July 12, 2020

iMonk Classic: Those Magnificent Young Men in Their Pastoring Machines (2)

Part two of a series on pastoral ministry, featuring a classic post by Michael Spencer

Those Who Can’t, Teach

My own seminary training was an example. I came from a church where the pastor was the preacher. His primary task was to pray, prepare and preach. Beyond that, pastoral care of the flock was expected, and he spent a sizable portion of his time in homes and hospitals. In this model, a minister’s worth was really measured in loyalty to his preaching, a reasonable number of baptisms and how many funerals he was asked to do.

I attended Southern Seminary in Louisville in 1979, 82-84. The pastoral track was a completely schizoid and confused experience. The Biblical studies professors urged us to become Bible scholars of the higher critical variety. The theology faculty was throwing us the latest party from Europe. But you couldn’t preach this stuff and the preaching classes never interacted with what we learned in Biblical studies and theology. It avoided it. People who didn’t avoid it produced sermons that were sure to get them fired from any normal Baptist church outside the seminary’s zone of “acclimated” churches.

Meanwhile, the pastoral care classes were giving us the nonsense of secular psychology and nothing from a remotely Christian model. In classes called “Leadership,” we learned systems theory and why we should work with social workers and government agencies. (All that was missing was a trip to Rainbow -PUSH.) Evangelism and Missions were the shabbiest aspects of the curriculum, since they were “conservative” interests in a school that was trying to produce liberal scholars and had accumulated all the resulting contempt for whatever was most simple and obvious in ministry. If you weren’t torn to pieces by this medusa of ministry identities, there was a “supervised experience in ministry” that put you in a weekly group with a “real” pastor to see what the real world was like. Fortunately, my supervisor was a good one (he took us bowling), and it did give me some hope, because they guy never once made any references to his seminary education.

The icing on the cake was what we called the “Exit” class, a ditty that everyone took on their way out the door. This class was intended to teach you how to marry, bury, baptize, serve the Lord’s Supper and be a for-real, actual preacher. (Seminary in a sack.) But the liberal pastor teaching my exit class used every session to talk to us about counseling, stress and good resources for planning the calendar year. We never actually got around to learning how to do any of those things a competent pastor should know. So I graduated seminary not knowing a thing about how to marry, bury, baptize or serve the Lord’s Supper. To learn that, I went back to my pastor at home, who never finished college.

It is safe to say that, at the time I went through seminary, it was a roll of the dice for the average church to get a seminary trained pastor. Who knew if you got Brother Joe or Paul Tillich? I sat under and worked with many of these men. It was not a pretty picture. In my opinion and experience, the ordinary, uneducated, bi-vocational pastor did a much better job than the men “equipped” by seminary. Considering the vast confidence churches put in their denominational schools, this was a travesty and an embarrassment.

Has anything gotten better?

The Do-It-Yourself Pastor

Today, Southern has addressed these problems, and I am impressed with what I see graduating from my alma mater. Still, the evolution of the modern pastorate has been deeply effected by the failure of seminaries to produce pastors who are balanced and competent. The rise of a new kind of pastor in the current era of Willow Creek and Saddleback Valley is an understandable evangelical response to this failure, but it is a solution with both good possibilities and deep flaws. We are still a long way from knowing how to reliably find and form a minister.

The question of an “educated ministry” has been with the church for centuries. It is not a question that is directly answered from scripture. When the issue was most hotly debated, the primary training of an educated pastor was what we today would consider a broad undergraduate education, with training in Biblical languages and guided reading in theology. Actual practice in being the pastor of a church never entered the picture in the training of a man like Jonathan Edwards. In my opinion, the idea that a man needs a 96- hour Master’s degree, like my M.Div, to be a trained pastor, is ridiculous, wasteful and impractical.

Today, the trend is toward churches and mega-churches educating and training their own ministers. The major shift is towards churches saying that training, education and mentoring are possible within a congregation, in either formal or informal settings. The distance between seminary and church is more pronounced every year, as more churches use internships, institutes, Bible schools, mentoring and the Internet to train pastors and ministers. It is too early to say if this will produce a better minister, but there are good reasons to be hopeful. It would be hard to do worse than the seminary approach.

I fully endorse these options, and believe they are particularly promising for the church in the rest of the world, where college or seminary are not often possible or practical. My own Southern Baptist Founder’s movement, which is generously represented at several of our seminaries, is starting an on–line educational hub, where students can study without relocation. Looking at my own education, I wish I could have gone to a general academic institution to study languages and the theological and historical background of the Bible. But by staying at seminary, much of my training for the work of the pastorate was wasted on courses and material that were mostly useless and irrelevant to the task. I would have profited greatly from being mentored by any number of modestly educated men who had a pastor’s heart and skills.

The void of pastoral training today is being filled, but not by effective pastoral formation. Today’s pastor is increasingly the product of the “seeker-sensitive” movement represented by Willow Creek and Saddleback Valley Churches and the thousands of churches who follow their principles. With a barrage of publishing, seminars, networks, conferences and resources, the seeker-sensitive movement has built upon the momentum of the church growth movement, and is a revolution within American Christianity. Much attention has been given to this movement’s impact upon worship, but I believe its influence upon the pastorate is just as important.

Comments

  1. As a seminary grad, I have mixed feelings about this post. On the one hand, it is true that while navigating the minefield of church leadership, one sees that most of the mines are not academic in nature. But still…

    If I don’t give in to many of the tendencies decried in this blog (in other words, if my model is Tozer, not Hybels), it is mainly due to spending years sitting under godly scholars of the Word. De-emphasizing graduate work in theology for Pastor’s will produce more Osteens, not less. The solution is to improve seminary education, not to minimize it.

    • I just realized Tozer never went to seminary, which pretty much kills my whole point…(In my defense, it was 4:30 in the morning when I wrote this, and I was hurrying out the door to visit a parishioner in a distant hospital).

      In the words of Gilda Radner: Never Mind.

    • Richard Hershberger says

      “De-emphasizing graduate work in theology for Pastor’s will produce more Osteens, not less.”

      Precisely. Forewarned is forearmed. It’s not as if this is a new heresy. The Devil isn’t that creative.

      That being said, I’m not sure how much we can generalize about what seminaries do. I have never attended seminary, but I am somewhat familiar with the Lutheran (or at least ELCA) seminary curriculum. It has the academic work discussed in this post, but also studies of more practical matters. There also is an intern year in the middle, where the seminarian spends a year in an actual church under the mentorship of its pastor.

  2. I didn’t go to seminary to learn how to be a pastor. I went to gain a better understanding of the Bible, theology, church history, etc. I went for the academics. Why? Because a pastor needs to be conversant with these things. The wide range of issues with which congregants interact means that a competent pastor needs to know what scripture says, know what the Church has always believed, and be able to articulate those truths to the congregant in the face of the many challenges confronting us.

    G. K. Chesterton in his work Orthodoxy said, “Thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot.” For my money, seminary helps curb the tendency to think that I can alone understand scripture by exposing me to a wide and deep array of Christian thinkers. This was what I wanted from seminary, and this is what I got.

    MIchael was right about the weaknesses though. I learned to shepherd by having mentors and doing it in the context of a church. A class room can not teach this, but the class room is still necessary.

    I echo Daniel’s thoughts above. Less theological training is not the solution. IMO many (most?) kooky movements to come out of evangelicalism are the result of a lack of theological training, and reading the bible in isolation.

    • MIchael was right about the weaknesses though. I learned to shepherd by having mentors and doing it in the context of a church. A class room can not teach this, but the class room is still necessary.

      Excellent way of holding onto one truth, without letting go of the other; very well said, and AMEN.

      GregR

  3. Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

    I’m currently taking my capstone class for a Masters of Christian Ministry at Wayland Baptist University. It’s been a very good graduate program. It’s a 36-hour degree with a strong emphasis on Biblical studies and practicum. In addition to basic undergrad level surveys of the OT and the NT (required of every Wayland student, regardless of degree plan), the 12 classes I took were: Christian Worship, Latter Prophets, Preaching, Historical Theology, Psychology of Religion, Pentateuch and Former Prophets, Christian Ministry, Life and Letters of Paul, Seminar on Age Group (Adult) Christian Education, Church History, Biblical Interpretation, and Christian Theology.

    The program was basically designed to either serve as the first third or so of an M.Div (with students continuing their education at a seminary by transferring the MCM hours). or to be a stripped-down alternative to an M.Div. Since I’m seeking ordination in the Anglican Church of North America, my bishop has basically called for some additional denomination-specific independent study to supplement my Wayland MCM. Also, the Anglican tradition is to have prospective priests first serve a year or so as a deacon as a way of providing a form of on-the-job-training prior to turning them loose in their own congregations.

  4. As the worship and music coordinator at a newly formed church, I find your ideas interesting. I think we do need Pastors who know the Word of God, how to counsel, baptize, marry, and bury, as well as preach, and teach. However, I feel that seminaries have often failed Pastors, and that churches are over focused on Pastoral leadership. Jesus gave his 12 disciples three years of training, and one failed. What do our seminaries do that compare with that three year training? Are Pastors the only people that can preach, teach, counsel, pray and study God’s word?

  5. “Today, the trend is toward churches and mega-churches educating and training their own ministers. The major shift is towards churches saying that training, education and mentoring are possible within a congregation, in either formal or informal settings…I fully endorse these options, and believe they are particularly promising for the church in the rest of the world, where college or seminary are not often possible or practical.”

    But then it says: “The void of pastoral training today is being filled, but not by effective pastoral formation. Today’s pastor is increasingly the product of the “seeker-sensitive” movement represented by Willow Creek and Saddleback Valley Churches and the thousands of churches who follow their principles.”

    Are not the very same seeker-sensative churches the same ones doing this new training?

  6. David Cornwell says

    The seminary I attended, while not perfect, didn’t fall into the mold that Michael is speaking about here. It was better integrated in that it’s studies flowed toward a common goal. I went to seminary in my mid-thirties, which was in the middle of the 1970’s. The chapel services were one of the integrating factors, well attended by students and faculty. I was more mature at that age and ready to be serious in studies. Most classes were intended to eventually serve a practical purpose. We had a class, early on, in worship. The prof, a Free Methodist man, strongly believed in certain liturgical elements and the church year. This shocked some of the students. Even things like how to old a baby for baptism were discussed. (I already knew how to hold a baby).

    Church growth ideas were just beginning to sprout however. In the beginning I accepted a lot of these as very good ideas. The conference that I joined were pushing them as part of a plan to turn the declining denominational membership around. Finally this became almost an obsession from the leaders. Certificates were given in various categories, according to church size. It became almost a contest to see which church, which pastor could outdo the other. In the process, I felt that traditional pastoral concerns became secondary, not primary. Later in the process radical changes in worship were pushed, not for the better in my opinion. Two services were recommended on Sunday mornings, one traditional, one contemporary. Still lead by one pastor in most cases. Guess what suffered? Pastors who succeeded at this were promoted. Conference “experts” would visit local churches to help sit goals and analyze the methods of the pastor. All this added another stressful element to what at one time was considered a calling.

    Guess what– after all these years the denominational decline continues. My friends tell me that various gimmicks are still recommended in continuing pushes to turn things around. To me this is where the church has lost its way.

    I’m not sure what my old seminary has done with these things or how they emphasize them.

    To me the whole problem and the proposed solutions are how the church has lost its way.

  7. David Cornwell says

    Apologies for grammatical and spelling errors above.

  8. are the seminaries producing “educated” pastors? Yes
    are they given the tools for “practical” pastoral skills? not alway. my experience has been No.
    give me a “People” Pastor instead of a “educated” pastor any day. let him walk with us, we can always read a book. 🙂

  9. I am reluctant to comment before I know what parts 3 and 4 contain. But I will say this: Becoming a good pastor doesn’t begin with seminary training. It begins with a vocation.

    There have been some good pastors who came out of not- very-good seminaries. And some not-too-good pastors have come out of perfectly decent schools. The difference is their vocation. Those who have a true vocation know the answers even if their seminary ignored the issue or even if their seminary taught them wrong. The good church leaders I’ve known through the years were the ones who, as David Cornwell puts it above, “already knew how to hold a baby.”

    I imagine most seminaries help the young pastor who has a true vocation. I know several examples of good pastors who are wiser than their seminary teachers, and who are grateful for what they learned even thought they’ve gone beyond it. I imagine those same seminaries encourage the worst in the young businessmen and entertainers to seek success through religion, and who’ve never gone beyond the successful crutches (“Try to sound like Garrison Keillor”) that they heard in seminary.

  10. I find that in many evangelical churches, particularly those that are more in the charismatic vein, young people who want to be pastor often go to denominational Bible colleges rather than seminary. Some of them may go to seminary down the road, but it’s not all that common. So in that case you have kids graduating from these schools with both a sub-par theological education, and really, as sub-par education in general. I’ve always thought it would be much better for people who want to go into full-time ministry to get a degree in something else before going to seminary. Perhaps I am too much of an idealist, but I still think one of the main purpose of getting a college education should be teaching to think critically about life in general, not just giving them skills in one narrow field. I just don’t like the trend in treating college as not much more than vocational skill. After all, a great many people end up doing work in field they didn’t go to school for. I’ve also seen far to many young pastors lose jobs at churches and have no other skills to provide for themselves.

    I do believe theological education is important, and I would love to see a more robust theology in general from pastors. What I see more often, though, is pastors coming out of Bible school to be youth pastors with the hope of working their way up to be a senior pastor someday. Unfortunately, a lot of their theology doesn’t really mature past that level.

    • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

      I ended up getting my Bachelor’s in education at a public university and and finishing up my Master’s in Christian Ministry at a private Baptist university. They’ve got two Master’s programs in the religion department: one that’s more professional in nature (the MCM) and one that’s more academic in nature (MA in religion). They’ve got some Bachelor’s programs in the religion department. Because it’s an accredited university that offers more than ministry degrees, it seems that the programs are a bit more well-rounded than the bible college route even if they’re not as comprehensive as the seminary route.

    • “I still think one of the main purpose of getting a college education should be teaching to think critically about life in general, not just giving them skills in one narrow field. I just don’t like the trend in treating college as not much more than vocational skill.”

      +1000

  11. br. thomas says

    I have met wonderful, deep, caring and gifted pastors; I also have met arrogant, self-righteous and overbearing pastors on a mission to build their church, often with little regard to the welfare of those who sit in the pews (those who don’t agree with the pastor’s “vision” are usually viewed and treated as hindrances or as unspiritual); many of these evangelical pastors function as the CEO of their congregation. Probably most of these two types of pastors (and most of everyone in between) have had seminary training.

    I think that it’s unrealistic to believe that seminary training (as discussed above) can shape men and women into the kind of servants that model a Jesus-shaped spirituality. Theological training without genuine spiritual depth is harmful – especially for the recipients of that kind of leadership.

    If an informational approach is not sufficient in shaping average church-attending men and women into the likeness of Christ, then why should seminary training do the same for potential pastors?

    In a book I am reading, the author asks why the Christian church routinely avoids many of Jesus’ major teachings: a simple lifestyle, caring for the needy, love of enemies, mercy, not valuing and seeking of status, power and possesions. Instead, he suggests that what we tend to emphasize are things like: intellectual beliefs and moral superiority stances that ask very little of us: the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth, the creation debate, the atonement theory, abortion, gay-rights issues, etc. The he makes this point: “the ego diverts your attention from anything that would ask YOU to change, to righteous causes that invariably ask OTHERS to change.”

    If this is true (I think it is) then could the problem lie with the way men and women are educated in our seminaries?

    • David Cornwell says

      “…asks why the Christian church routinely avoids many of Jesus’ major teachings: a simple lifestyle, caring for the needy, love of enemies, mercy, not valuing and seeking of status, power and possesions.”

      Excellent point, as it your entire post. It seems as if theological theories which produce propositional arguments are more important than the simple teachings of Jesus.

    • Soooo…..what IS that book you are reading ?

      GregR

      • br. thomas says

        Greg,

        The book is by Richard Rohr: “The Naked Now – Learning to See as the Mystics See”. The title is a bit misleading since Rohr deals with very relevant issues in the church and life in general.

        I have to admit that portions of the book are quite provocative for me, but in a healthy way. I don’t recommend the book to individuals who are black & white in their world view or who may be uncomfortable with someone using examples from other religious traditions. But, in my opinion, he is “spot-on” with much that ails the Christian church.

  12. Doesn’t sound like seminary is much different than a secular university in actually preparing you for the intricacies of a life in your given vocation. I graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, but I don’t think that even once in 25 years I’ve whipped out the first law of thermodynamics and derived an answer to a real-world problem.

    I also had to learn the business world equivalents of “marry, bury, baptize and serve the Lord’s supper” through experience and the mentor-ship of those that had gone before me.

  13. Randy Thompson says

    I am grateful for my seminary education, although I’m also aware of its shortcomings.

    One drawback of a seminary education is that you learn a new vocabulary (jargon, if you will) that can very easily become a whole different language than your congregation speaks. The good thing about a seminary education is that you learn to think differently–theologically. Typically, however, your congregation doesn’t–at least not in the traditional old line churches.

    Looking back, I think I would happily give up one whole year of seminary to have been mentored by a godly, wise pastor.

  14. Truth be told I’m weary of people who go to many Bible colleges, seminaries etc.. Too many of these places are closed in their thinking, removed from the world and not allow many views for doubt or differing views. Likewise I’d suggest that many of these Christian schools/seminaries/Bible colleges are too fixated at times with indoctrination and trying to fit people into a mold. God help the person who may have a different take on the Bible or original sin, etc…

    Biggest problem I forsee is that we are in a post modern world. Christianity is dead and dieing in large parts of the country. We are going to be like Europe in a few generations. And many seminaries, Bible colleges, etc.. are failing to prepare of train people on how to live, co-exist, work and fucntion in a post-modern society. Today’s young people are not going to accept the answers that their parents accepted.

    Call me crazy…but that’s how I see it….

    • @Eagle: I ;understand your points, but it is just as easy to be a clone outside of seminary as inside. I grew up, spiritually, in a church movement that scoffed at seminary, but cranked out the clones faster than Steve Taylor could spin around. Clone-ism is an ideology, an approach that knows no academic boundary. And as the first two or three posters elegantly said, we need MORE (and better) education, not less to avoid some of the serious error we see rampant today.

      I think Michael Spencer’s experience was real and instructive, but beware of generalizing from it: and I’m not pointing this last comment @ you exactly, Eagle. PAX
      GregR

  15. It seems to me that Paul was satisfied to know that the Truth he received did not come from men:

    “For I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin. For I did not receive it from a man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” – Galatians 1:11-12

    It seems very odd to me that we have completely turned from this way of thinking…now we are satisfied to learn from men that we don’t really even know.

    • Paul was also a very educated man, though. I don’t think evangelical need to go any further down the anti-education path than they already are.

      • Student of Gamaliel, as I recall. And his extensive education certainly shows up in his writings, especially in Romans. So yeah, we certainly need to be careful here. Taking this one statement and making it into a doctrine goes against the larger context of Paul’s writings.

    • My experience was such that time in study made God bigger and made me smaller. This is always a good thing.

      Why is it assumed that the learning that takes place in the seminary is “of men” but just me and my Bible alone is of God? Maybe me and my Bible alone is really just of a man, namely me.

  16. Mike (the other chaplain) says

    I thought I knew a lot at 22, and a ton at 26. By the time I was 30, I had graduated from Asbury with the MDiv. It was then that I realized how little I knew. I’m not completely satisfied with my seminary education, but I think one of the benefits of requiring an MDiv, or at least strongly encouraging it, is that it gives a young, called of God, minister-in-training, time to mature a little bit. My degree was 96 hours. I resented how long and expesive it was. I think had I jumped into a church in my 20s, when I felt God’s call to ministry, I would have failed miserably. Seminary gave me time to mature. Only in recent years, as someone much closer to 40 than to 30, have I come to appreciate the wisdom that comes with aging. By wisdom I mean realizing that I don’t know crap and need to listen better, love more generously, and rely on God wholly.