(Above: Owen Strachan, Me, Doug Sweeney, and Scott Manetsch at TEDS Graduation 2012)
One of the main hindrances to evaluating the worth of the seminary experience is the lack of distinction. The dirty secret to theological education in America is that there are good seminaries and there are bad seminaries and there are those in between.
The aforementioned statement may sound bitter or judgmental, but it is true. Some seminary experiences are better than others. And, frankly, some seminary experiences are a waste of time and dollars.
As a Buddhist, the religious diversity at HDS has challenged me to broaden my understanding of spirituality, most meaningfully through my relationships with classmates. For me, HDS has demanded and supported constant exploration, both personal and scholarly.
The aforementioned example states it quite plainly. Some seminaries are helpful for training future pastors. Others are a waste of time (not to mention an unapologetic affront to the Glory of God).
Unfortunately, in the push to get future pastors trained for church work little distinction has been made between good and bad seminary experiences. The purpose of this blog post is to take a stab at distinguishing between good seminaries, better seminaries, and the best seminaries.
Rather than point out specific seminaries as the ideal or standard, I want to come at this post by identifying some traits or characteristics that I generally look for in a healthy seminary. These traits are meant to function as guide stones for the selection process and will be listed in the form of questions. In effect, they also help to define some of the previously under-defined value that a seminary experience adds to the life of a pastor and to the life of his future congregation.
1. Do the professors have PhDs? I know what you may be thinking, “How pretentious is this guy to assume that only PhDs can be professors at a seminary?” To quote Lee Corso, “Not so fast my friend.” Seminary is an EDUCATION. Thus, you want people educating you who have been educated to the highest degree. And the highest academic degree for the field of theology is the PhD. (For education you go for the EdD, or the PsyD in psychology, or the DLitt in literature, etc…).
The PhD is distinguished from the DMin, which is a fine degree. The DMin, however, is a practical degree for pastors in the field who have done a special practical research project. Again, it is a fine degree. But you want a seminary experience where the professors have academic research degrees — the PhD. Additionally, make sure that the PhD comes from a reputable institution. If all the professors have PhDs that are from online correspondence courses, this should be a point of concern.
2. Do the professors have local church ministry experience? And furthermore, are they currently participating in local church ministry? Are your professors serving as small group leaders or sunday school teachers or elders or nursery workers?
Notice I did not ask if the professors are doing supply preaching. Supply preaching is fine, but it is often isolated and lonely and is done apart from a community of believers. Professors can often get by on this statistic, but I wouldn’t buy it. Professors should have a healthy amount of involvement in the local church.
The question you want to ask in evaluating a seminary is whether or not your PhD professors have a passion for and experience with the local church — to the extent that they are involved in local church ministry. For example, many of my professors from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School were elders or teachers in their local churches. And most of the professors at Truett Seminary in Waco attend a local church where they are active in service and leadership. What you want to avoid is seminaries where professors are dry academics who espouse a belief in the local church without actually putting that belief into a lifestyle of practice.
3. Is the seminary described as “evangelical?” In other words, is the ethos of the seminary one that would affirm and direct students to actively participate in sharing the Gospel, leading people to put faith in Jesus Christ, push for conversions, pray for revival, seek the transformation of society through salvation?
Strangely, there are a few seminaries out there that would not want to be associated with Gospel-conversion ministry. And those would be the seminaries that you will want to avoid.
4. Do they make you learn Greek and Hebrew? If the answer is “no” steer clear of the seminary. If you are wrinkling your brow in wonderment from this question, let me explain.
You can tell a lot about what a seminary believes about the value of the Bible based on the rigor of their MDiv program. If the program does not include hands-on training in Hebrew, Greek, and exegesis then it probably means that the seminary believes that original languages are not worthy enough to make it into the necessary 90+ hours for an MDiv degree (For example, see Duke Divinity School‘s admissions requirements which read on page 115, “Although it is not required, students are encouraged to take the Greek and Hebrew language sequences (New Testament 103, 104; Old Testament 115,116) and a Greek or Hebrew exegesis course.”
While there is a way to spin it so that it sounds accommodating, moves like this nonetheless indicate that a seminary believes that a pastor should not be able to know the Bible well enough to do research in the original languages. Do you want a pastor who regularly preaches and teaches and does not know the original language of the Bible? Would Martin Luther stand for this? Or John Calvin? Or John Wesley for that matter? (Shaking my head “no”).
5. Are the students actively participating in the local church? Yes, just as there are seminaries where professors are not involved in the local church there are also seminaries where the student body by-and-large does not go to church on Sundays. I was actually shocked during a recent interview with an Associate Dean of a seminary who told me that 90% of the student body does not end up in a local church until the last semester of seminary. Unfortunately this is all too common among seminaries in America. Seminary students can be some of the laziest church-goers around since they feel that they learn “bible” during their grad school classes Monday through Friday. Still yet, that excuse is flimsy.My advice is to ask around whilst on an admissions visit and see if the students from admissions are participating in a local church somewhere. If their answers are vague, run far from that seminary.
6. Do the majority of the graduates end up in local church pastoral ministry? I know this sounds crazy, but there are actually seminaries out there where pastoral ministry is considered taboo. Where MDiv students long to end up in the academy or in Washington DC and not in the local church. Again, this is an important question to ask the admissions counselors during the interview process. If the counselors spend more than 10 minutes trying to sell you on the alternative forms of ministry outside of the local church (maybe using phrases like, “What is ministry, really?” or “My ministry is to the people I work with at the GAP”), run far away from the seminary.
7. Does the seminary reject applicants for degree programs? Again, this may seem mean-spirited, but it is an important question. I want to know if a seminary has a high-value or a low-value on admissions. Do they let ANYBODY in seminary or do are they looking to help train people with a noticeable vocational calling?
Another dirty secret about seminary — all seminaries as far as I know — there are people in seminary who have no business being in seminary. There are guys in class with you who are idiots (I admit that “idiot” is a strong term, but I got really frustrated with these jokers during seminary and I refuse to use a more PC term. Apologies.) Some of them act in an idiotic manner because they do not want to grow up and have no real career goals and have applied to seminary because it is a graduate-level degree with no GRE requirement. Some of them act this way because they are operating outside of a necessary calling to ministry and therefore do not have the same perspective as those of us who are actually called to pursue training for pastoral ministry.
The good thing about the latter is that the Lord generally works those guys out of seminary. The bad thing about the former is that they generally don’t get the clue to move onto something else. The result is that you have to deal with them in class situations where you take the reading seriously whilst they joke around about the Daily Show or Colbert Report. The good news is that good seminaries have relatively few of these idiots in classes with you. However, the bad seminaries are basically schools full of these kinds of people. If you get the sense that the seminary you are looking at is this way, then run far far away.
8. Will The Professors Be Involved In My Life? I talked with a seminary professor once who said that he does not spend much time with the students, outside of class time, because he does not want his personal time with students to interfere with his evaluation of grades. I was shocked.
A subtle, but vital, mark of a healthy seminary is that the professors will take an avid interest in helping the students to grow as pastors. And this interest often takes on the form of intentional mentoring relationships. I know that at TEDS the professors lead small mentoring groups with a 1/8 ratio of professors to students. To be fair, these mentoring groups are hit and miss, depending on the personality of the professor. But I admire the spirit behind the development of these groups. It puts the pastorally-minded PhDs into direct contact with future pastors and lets the possibility of life-to-life shaping take place.
On a personal note, my seminary experience would not have been the same if David Garland, Todd Still, and Joel Weaver had not invested in me. I would not be the pastor that I am today if Roger Olson had not sat me down at Starbucks and gently chided me for attempting to shift away from premillennialism towards amillennialism because he thought “amillennialism does not give Jesus enough worship and praise.” Whether I agreed or disagreed with Roger, I am nonetheless thankful for his loving theological prodding and the impulse to speak into my life. The same goes for Scott Manetsch, John Woodbridge, and Doug Sweeney at TEDS who took me out to lunches and dinners and spent countless hours talking with me about nothing related to my dissertation. Seminary is supposed to be a time when professors play a big brother role. That is the kind of seminary experience for which one should strive.