Seminary still a valuable option

In a culture that values action, some may view the traditional seminary model for church leaders as a thing of the past. What value could there be in spending a great deal of time studying 'musty old books in an ivory tower,' while the work of the Church exists all around? Is there any value in seminary education?

What if you were to ask the same question about medical training? Surely there's a value in that. A paramedic may be perfectly competent at driving the ambulance, and she might even know whereabouts the appendix is on the human body. She might even be able to get her hands on a scalpel, if asked nicely. But chances are, most people with appendicitis would still consult a surgeon; someone who has actually trained for the job.

So what makes seminary different from other professions? Why might modern congregations see less value in biblical and theological training for their leaders?

"People are viewing theological education differently. Sometimes churches think they can educate people better—I don't think they're right," says Stanley Porter, president of McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario.

According to Porter, many individual churches tend to shape their 'students' in the mould of that particular church identity or ethos, whereas a seminary provides better care and attention to diversity among Church and theological thought, something that Porter still sees value in doing.

"A church just simply cannot provide competence in biblical languages, for example," he says. "If you're going to stand up in the pulpit, and you're going to say 'this is what God says,' you really need to make sure that you're being responsible and really know what God is saying."

The best schools, Porter says, are expected to have a current understanding of biblical and theological thought, contrary to the concerns of seminaries being a place where people simply read those musty old books.

"There are some books that are old—the Bible's one of them—but hardly musty," says Porter. Could we add something like: Classic theological volumes are studied side by side with newer works, providing a breadth of learning that's hard to come by in a local church.

During his 12 years as pastor of two churches in southern Manitoba, August Konkel felt the desire to become more biblically literate to better serve his ministry. Since then he has received invitations to teach at theological institutions, translate Scripture, and write articles for Bible dictionaries, invitations that he accepted because of their usefulness in his own journey of encouraging growth in Christians.

"The Apostle Paul, in terms of spiritual growth and development, was occupied with our minds," says Konkel, president emeritus of Providence University College and Theological Seminary and Old Testament professor at McMaster Divinity College.

Several biblical examples from Paul's ministry focus their attention on clear-thinking and not conforming to culture, another trend that is all-too-readily happening in churches, as well as among Christian leaders, says Konkel.

Seminary provides a thoughtful guide for those who wish to be the hands and feet of the Church, he says. "You won't be much of hands and you won't be much of feet if they're not governed by a mind that knows how to direct them."

A big part of what church leaders do in their work is counsel members of their congregation, something that can be enhanced through a seminary education. "Part of seminary education is to try to at least understand how pastoral work…works," Konkel says, things such as shepherding, encouraging, helping, listening and counselling.

Some leaders may look at seminary as unnecessary, having already experienced some degree of success in church leadership or ministry. However, Konkel notes the value of added training to complement skills that leaders may already possess.

"If you have an aptitude and you are gifted, you can benefit enormously from training, and you lose an awful lot by failing to pursue it."

Though society may look more favourably upon action over careful thought, seminary can be a good, and even necessary place for leaders to develop their minds for leadership roles.

"To me, seminary is [and] simply should be indispensible for pastors," Konkel says. "The development of the mind is absolutely essential to everything that the Church is about—and that's what the seminary is about."

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About the author

Rob Horsley is the former Managing Editor of ChristianWeek.