and church leaders teaching classes on a regular basis. Their experience and teaching ability should be leveraged better.

    3. Finally, seminaries regularly asking the local church what it needs. Seminaries are para-church. Sometimes I feel like the seminaries want the church to feed/serve them…when it should be the other way around.

  33. Hal says:

    I don’t know about other traditions, but the Southern Baptist seminaries belong to the church. They exist to train ministers to serve in our churches. A few decades ago, there was a problem with the seminaries becoming ivory towers of liberal theo-babble, but in the past 25 years or so, our schools have returned to their original purpose.

    In the Baptist schools I attended (university and seminary), our professors stayed involved in church life–usually serving as interim pastors, but often serving full time.

  34. Rick White says:

    Hal –

    The SBC seminary near us (our church is SBC) is definitely not liberal, but their liberalism has been replaced by a brand of fundamentalism so rigid that students of varying camps (especially reformed students) get belittled and treated with contempt. Plus, it has essentially traded “ivory tower” status for “political power base” status.

    I’m glad your experience has been positive. I would like ours to be more positive in the future. Another local seminary that’s non affiliated is extremely friendly to the local church and the president himself very approachable and a listener that responds to local church needs. So there ARE positive experiences in my world…just not from our SBC seminary.

  35. Norman says:

    Thank you for your article, it was very informative. I understand what you are saying about being among others when learning. It is a necessary part testing of growth I believe. Though I’m not a pastor I have often thought about it. But I believe my calling is more behind the scene, sharing one on one through the word of God.

  36. steve says:

    Yes, go if you can but be led by God ;) I was led by God’s call to go into the mission field about five years ago. I had a good opportunity to attend a top seminary in So. California but couldn’t clearly define which program was right for me. I hadn’t ever preached but wanted to but also doubted my ability to succeed the academic rigor, which would take academia to a whole new level for me, even though I already had a master’s degree in another discipline and longed to go into long-term missions. I had a checklist of questions and confirmations that I went through first with God, and in the end I knew I had the green light from God as a missionary.

    As it turned out, the open door from God and His blessing was the only commission I got. I was turned down, prior to leaving, by a mission sending agency and when it came “go time” my church just told me that they weren’t focusing on missions abroad and didn’t support me. I tried to stay in contact with email and newsletters to my church as well as a veteran missionary that I had counseled with, informally, for about 2 years, but after no acknowledgement of any kind, not even a confirmation of prayer support, I grew discouraged, thus neglecting any further contact with the church in the USA.”What happened to ‘the harvest is great but the workers are few’?” I complained to friends and God.

    Since living abroad, I’ve learned a lot about myself and the ways God has called me to serve him. I’ve learned much about the culture I minister in and have gone on the preaching circuit, which was the highlight of my fist two years in missions abroad. Still, I’ve continually “missed” opportunities to move into leadership roles in the local churches and often feel very ineffective, in part due to a lack of disciplined study (I could just pick up book, should time allow, but is that the same as the seminary journey? I don’t think so). The reason I was turned down is likely because God wanted to take me on this journey and learn to trust Him implicitly. But as far as organizational support goes, it’s likely because I don’t have a formal degree in Bible of any kind. Don’t get me wrong, I attended 2 major Christian universities and walk closely with God every day and work hard to understand truth based on what is written in the Bible.

    With all of this in mind, I confess that I groan almost daily at not having, yet, studied at a solid seminary. I’m certain that if I had that in my hands now, after nearly five years in the field, my ministry would really be accelerating now. I’ve learned the culture, I’ve learned the language, I’ve learned to walk more closely with God every day, but in support of Mr. DeYoung’s admonitions and in support of seminary study, I have often felt near to being crushed by not having a seminary degree.

    Now, here are some additional facts: I can’t afford it nor expose my family to the debt that I’d incur with five or more years of academic study, in fact, I still wrestle with a $70,000 loan from my past university studies. I have moved into a new season of leadership within a large church and feel the momentum increasing. Clearly a hybrid program online is my only option, but again, who’d pay for the flight and accommodations for the residency requirements? I live on the other side of the planet from an American seminary–and I know that most local seminaries just don’t stack up–I’m going after truth not just a degree. I know that if I’m to attend seminary then my wife too should be allowed that privilege, as I sincerely believe even seminary can drive a family apart (and she is a very gifted leader), so how can we take the seminary journey together?

    What I’m sharing here is my hope and burden to one day study at seminary but also give my best to the ministry I’ve cultivated while in the mission field. I’m also agreeing that the expense is quite prohibitive for a devoted servant in many cases. Now, I’m not suggesting that Christian universities or seminaries are over priced, I know that they do their best to be competitive and support their professors and their calling as an institution that serves Jesus “business.” It’s like going to seminary is a theological question that can only be debated but not resolved. I will also admit that I’ve lived so far below the margins over the past years (without complaint of hunger due to the care and provision of Jesus), that a daily food bill rising above even $10 for five people seems very extreme to me. I wonder how I can justify a $1500 bill for just one class out of, likely, 40 plus seminary classes! Yet, as a missionary, I truly believe that God will make it possible. So isn’t that the point anyway ;)

    Blessings in Christ to everyone wrestling with whether or not to enter in to ministry. I’ll loosely quote Joel Olsteen here, because I feel this in my heart and spirit, “God has your yes!” Just remain faithful. I’m going to do my best to believe in the blessing and stay faithful to serving with or without the degree ;)

    Steve

  37. Sean says:

    I disagree. Many people have mentioned the cost. That is a significant reason. As for Kevin’s comment about the languages: You can learn a large chunk of the languages on your own. There are very cheap online programs that will teach you Greek 1+2 and Hebrew 1+2 for around 2,000 (BibleMesh). There are probably even free programs. I taught myself enough Greek to read the New Testament in about 2 years with free online resources. The languages are very important, I would have reservations with anyone entering pastoral ministry without a working knowledge of the languages. Pastoral skills are probably best acquired through mentorship. If Pastors would actively search for the next man in the congregation this would not be as big of a problem. I am currently taking seminary courses through Knox with my G.I. Bill. But the Church certainly does not NEED seminaries. Once we start saying the Church NEEDS something that God does not say it NEEDS faith has left the building.

  38. Mikee says:

    σκύβαλον

  39. I’m resurrecting an old thread, and if that’s unacceptable, I’ll understand the deletion of my post.
    As a full-time minister in a Christian Church, I am going back to school for my Master’s Degree via a distance learning program.
    My intention is to stay in full-time ministry for life, God-willing. With that in mind, continuing education through a long-time, respected, unaccredited seminary can meet that need for 5-10x less money. I’m presently attending Summit Theological Seminary (Peru, IN), a respected seminary of 30+ years who has awarded Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees that have resulted in regular placement of their graduates in located ministries, if they are not already located (most of Summit’s students are full-time ministers already). In many churches (especially the meteoric rise of non-denominational churches of all flavors), an accredited degree is irrelevant. Many of the unaccredited schools even have agreements with accredited schools where their credits will transfer, if an accredited degree is important to you.
    I believe the future of preacher training is going to be church-based, with support of low-cost, well-respected, unaccredited seminaries, graduating ready evangelists with no educational debt at all. It’s my path, and it’s working for me.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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