Is Seminary Relevant? The Contra Argument

by on May 11, 2009

mattIt was entirely coincidental that within about a week of each other, two seminarians would write blog posts on the relevancy of seminary education, one arguing in favor of it, the other against it. I contacted them soon after to see if they would be willing to submit their posts to the site so we could engage a wider audience on the issue, to which they agreed. Yesterday we heard from Tyler Braun, and today we hear from Matt Cleaver on why seminary education is no longer relevant. Matt is a student at Luther Seminary enrolled in their Distributive Learning program and the youth director at Hope Lutheran Church in the Dallas area. Here are Matt’s thoughts.

As someone who is in seminary and also interested in how to best train and equip church leaders, I found Tyler’s post about the relevance of seminaries quite interesting while at the same time disagreeing profoundly. I believe traditional full-time residential programs that require someone to relocate themselves to a brick-and-mortar institution for a period of 2-5 years are becoming increasingly irrelevant and unhelpful:

  1. Seminaries remove people from ministry contexts. The traditional seminary model has certain values that undermine local gatherings and remove people unnecessarily from their faith communities. Field experience is not the same as long-term ministry.
  2. The process of seminary is no longer effective in preparing for ministry. When the dominant church model was oral proclamation, reasoned argument, and apologetics, perhaps sitting in classrooms studying the minutiae of supralapsarianism, practicing speaking skills, and honing rhetoric was helpful. Today, however, we are moving past such a model and moving towards organic, relational, flat styles of ecclesiology and mission, making the seminary model less relevant.
  3. Denominations are becoming a thing of the past. Many seminaries are bastions of denominational conformity and preservation. Unfortunately for them, most of today’s younger generation could care less about denominations.
  4. The future of ecclesiology is in the priesthood of all believers. Many future church leaders will be bi-vocational, making a dedicated graduate degree impossible. Dedicating full-time graduate level study to something that doesn’t pay the bills is not a practical option.
  5. Seminaries are about credentialing as much as training. For many, a degree from a seminary is a prerequisite to apply to many professional church positions. The priority is not on finding the best preparation for ministry, but on opening potential doors.
  6. The cost is too high. Especially in mainline churches where churches are shrinking, our churches are less financially viable and pastors are coming out of seminary with more and more debt, such a trend is not sustainable. We are bankrupting our churches by making them pay for pastors’ debt burdens.
  7. Resources are becoming available for little to no cost. The open-source movement is beginning to catch on in areas other than software. This trend will eventually mean that the best scholarship and ministry resources will be published for the world to see for free, making it very difficult to convince someone to pay thousands of dollars for access to cutting-edge thinking and research.
  8. Technology has made brick-and-mortar institutions less important. With the advent of broadband internet and its related technologies we are not bound by geography when it comes to learning and training. Workshops, seminars, online conferences, and whole semester-long classes can be done over the internet. Relocating to do such a thing makes less and less sense as time goes on.
  9. You learn too much too quickly. Trying to learn necessary skills and theological background in one concentrated time of study makes it more difficult to implement the lessons you are learning in the classroom. A more sustainable model would be to take one or two classes at a time, take steps to implement those classes, and then move to the next topic.
  10. Seminaries usurp the role of the church. This is my biggest problem with seminary programs. Why do we have to go off somewhere for 2-4 years to study theology? What are our churches doing? Shouldn’t the church be the place where people are taught, trained, and released for ministry? The fact that training has been outsourced to the seminaries is a sign of a failure of the church. The future of ecclesiology will see churches as places for equipping their congregations for mission and make seminaries ultimately irrelevant for training church leaders.

Now, the above list is quite forward-looking. Maybe seminaries are not completely irrelevant today, but at the very least, seminary is becoming irrelevant, quickly. The seminaries that see this coming and adapt might survive and be able to adjust. But those who stay stuck in a model that is 150 years old are bound to fail.

My experience at Luther Seminary in a non-traditional degree program has significantly shaped the way I think about the future of training church leaders. Luther Seminary is one of the institutions that is taking innovative steps to adjust to the changing world with their Distributed Learning program and by offering Online Seminars to average church leaders. However, I think they are taking the first baby steps to really help people rethink what it means to train church leaders. I hope they and others will continue to push the envelope and not get behind the curve of cultural and ecclesiological development.

Lastly, it would be a tragedy for there to be no form of Christian scholarship. I hope there are always places for people to get Ph.D.’s in various fields of study, but I believe that the future of equipping and training people for local congregational ministry has already begun the shift away from the brick-and-mortar institutions towards the local church.



I gotta’ say that as a former lay leader and a current seminary student, I disagree with quite a lot of this.

1) I agree largely with this point. Seminary should not remove students from ministry contexts, but the geographic constraints on the location of seminaries may require some students to relocate. That’s one reason I chose a seminary in an urban location where there are plenty of ministry opportunities.

2) Completely disagree with this. “Oral proclamation, reasoned argument, apologetics, the minutiae of supralapsarianism, speaking skills, rhetoric” are as useful and essential today as they ever have been.

3) Where do you get this idea? If anything, denominations (although not mainline) are enjoying something of a renaissance today.

4) I’m not sure I buy this, either. If the agrarian economies of early America could support an educated clergy, how much more should we be able to do so now?

5) Perhaps some truth to this, but I am not entirely opposed to credentialing. I expect my doctor, my attorney, and my CPA to have certain credentials. Why should I not expect credentials from my pastor?

6) I somewhat agree and think that sending churches should bear a portion of the financial burden of educating the next generation of leaders. That said, quality education does cost money.

7 and 8) First, the quality of these resources is anything but uniform. Second, you cannot reduce a theological education down to a certain set of facts that must be learned. A large part of it is the personal interaction with godly faculty and your fellow students.

9) I agree that the pace is challenging. I disagree that this is wrong or necessarily counterproductive. My undergraduate degree was from one of the elite science and engineering schools and I went through their program feeling like I was retaining about 5% of the content of the courses. What I found after I graduated and started working in my field was that things I had learned started to settle in and I found I had a higher capacity for learning and understanding new developments in my field and applying principles I had learned to real-world problems. I expect I will find something similar in my theological studies.

10) I agree that the church should be the final authority in the examination and endorsement of new leaders. I believe the university and the seminary should partner with churches to provide rigorous theological educations to future church leaders.

Matt is right on target! I like to think about it in terms of the past vs. the future:

Seminary of the past: Come to us.
Seminary of the future: Let us come to you.

Seminary of the past: The classroom is the learning platform.
Seminary of the future: Your ministry is the learning platform.

Seminary of the past: Learn, then serve.
Seminary of the future: Learn while you serve.

Seminary of the past: Our primary task is to teach you.
Seminary of the future: Our primary task is to help you learn.

Seminary of the past: Enroll in our educational program.
Seminary of the future: Let us join your learning journey.

Seminary of the past: We’ll be your academic parent.
Seminary of the future: We’ll be your learning partner.

Sam Simmons, Cofounder

Let me see if I can rephrase Sam – old is bad, young is good. Best is having what you want when you want it and how you like it.

Mike, I won’t speak for Sam, but the way I read it I don’t think that he’s saying anything versus old and young in general, but with where seminary has been and where it is going. There are certain theological assumptions to both sides of the argument here, and I would like to eventually see us discussing the various options on those merits.

Matt, thanks for sharing. Thought-provoking. Seminary has taught be to see the BOTH/AND rather than only either/or — so I think you may both be right in part, perhaps in certain ways.

Your question about theology and the church haunts me, for I ask that all the time: why can’t we teach our people the deep truths of Scripture, how to wrestle with the texts, and to relate it to daily life in our contexts?

It seems that much of American church life is sub-biblical, but very few have the marbles to realize it, and fewer have the unction to reverse the trend.

In my not-so-humble opinion, anyone considering seminary should realize that one core priority must be engaging with real people in the real context of the local church, and in the community at large. Otherwise we will live in our heads.

The Scriptures and God are to be known, more than with our minds. We must continually explore the “happy tension” in this.

I’ll chime in on this.

1) I did my M.Div. in the traditional three years and this was not my experience at all. This point is a bit vague, so I’d be curious to know which “values that undermine local gatherings” you’re referring to. While I certainly agree that field experience is not the same as long-term ministry, it does not follow that full-time study accompanied by part-time church ministry is illegitimate preparation for subsequent ministry, nor that theologically uninformed long-term ministry is better than theologically informed short-term ministry. It’s not quite as simple as this.

2) I disagree with this completely. I don’t think the diagnosis or the prognosis is correct here – perhaps in certain circles, but certainly not on a global scale.

3) I disagree with this assertion as well. Even if the generalization were true that most of today’s younger generation could care less about denominations (which would have to be proven, not merely asserted), this would not therefore mean that denominations are bad or superfluous. First, even a “non-denominational” church is in fact a denomination – they’re just a denomination unto themselves without accountability to others. Second, if ecclesiastical decisions regarding doctrine and government are being made based on what the “younger generation” prefers or cares about, then I believe we as church leaders are being followers rather than leaders. The younger generation needs to be taught, not catered to. This doesn’t mean that we don’t adapt certain aspects of what we do based on a changing context, but it also doesn’t mean that we scrap what the church has been doing for centuries. Wisdom usually lies somewhere in the middle.

4) I believe the Reformation idea of the priesthood of all believers is a present idea, so I’m not sure what this statement intends. The rest of it seems like a prophecy of sorts, so I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. I’m not sure what sort of data it is built on.

5) There is a reason why a seminary degree is a prerequisite for many church jobs. This objection seems like a false dichotomy – one supposedly needs to choose between fulfilling an ecclesiastical prerequisite or finding the best training. Perhaps they could be one and the same?

6) The USA is the wealthiest and most Christianized country in the world. If churches here are bankrupting, it is certainly not the fault of theological training institutions that by-and-large take a fiscal hit every year. If Joe Christian tithed across the board, we’d have more than enough financial resources for the church to operate properly. Additionally, I have worked for many, many churches, and I have yet to see (or hear of) one that was struggling because the pastor’s educational debt had somehow got dumped on them. Maybe this happens, but I’ve served everywhere from California to North Carolina, Florida to Illinois, and I have yet to see this as some sort of widespread problem.

7) There is some truth to this point, but I don’t see open education making such a sweeping effect as this point seems to be suggesting. The world already has free access to a lot of the best scholarship available, but availability has nothing to do with accountability. Degree granting institutions exist for the very purpose of giving someone’s training an official stamp of approval ‑ and they need money to operate.

8) I’ve done both virtual education and on-campus study, and while I actually learned a lot (and enjoyed) my virtual classes, there are aspects of a good theological education that simply cannot be learned on a laptop with headphones at Starbucks. You can even replicate a sense of community through the internet to some degree, but it is simply not the same as interacting with people face to face. I think this is a good point and has some merit, but I don’t think it holds the water that you’re pouring into it.

9) This could be true for some people, but again, I think you’re trying to universalize something that is not universally true. If some people are not able to assimilate a full-time load of information, maybe they should take things slower ‑ but it is simply not true that it is ALWAYS better or more sustainable to do this. I served in the church part-time all through seminary and continue to do so as a doctoral student. The church has been a great place for me to have an outlet to put into practice what I’ve been learning. I don’t, however, think that I would be in better shape if after four years I was still only halfway through my masters. I’ve known people that have done that and often it’s difficult for them to sustain the willpower to persevere. Each to his own, I suppose.

10) I appreciate your zeal in this point, but it would be quite difficult to remain consistent on such a view. Has Wycliffe usurped the task of Bible translation from the church? Has Samaritan’s Purse usurped the task of mercy? The fact of the matter is that most pastors are not equipped to teach all subjects at the level that a seminary education requires. Plus, I’m not sure what you mean by “go off somewhere,” as if there are no churches to serve at near seminaries. Again, your last sentence is more predictive than factual, so I suppose time will tell.

I wish you well in your studies, but I’d encourage you to take a less dogmatic approach to these things. Full-time seminary is difficult, but it serves its purpose well enough. In my experience, a person’s preparation tends to come down to their own diligence and perseverance. Someone can get a great education by distance or on campus depending on how much they make of it. Inversely, if one is lazy and just doing the bare minimum, neither your model program nor my full-time experience will do much for them. One is not inherently better than the other.

I really enjoyed your post. Thanks for being honest and prophetic-minded enough to share this. You raised very valid points that must be considered. If our view of seminary is a place of preparation for kingdom ministry, we cannot afford to allow the concept to be overrun by negative institutionalism. As we are entering a major world shift, now is a good time to asses the state of seminary.

PS: I am an MDiv student (second year) and work in the admissions department at my seminary (Asbury Seminary). I will speak from both sides of my life and experience.

“Seminary require someone to relocate themselves to a brick-and-mortar institution for a period of 2-5 years are becoming increasingly irrelevant and unhelpful”

@Brian (me):
Yes and no. My seminary, and others, are offering various location styles. We have a residential campus, a major world city campus, and an online/virtual campus. I have studied on all three. For some, including myself, there is a need and desire to move away to study. My time on the residential campus served as a necessary time of retreat to recover and relearn healthy ministry styles. I burned myself out serving before attending. I do not view residential campus as an escape, but an intentional drawing away to learn before reconnecting. The truth is that wherever you go, even a little city in the middle of rural Kentucky, there are still people. My wife and I found opportunities to connect with the county high school and work with students in a theater program while building into their lives. Ministry can happen anywhere.

4. Many future church leaders will be bi-vocational, making a dedicated graduate degree impossible. Dedicating full-time graduate level study to something that doesn’t pay the bills is not a practical option.

@Brian: You are correct. As an admissions recruiter I am meeting more and more students who are bivocational. Some are currently in ministry. One student told me, “God called me to preach, but I need to refine the gift.” Others are working in other capacitates usually to attend seminary debt free and support their family. The bi-vocational model reminds me of Paul; making tents, meeting people, sharing the gospel. A bivocational seminary student is a workable reality. I choose to work full time, attend seminary part/full time (depending on course load and work responsibilities per semester). I am not moving faster than I can absorb classes and paying for school as I go. Thanks also to Dave Ramsey for kicking me in the wallet.

6. We are bankrupting our churches by making them pay for pastors’ debt burdens.

@Brian: Amen! However, there is blame to go around. First, denominations should be more supportive of their students in seminary. Will Willimon (author and Methodist Bishop wrote an article recently about the responsibility of denominations No one goes into ministry for the money. Most grad students will walk into jobs where they can repay their entire school debt in a matter of years. Seminary should not take as long as a house to pay off. Second, Students must be more responsible for their use of loan money. Just because the government “gives” you a lot of money each semester does not mean you need it. This is poor stewardship. I suggest a mindset shift from loan based seminary to pay-as-you-go seminary. I used loans for a year before going to God for a different approach. I was worried about my growing indebtedness. In my role I get to see the back side of student’s financial efforts. Scholarships are available (yes, even in this economy). Many students just do not take the time to complete applications. A scholarship last year was offered to several large seminaries in the US, and was well publicized at least at my school. They only had ten applicants nationwide! Students are busy. But the time to reward ratio of a scholarship application is worthwhile. You will not receive all you apply for, but you will receive some.

10. Why do we have to go off somewhere for 2-4 years to study theology? What are our churches doing? Shouldn’t the church be the place where people are taught, trained, and released for ministry?

@Brian: Yes. The church is the natural and scriptural place for teaching, training, and sending. Maybe one day seminary will be irrelevant. I hope so. Until that happens, seminary is a great way to be trained in community. I have yet to be in a church that has equipped me in the same way my seminary training is currently. Is the problem the seminary or the church?

I wanted to respond to all your points, but limited myself to those I was most passionate about. Again, you raise excellent points. Let’s keep challenging the system to be most effective.

Brian, just to clarify, I did not write the post. I only posted it. Matt Cleaver is the author of the post. Regardless, thanks for chiming in to the discussion.

You are right that bivocational ministry and seminary are mutually exclusive. I doubt however that bivocational will really take root. Bivocational ministers are really “work for free” ministers. How many do you know that actually receive a salary from two vocations? Bivocational ministry is a bankrupt idea precisely because of the value of the seminary.

I know that Christ, being Lord over His bride, is leading without fault. We follow His leading successfully by our full, not partial, obedience to the Word, and a yielded heart exposed to the prompting of the Holy Spirit in prayer. As He leads, some follow to seminary, some follow to another country, some follow to the Sunday School room, but each in obedience and submission, according to his time. Luther brought change to how christians approach the Word and consider the church. I will always be holding the Word next to every consideration of change to see if there is conformity to Christ or conformity to the desires of man. Let us all be in prayer in this regard, as to how Christ, our greatest example of teacher and diciple, wanted us to teach and diciple by the Gift of the Spirit instilled in each of us.

Every time I read a case against seminary training, I'm left thinking that it's really a case against the particular writer's seminary experience. This article describes neither the seminary of my student experience nor the one where I teach. So I guess the moral is to choose wisely.