Chicago Theological Seminary. Photo by Justin Kern/Flickr

Seminary in the modern world: why it matters

There is a crucial value to seminary far beyond mere knowledge acquisition

Several years ago a seasoned pastor, someone I respected, told me he believed that a seminary education does more harm than good. Surprised, I decided to hear him out.

“Seminary is overly academic,” he told me, “and detached from anything like real ministry. A seminary takes eager would-be servants of God and ruins them.” This pastor, in fact, asked me to name even one seminary graduate who was actually doing any good for the Kingdom (I was able to name several).

“So what would be the alternative to seminary?” I asked him. My critic favoured a program of in-church mentoring that would take key lay people and shape them as effective ministry leaders. He pointed to the fact that there are many such in-ministry training centres in North America, and I had to agree that they probably did at least some good.

So why should we continue to promote seminary education? My initial response would be to debunk the absolutely false notion that a seminary is an ivory tower of academia that ruins its students for real ministry. If such a model of seminary ever existed, it has been gone for decades.

Today’s seminary is all about ministry, and its students are deeply involved in churches and other ministry situations throughout their education. Half or more entering seminarians these days are second career people who already have deep church roots and are not about to have those roots damaged by elitist or irrelevant instruction.

I could argue that the knowledge a seminary student receives is necessary in today’s church, where the congregation is better educated than ever before and expects its pastor to share a similar level of knowledge. Other professions, after all, demand credentials at the masters level.

But there is a crucial value to seminary far beyond mere knowledge acquisition. It lies in expertise, the ability to translate knowledge into action. Seminary students develop expertise that empowers them to marshal their knowledge to serve people wisely. Today’s seminary professor helps students connect knowledge with expertise. Students develop their knowledge in such a way that it is intimately connected with expertise in the real life world in which they live.

Critical thinking, problem solving and wise application of biblical and theological truth to the challenges real people encounter are key to what it means to be seminary-educated today. Seminaries shape their students to think beyond superficialities, to apply the content they have learned to problem-solving, comforting the afflicted and helping people to grow in spiritual maturity.

While in-ministry alternatives to seminary may seek the same sorts of goals, local church leaders generally will not have the time and energy to match what concentrated study under many ministry-savvy professors can accomplish. Seminary is a crucial ramp-up to build servant leaders who can meet the complex spiritual needs of our society.

Seminary matters today. Just ask its graduates who serve here and around the world. They will tell you that their time at seminary has shaped the best years of their lives.

What do you think? Does seminary have a place in today's society? Is it still of benefit to our church leaders?

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About the author

Special to ChristianWeek

Bill Badke has been librarian of Associated Canadian Theological Schools, Langley, B.C. since 1987 and is the author of Research Strategies: Finding Your Way Through the Information Fog, 5th edition, 2014.

  • Patricia Paddey

    Seminary is not only valuable for leaders in the Church. I work as a writer and communications consultant, and I also study part-time at McMaster Divinity College. My seminary training has been absolutely invaluable in helping me better understand Christian worldview, mission and leadership. It’s also given me a greater sense of my own role in the Church’s mission, and a renewed sense of purpose and meaning in my life. I could go on and on about the benefits of seminary training that I’ve experienced–both personally and professionally. But it’s not just me. I’m surrounded by students who express similar feelings about the growth they’re undergoing as a result of their studies. I don’t know about other seminaries, but at MDC, the focus isn’t just on academic learning; it’s on “Knowing, Being and Doing.” Programs of study integrate practical ministry experience with academic learning. Perhaps that “seasoned pastor” should consider enrolling in a seminary course; he might be surprised at what he discovers.

  • jimall

    The kingdom is not in word but power, Churches all over the land sees God’s working as doctrine, busy dissecting God,his wonders and above teaching how to eat from the knowledge of good and evil. Every Sunday more speakers are up front whose words are not Spirit and life, purely intellectual, try intellectualizing to the sick, demon oppressed and the affronts of evil dictated by the one who consistently insults God. Jesus said to the Scribes and Pharisees, by today’s standards seminary studiers and well rehearsed parrots of knowledge: You hinder those entering and frustrate those who are seeking the Kingdom of God.
    These days if more than any We need to grasp from The Holy Spirit, This is eternal life to know The eternal God and Jesus whom He has sent. Church talks a whole lot about revival, wants revival etc. answer:go into the outskirts of life and fast and cry out until he comes and rains righteousness.

    If my people who are called by my name would humble themselves and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways( partaking of the knowledge of good and evil), then I’ll return and heal their land.

    The prerequisites are not stupidity but as David said I have learned to not be concerned with matters too profound for me, but have learned to wean my self like a child.

    Balance is a wise man or woman with the power of God full of faith and watch what as intended from the beginning of the ages, God can and will and only he can perform.

    Anyone who wants that will enter the school of the Holy spirit and they that know their God will be strong and carry out great exploits.

  • It is 58 years since I graduated from Asbury Seminary. I am now 88 and continue to have a semi-active ministry of preaching, teaching and writing. With great regularity I recall that I’m using resources that I either gained or developed during those three seminary years.