Is Seminary Relevant? The Contra Argument

mattIt was entirely coincidental that within about a week of each other, two seminarians would write blog posts on the relevancy of seminary education, one arguing in favor of it, the other against it. I contacted them soon after to see if they would be willing to submit their posts to the site so we could engage a wider audience on the issue, to which they agreed. Yesterday we heard from Tyler Braun, and today we hear from Matt Cleaver on why seminary education is no longer relevant. Matt is a student at Luther Seminary enrolled in their Distributive Learning program and the youth director at Hope Lutheran Church in the Dallas area. Here are Matt’s thoughts.

As someone who is in seminary and also interested in how to best train and equip church leaders, I found Tyler’s post about the relevance of seminaries quite interesting while at the same time disagreeing profoundly. I believe traditional full-time residential programs that require someone to relocate themselves to a brick-and-mortar institution for a period of 2-5 years are becoming increasingly irrelevant and unhelpful:

  1. Seminaries remove people from ministry contexts. The traditional seminary model has certain values that undermine local gatherings and remove people unnecessarily from their faith communities. Field experience is not the same as long-term ministry.
  2. The process of seminary is no longer effective in preparing for ministry. When the dominant church model was oral proclamation, reasoned argument, and apologetics, perhaps sitting in classrooms studying the minutiae of supralapsarianism, practicing speaking skills, and honing rhetoric was helpful. Today, however, we are moving past such a model and moving towards organic, relational, flat styles of ecclesiology and mission, making the seminary model less relevant.
  3. Denominations are becoming a thing of the past. Many seminaries are bastions of denominational conformity and preservation. Unfortunately for them, most of today’s younger generation could care less about denominations.
  4. The future of ecclesiology is in the priesthood of all believers. Many future church leaders will be bi-vocational, making a dedicated graduate degree impossible. Dedicating full-time graduate level study to something that doesn’t pay the bills is not a practical option.
  5. Seminaries are about credentialing as much as training. For many, a degree from a seminary is a prerequisite to apply to many professional church positions. The priority is not on finding the best preparation for ministry, but on opening potential doors.
  6. The cost is too high. Especially in mainline churches where churches are shrinking, our churches are less financially viable and pastors are coming out of seminary with more and more debt, such a trend is not sustainable. We are bankrupting our churches by making them pay for pastors’ debt burdens.
  7. Resources are becoming available for little to no cost. The open-source movement is beginning to catch on in areas other than software. This trend will eventually mean that the best scholarship and ministry resources will be published for the world to see for free, making it very difficult to convince someone to pay thousands of dollars for access to cutting-edge thinking and research.
  8. Technology has made brick-and-mortar institutions less important. With the advent of broadband internet and its related technologies we are not bound by geography when it comes to learning and training. Workshops, seminars, online conferences, and whole semester-long classes can be done over the internet. Relocating to do such a thing makes less and less sense as time goes on.
  9. You learn too much too quickly. Trying to learn necessary skills and theological background in one concentrated time of study makes it more difficult to implement the lessons you are learning in the classroom. A more sustainable model would be to take one or two classes at a time, take steps to implement those classes, and then move to the next topic.
  10. Seminaries usurp the role of the church. This is my biggest problem with seminary programs. Why do we have to go off somewhere for 2-4 years to study theology? What are our churches doing? Shouldn’t the church be the place where people are taught, trained, and released for ministry? The fact that training has been outsourced to the seminaries is a sign of a failure of the church. The future of ecclesiology will see churches as places for equipping their congregations for mission and make seminaries ultimately irrelevant for training church leaders.

Now, the above list is quite forward-looking. Maybe seminaries are not completely irrelevant today, but at the very least, seminary is becoming irrelevant, quickly. The seminaries that see this coming and adapt might survive and be able to adjust. But those who stay stuck in a model that is 150 years old are bound to fail.

My experience at Luther Seminary in a non-traditional degree program has significantly shaped the way I think about the future of training church leaders. Luther Seminary is one of the institutions that is taking innovative steps to adjust to the changing world with their Distributed Learning program and by offering Online Seminars to average church leaders. However, I think they are taking the first baby steps to really help people rethink what it means to train church leaders. I hope they and others will continue to push the envelope and not get behind the curve of cultural and ecclesiological development.

Lastly, it would be a tragedy for there to be no form of Christian scholarship. I hope there are always places for people to get Ph.D.’s in various fields of study, but I believe that the future of equipping and training people for local congregational ministry has already begun the shift away from the brick-and-mortar institutions towards the local church.

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Written by jake-belder
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