Who needs seminaries? I sure didn’t. At least I didn’t think I did.
Upon graduating from a Christian college with a high honors degree in religion and philosophy, my calling to pastoral ministry was sure, my training substantial, and my ministry experience formidable. As a nondenominational fundapentacharisgelical (NDF), I felt confident that many congregations would embrace someone with my credentials and ordain me to office.
My preacher’s-kid-fiancé-turned-wife-a-week-after-graduation felt called to support such a spousal vocation. But Barbie prevailed on me to do something a bit less rigorous for our first few years together. Reluctantly I deferred and opted for service in a Christian bookstore.
While there I helped split one NDF congregation and launch a new one, fueled in part by hints that they would call me to the pastorate as soon as they could afford to pay me. I preached often with no compensation, but I just knew that any day now they’d see that I was God’s chosen instrument to lead them into glorious, kingdom-building ministry. After two years of any-day-now languishing, one older couple offered to help put the three of us (a new baby in tow) through seminary. Others in the congregation contributed, adding more fuel to our fire.
I knew I didn’t really need a lot of seminary studies, certainly not the M.Div. pedigree. But one year could give me two semesters of Hebrew to piggyback on my three undergrad semesters of Greek. And I could better hone my biblical interpretation skills. So I matriculated, registering for the courses I’d need for that one year there.
While visiting back home on Christmas break, the church board (a half-dozen young adult men) asked me to consider coming back to be their pastor at the end of the school year. What should have been music to my ears didn’t sound such a sweet melody. The church’s figurehead patriarch believed one cannot truly lead a church until his (sorry, no “hers” considered) 30th birthday — I was coming up on my 25th — and I knew his resistance could thwart the success of such a calling. More importantly, that first semester had exposed a lot of other shortcomings in my supposedly “substantial … formidable” training. Still steep ahead was the learning curve leading to ministry competence.
The board members found themselves an experienced pastor. I continued my studies as guided by the seminary’s curriculum. Three years after enrolling I joined a church staff as apprentice to a seasoned pastor who could help further hone my skills. A couple of years later I was ordained, and a few years still later I enrolled again in a seminary — this time to remediate still other shortcomings — eventually earning the D.Min. degree. My studies continue.
So what’s so great about such an education? In the simplest of terms, a good seminary trains scholars in the “then and there” and equips practitioners for the “here and now.” That is, on the one hand, it provides future church leaders an opportunity to become conversant about the primary texts of our faith — the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments — and the key secondary texts — the writings of the great thinkers through centuries of Christian thought. A well-educated seminary graduate can teach the faith once delivered.
On the other hand, a strong seminary equips its students with tools that will help them to grasp, assess, incorporate and/or oppose the ideas arising in their ministry contexts, and to broaden that understanding by comparison with lessons from other places and times. And it teaches the students how to help their future congregations apply such deep and lofty ideas in their everyday lives.
Easy, right? There’s a reason why most other fields’ master’s degrees can be earned in one or two years, but the M.Div. takes three or four. The ability of the pastor to converge the “then and there” with the “here and now” — and to do so fueled by a heart aflame with gratitude for the amazing grace of Christ — is at once both an impossible task and a stupendous miracle.
Reformed Christians are not content to entrust our churches to leaders who fall short in any of those duties. Hence seminaries. Where would we be without them?