In my last post, I offered three things to think about before going to seminary—three reasons not to go to seminary. As a followup, I though about giving you some reasons to go to seminary, but Steven Knight has already offered five good reasons to go to seminary. So, what I want to offer today are some thoughts on what seminary may offer you in terms of three specific things that are necessary for ministry—knowledge, skills, and experience.
Knowledge—Pastoral ministry requires knowledge of the Bible, of course; but not everyone who knows the Bible is equipped to minister pastorally, especially if that means leading a church. A pastor also needs to know people: their emotional, psychological, social, and mental makeup. He must know the Church: its history, culture, traditions, practices, strengths and weaknesses. A pastor must know and understand leadership principles, cultural trends, and so much more. Seminaries are best as dispensers of knowledge. But knowledge alone is insufficient; certain skills are also necessary.
Skills—If you are a preaching/teaching pastor (not all are), then you need skills in both sound exegesis and effective communication. In the counseling office, you need skills that range from listening to record keeping. Some schools do a very good job of developing such skills; others may place too much emphasis on some skills while downplaying others (e.g., emphasizing languages and exegesis over effective communication). While some skills can be learned and practiced adequately in a classroom setting, others are better developed through an internship of some sort, for neither knowledge nor skill is adequate; experience is required.
Experience—The most difficult and time-consuming element of ministry preparation is experience. I’ve heard it said that good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions. Although neither life or ministry is simply a series of good and bad decisions, the reality is that experience comes simply from…well, experience. And unfortunately, the halls of academia are simply too controlled and sterile an environment for developing the level and types of experience necessary for truly effective ministry. Internships—a partnership between school and church—are a seminary’s typical answer to this need. As a partnership, the value of an internship is heavily dependent on how well equipped both the seminary and the church are.
Seminary is a major investment of time, money, and energy. Finishing in the catalog time of two or three years is a full-time job: a dozen hours in the classroom and two dozen or more reading, studying, and writing each week. Add to that the hours of work, whether paid or as an intern, and most everything else is pushed to the side. But relatively few students finish their degrees in two or three years. An increasing number of students are married, many have children, and most have some type of job that may have nothing to do with what they think of when they say the word “ministry.”
Counting the cost and deciding whether to make the investment, then, is about understanding what you need most—and whether a seminary is the best context to offer that. If you already have a good base of knowledge—for example, you graduated from a Bible school—but need to develop either skills or experience or both, then you might want to say no to seminary, at least for now, and instead start doing ministry! Get your hands dirty volunteering at your church. Talk to your pastor about your desire and work together to get some intentional training. Try to get as much and as broad an exposure as you can: over time, work with every age from nursery to seniors; work on the finance and facilities side; work in the local community and with global missions; work with small groups and, if possible, with larger groups; look for opportunities to teach in every possible group size and makeup. Basically, create an internship without a school.
On the other hand, If what you need most is knowledge and you feel some pressure of time to acquire that knowledge, then seminary is the place to get it. If you are convinced that God has called you to ministry but that no church will touch you without a seminary degree, then seminary may be for you. (That was essentially my purpose. More on that another time.)
Seminary will be as much or as little as you make it. If you are a full-time student whose life largely centers around the school experience, then in addition to the knowledge and skills training, you will also have the opportunity to develop lifelong friendships, ministry partners, and mentors. If you have a significant life outside of school—for example, you are married, have children, and are working full time while taking classes whenever you can—your experience will be very different. That’s okay; just don’t expect more.
A final word: Call. It’s a great Christian word that we may have endowed with much more weight than it ought to have. Too often, I think, we believe we have been called to ministry and couple that belief with a sense of urgency, only to decide later that we “misheard” God. Seminary is not a good place to explore a possible call; it is too expensive and too much work, with too little crossover value into other fields of work. If you need to explore whether God really has called you into ministry, then go get involved in ministry. And if you find you can do anything else and still please God, then do it.
About the author: Randy Ehle squeezed a two-year degree into eight years at seminary campuses in two states, eventually graduating in 2014 with a Master of Arts in Ministry and Leadership. During those years, he and his wife Eiley managed to get their three kids through four graduations of their own (kindergarten, high school, and two eighth grade graduations), survived nine months of unemployment, took two trips to Africa, and built a home. Oh, and Randy spent five years as an Associate Pastor before launching a continuing search for a Senior Pastor position. Follow Randy on Twitter @randehle or check out his own blog, The Rushed Contemplative, at www.randehle.com.