By Josh Tandy
I am a statistical anomaly. I am a young minister who went to seminary almost immediately after receiving my undergraduate degree. More and more, people like me are opting to bypass seminary and go directly into full-time ministry.
Some of these individuals have been spectacularly successful. The incredible stories of new churches being planted and existing ones becoming vibrant again make me think about the time, effort, and resources spent on a seminary degree, and I wonder: Was it worth it?
Has a world of blogs, conferences, and books made a seminary degree obsolete? It doesn’t take long to find leaders in seemingly healthy churches with little to no postgraduate study in theology or ministry. The church planting movement that has become so incredibly popular has produced networks like Acts 29 and NewThing that have fulfilled some of the void that was once filled by seminaries. Conferences like Catalyst are attended by thousands of leaders who hear from some of the best teachers and leaders in the world.
What is the place of the seminary in a climate with so much focused and cost-effective training so readily available?
Seminary is being thrown into the marketplace. While our seminaries and schools of theology are still relatively esteemed and respected, they are no longer the requisite first stop for a budding theologian or church leader. If development and education are only about information transfer, then a few conferences, blogs, and a good library should suffice, right?
The great filter of now is the past. A few years ago, I thought the emerging church was going to change the face of Western Christianity. In our instantaneous society of blogging and Twitter, authority is diffused; and it is easy, if not encouraged, to make bold claims that usually fall flat with time. New practices and new ideas, especially in the church world, need time to find their voice. By understanding history we can save ourselves a great deal of the frustration that a lack of context can produce.
A seminary may seem stuffy and backward for offering this context, but in order to interact properly with the current reality, one must understand it. Seminaries provide a helpful framework for placing an individual’s story in the proper place of the greater story of the faith.
To their credit, most of the “learn-as-you-go” crowd is forward-focused and can be the necessary prophetic voice in our midst. A prophet, however, needs a full understanding of the situation, and seminaries provide the important foundation for this understanding.
Communities of Critique
People who are able to lead thriving churches without the benefit of seminary are usually naturally gifted in leadership and communication, and exhibit an incredible work ethic. These high-capacity leaders have great success, but eventually everyone finds the limits of his own abilities. An entrepreneurial zeal that was the catalytic spark for growth can produce a spirit of self-reliance, which really is just successful isolation. When lived out correctly, the academy provides the context to discover one’s weaknesses and cultivates the self-awareness and understanding to build the support of a team or system.
Being told that you are wrong, or experiencing failure, can be destabilizing for those who are not prepared for it. Going through such failure outside of the academy removes the safety net of the educational community. Receiving negative feedback on a project or discussion in a classroom has no real permanent repercussions. No one gets hurt and leaves the local church because of an underdeveloped exegesis paper. But this kind of failure or misstep within the church could lead to a scarring experience, financial loss, or broken relationships.
A leader who is trying to “learn by doing” alone will rarely be told he is wrong. In the arenas of continuing education, a leader will be pushed and encouraged to live out the call of leadership on his life. At a conference or in a blog post, a leader may be challenged or called out, but even this is different than receiving the same message from someone traveling with you on a sustained journey. Some of my best teachers at the undergraduate and graduate levels gave me the freedom to arrive at a solution that was my own, therefore internalizing the leadership principle.
The academy provides the community in which a leader can be safely wrong and the space to learn from mistakes. Failing in a class of peers with the experienced mentorship of a professor gives the future leader the much-needed skills that simply cannot be learned or honed by reading a book or attending a weekend conference. Being told you are wrong by the right person can be the best thing to ever happen to a leader.
Space for Formation
I am not the same person I was when I was 20. I will not be the same person I am today when I am 40. And both of these facts are good.
With age comes the realization that things aren’t quite as simple as once thought and your ideas lack the originality you were certain they had. This change is the important formation where youthful exuberance isn’t destroyed, but evolves into something much more useful.
Ideas, thoughts, and beliefs need time to incubate. They need to take shape fully and develop completely. All the various angles need to be thought through, especially when anticipating church leadership. Not that one can or should be completely prepared before jumping into something, but to do so haphazardly is not only a threat to your personal viability as a leader, but also staggeringly destructive to a community of people.
Seminary can provide the place to be surrounded by other leaders in a similar position. The “me against the world” attitude that I and others have employed is dangerous; when one feels isolated, one tends to do brash things that can become big mistakes. The seminary community can give that young leader the proper context to articulate the problems he sees and the solutions he hopes to propose.
When we are in that place of youthful arrogance, the last thing we want to do is wait, but waiting in the proper place can provide that critical time for formation that is necessary for healthy long-term leadership. Seminary, and in some traditions, ordination are those purposeful barriers that foster development.
Synthesis of Information
Learning is a lifelong process, and when it is not lived out, a leader’s, and subsequently a community’s, growth is stunted. This is why taking advantage of continued educational opportunities in conferences, having a library that you actually use, and reading blogs are so vitally important. Seminary can provide the foundation to handle the incredible amount of information that is available to process. Without some way to filter the overwhelming number of voices, the information is useless.
A leader should read from a multitude of sources and opinions. But without the proper critical thinking skills to discern and comprehend the material, all he or she is doing is chasing the latest and greatest thing offered at the last conference. Chasing fads is not only dangerous—it is exhausting. A person in a leadership role does not always have time to consider fully the multitude of voices or view adequately all perspectives. Seminary gives someone the tools to operate in a balanced way.
The leaders who “learn by doing” drink from the fire hydrant of conferences and blogs; becoming overwhelmed is inevitable and dangerous. Consequently, it may be tempting to hone in on a few authors/conferences/speakers and apply every principle and idea they share. Without some willingness to synthesize information, even from sources that we strongly disagree with or arenas that appear to have no redemptive quality, we cheat our communities. Seminary can train someone on how to make valuable connections to profoundly communicate the gospel.
Worth the Investment
Seminary is a sacrifice. Plans are delayed, resources are expended, and criticism can be abundant, but all of this contributes to the development and growth that is vital to thriving in ministry. Seminary may appear to be just an option for those pursuing full-time ministry in the local church, but all the resources that are excellent for continuing education cannot replace the foundation of seminary.
Josh Tandy is pastor of students with Genesis Church, Noblesville, Indiana and director of RookiePastor.com.