The Pitfalls of Seminary Education

The Ivory Tower

Dan Bouchelle – Executive Director of Missions Resource Network – has written a thought-provoking series of articles on the pitfalls of seminary education as it pertains to leading evangelistically effective ministries and churches.

I invite you to check them out for yourself (thank you to Cary McCall for the heads up on these):

Here are a couple of excerpts:

There is no such thing as education without socialization. School is a community that shapes people. When a person leaves the regular church in the world environment (which is already far removed from the world) and enters the academy he or she does not just acquire information and skills but also a new community which alters a person profoundly.

In the academy, what counts, what gets you affirmation and feeds your ego, is not what will help you relate to people in the church or the world. Impressing your professors and your fellow students with your ability to use technical language and demonstrate skills with ancient languages becomes increasingly important to you. Being able to show in subtle ways that you are conversant with the writings of leading scholars and theologians of the last several centuries is a matter of status and self-esteem. Graduate theological study creates a sense of self and values that don’t fit the daily realities of the church and certainly do not fit the intersection of gospel and culture. Being able to talk in ways that make you fit-in with the academy will make you less relevant to people on the street and make your preaching seem esoteric and harder to comprehend by the unchurched or those far from God.


… seminaries do not typically produce prophets, visionaries, evangelists, or leaders of movements. They may produce an occasional church leader who will lead a church to do its version of church so well that this church gains a huge market share of the people who are in its fellowship. But they will not likely produce a true evangelist or church planter much less a movement leader.

This is all well and good when times are stable and churches are well positioned to serve their culture. That day is not today. Seminaries like to think they are the R & D department of the church. They are not. The R & D department is out among the people–among the radicals who have left formal church to take the gospel to the streets and rethink church entirely after the formalized religious structures have grown out of touch with the culture. While the seminary usually wants to discount such people as irresponsible, rough, and unrefined, the future of the church lies in the streets and not the ivory tower.

Dan is not anti-education as he plainly says in his final post – he simply wishes to point out that formalized seminary education/Bible college has a down side, and he’s right.

The results of my own research done through Campus Ministry United found that the Church of Christ campus ministries typically reaching the least amount of students year to year were led by those with the highest theological education, while those reaching the most were led by ministers often with the least theological education.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go study. I’m in seminary, and class starts soon. 🙂

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22 thoughts on “The Pitfalls of Seminary Education

  1. Terry says:

    I think you may be on to something here.

  2. JamesBrett says:

    thanks, wes, for highlighting this series. it’s well worth reading.

  3. Melinda says:

    I think the focus is too much on head knowledge and not actual hands-on experience. Faith is pretty simple. Either you believe or don’t and if you love God you would do what He said. I’ve honestly gotten to a point where I have studied and I know and know and know, but my heart has not been with what I know. We may study like crazy and know, but do we really believe it? That is how I keep myself in check lately.

  4. Very interesting. My father’s been working as a minister for over twenty-five years both inside and outside the United States; all he has is a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering. That level of education is typical for most ministers in my fellowship of churches. Of course, different kinds of leaders (e.g., teachers, elders) in different situations need different educations to prepare them for their ministries – but, at the very least, I think it’s safe to say that seminary isn’t for everybody.

    • WesWoodell says:

      I believe if a person is going to give their life to ministry, they can’t go wrong in committing a couple of years to study the Bible. The problem is if there is no practical aspect to that training, it can hurt their future service.

      Academic training isn’t bad per se, but academic training without practical training could be.

  5. Tulsaoilman says:

    “the intersection of gospel and culture”.

    That stuck with me the most out of all that was said. It is the meat of this discussion. I have been accused of being “Anti-education” and I realize that is a result of my lack of ability to put into words what I think. After reading all you posted from Dan I must say “Ditto”.

    The problem with our formal education system is the lack of practical experience. “Knowledge puffs up” (heard that somewhere.) There has to be a “passion” to do the ministry of Jesus. Some call it a “calling”. Without that “calling” it’s just parroting.

    The problem starts with our elders. As long as they put “degree” as the most important thing (and most do) then we will always have this problem. Think about it: Most Church leaders would not hire Jesus for the pulpit.

    From what I have witnessed, the Scholar student who graduates from one of our brotherhood universities could not sit down with the average person and effectively lead them through a Bible study to conversion.

    Something is wrong with that picture.

    • JamesBrett says:

      oilman, i agree with much of what you have to say. though i don’t personally think the problem with our formal education system is a lack of practical experience. most of the guys i went to school with did all kinds of practical ministry internships and apprenticeships and the like.

      i think the biggest problem with our formal education system is merely a reflection of one of the biggest problems in christianity today. we value knowledge instead of obedience. the problem isn’t merely that we’re hiring degrees; it’s that we’re seeking knowledge while ignoring obedience. it’s parents who read their kids bible stories at night, hours after saving a little cash by claiming the 11-year old is only 10 at a restaurant. it’s our system of getting into groups at least 4 times per week to “study” the bible, while being obedient to very little of what we “learn.”

      adam and eve chose knowledge over obedience in the garden. and we’re still doing it today.

      • WesWoodell says:

        James – the practical experience he’s referring to is evangelistic work. University internships at Bible colleges typically do not offer anything of the sort. Those that do are rare.

      • JamesBrett says:

        all of the internships i’m familiar with for college bible majors are internships with churches. and they are very practical internships. if they are not evangelistic in nature, that would seem to be a church problem, not a formal education problem.

        it would seem odd to expect a christian university NOT to entrust practical experience in ministry and evangelism to local churches. that’s where it’s supposedly being done?

  6. Tulsaoilman says:

    James, I know there are “internships” and yes they are with our churches. The problem is that most of them are completely “in the box” and not out in the real world working to save souls. The average “internship” I have seen is simply a college kid hired for the summer to help the youth minister entertain the youth group. The problem is as you described and worse. I agree it has to change at the parent level but the problem must be addressed at the University level to lead the way out.

    I believe it comes down to a simple problem: Maintain verses Advance. Most churches are working on a model of “Keeping the saved, saved” and not trying to advance the Kingdom. I believe the only way to “keep the saved, saved” is to get them involved in the mission of Christ which is; advancing the Kingdom. And that plays into your example of knowledge vs obedience.

    I’m not trying to be critical of our christian universities. I support them with all my heart. I just believe THEY are the ones to lead us out of the current mess.

    • WesWoodell says:

      I’m with Lynn. I found it funny that Dan referred to CoC universities as “bishops.” That’s a term I’ve used frequently to describe them – especially when explaining our fellowship to leaders from other traditions.

      Our universities are THE major influence brokers in our fellowship save a select number of megachurches. The culture of ministerial preparation at these institutions needs to change.

      I also do not mean to be overly critical – I loved my time at Harding and learned lots. I’m also loving my time in grad school. I just hate hearing from people going into full time ministry or into the mission field who hold Bible degrees readily admit they have no idea how to lead someone to Christ or disciple them.

      • JamesBrett says:

        i’m with you, wes. i just think the problems sits a lot deeper than the universities. i knew how to study the bible with non-christians coming out of high school, and did so to the point of baptism several times throughout college.* that is not a testament to me, but rather to my home church, my mother, my grandparents, and even the church camp i attended.

        if bible majors are graduating without the ability to use scriptures to point seekers to Christ, then the modern church and family is broken on way more levels than that of higher institutions. because the way i see it, if only those with bible degrees know how to do this, then we’re in a whole bunch of trouble.

        *sidenote: although i knew how to lead these studies and baptized several people during college, i mistakenly was teaching salvation as a doctrine to be believed — and not a discipling relationship in which to enter. which is one danger of teaching those who are not themselves being discipled by Jesus how to lead others to him through bible study. that’s why i call it an obedience problem; the bible major who knows how to study the bible but doesn’t live out obedience to Christ in his own life might hurt more than he helps.

    • JamesBrett says:

      lynn, i agree with most of your assessment. and i am myself fairly critical of christian universities, perhaps more so than you. i attended both public and private christian universities and much preferred the public school with its campus ministry (though it was still very inward-focused).

      i was only meaning to say that, to me, it doesn’t seem to be a university problem as they have little to no control over these internships — but rather a modern christianity problem.

      i do agree the universities could probably try to function as a greater influence on these churches than they are. but i just don’t know that they’re the ones to lead us out — at least not functioning with and within current churches of Christ. already (where i grew up and in most of the bible belt) these schools are exerting pressure to change (in many areas, though not necessarily outreach and evangelism), but are being met with obstinacy and nonacceptance.

      if we’re going to stick with the church of christ model of autonomous congregations, then responsibility would seem to fall to each individual congregation. granted, if those leaders would only approach the situation with open-mindedness, universities could indeed lead the way.

  7. K. Rex Butts says:

    I’ve been away from blogging for a week so I’ll have to catch up on this but I would like to offer an observation.

    Unless one goes trade school, it seems very unlikely that a persons education will prepare them completely for work in their field of study. The class room can give a person the necessary instruction to think critically within a historical field be it theology & pastoral ministry, finance, secondary education, etc… and the class room can introduce a person to the basic skills necessary to perform within the field. But the classroom cannot fulfill the role that is fulfilled by wisdom gained through experience, nor should it be expected too.

    That is too say, the problem is not entirely the problem of the academy. There is no way that the academy can simulate the real world experience that, coupled with the education a person receives, equips the individual with prudent and effective skills. Thus, in many fields, a person fresh out of school is not hired into a work where he/she is on their own with no supervising mentor who is equally educated and possessing many years of experience in the particular field. But in churches, at least in Churches of Christ, unless a student is hired on to a multi-staff church to serve under/along-side of an experienced minister who understands the educational field (the academy) as well as the specific contextual field (the real-world job), the student is hired into a ministry that requires theologically/missionally applied knowledge, pastoral care, organizational development, etc… without anyone to offer counsel. This means the learning curve is steep with many failures (at least that has been my experience). The problem only intensifies when the student is thrust into a ministry context where there is a history of dysfunctionalism (which also has been my experience).

    Some will say, the minister should seek an older mentor from the ministry context, such as a church elder. That only goes so far though. An elder might be able to provide mentorship in relating to people but if he is by trade a banker, there are limitations. Imagine a banker trying to mentor a new school teacher in the work of high-school education. The same is true for ministry.

    One way of perhaps remedying this problem would be to develop a more organized system of older, experienced ministers mentoring the new ministers as they leave the academy and enter their new church as preacher/minister, urban ministry, etc… But since there is no organization in Churches of Christ beyond the local congregation, it is difficult to organize this sort of mentor/supervisor approach.

    I write this because I can say that in hindsight, if I was starting ministry over again…I this I would have been much better equipped if I had served in a multi-staff church to work along side of a very experienced preacher/pastor rather than starting out in a small congregation that has a history of dysfunctionalism, division, and ministry impotence. I am only beginning to learn how to deal with these systemic church issues through much trial and error that been both stressful and often discouraging.

    Grace and Peace,


    • WesWoodell says:

      Thanks for the comment, Rex. I think it would be very healthy if more churches would make raising up the next generation of leaders through practical training a priority.

      • K. Rex Butts says:

        When I was in Minnesota, there was this young man who worked p/t in a local coffee house. When he found out that I was a “Pastor” he told me of his belief that God had called him to become a seminary student and eventually a church pastor. I learned that he had graduated from a Christian university with an dual undergraduate degree in theology and business administration. So I asked him why he had not entered into seminary yet. His response was that he was serving as non-paid Associate Pastor with a local church under the supervision of the Lead Pastor. At the end of the two years, he would be evaluated by the Lead Pastor and church elders and if they discerned that God indeed was calling him into the ministry they would then begin paying him a p/t salary as well as help him finance a very costly (as we know) seminary education in the Twin Cities. All the while, he would continue serving as a p/t Associate Pastor.

        When I heard that, I was a bit envious for various reasons. Nevertheless, while that may or may not be the most prudent model for calling church leaders into ministry, it would be great if churches took that (or a similar) approach.

  8. Chris Buxton says:

    I’m up very late after a long night at our campus ministry, so I hope I make sense!

    I’ll be very clear in saying my formal seminary training (M.Div.) is incredibly valuable to me, and I think especially so within the context of a state university campus because that environment obviously values higher education in a general sense, and secondly, because that environment often produces the kinds of academic and moral opposition to faith that make graduate theology training very useful.

    As for ministry and evangelism in general, I don’t have a feel for whether there is a causal link between seminary training and a lack of evangelistic success. Maybe there is. But I DO know that I’ve heard enough terrible theology through the years–the kind that has made Churches of Christ a terribly divisive movement–that if I’m going to err in one direction or another, I want to err on the side of too much education.

    • Chris Buxton says:

      After re-reading my post above, I thought it sounded a little mean. “Terrible theology” and “terribly divisive” aren’t very nice ways to say things. Sorry about that.

  9. Anon says:

    I had an unusual experience at Harding and ACU grad school, because I was older when I went, and I KNEW that what I was getting at the school was knowledge of a certain kind, and set my expectations accordingly. As Mr. Butts and others have indicated, the classroom is no place to learn SKILLS. One can no more learn how to golf in a classroom than you can evangelism or welding. But you can learn the “head” part of it, and that’s what I did.

    But I also disdained the social aspects of it that Bouchelle mentions. I did not try to impress teachers (or anyone else, for that matter) and it cost me. Like it or not, we live and work in a community that requires us to “play the game” or we will not get work/support.

    I commend you guys for playing the game … and then recognizing the limitations of it, even if it’s after the fact. Now, unfortunately, you’ll have to learn on the job how to do the actual work of love. Wouldn’t it have been cool to serve as Jesus’ apprentice for three years? To travel with him and sleep next to him and see how he did every single thing? … Or to be like Tim or Silas, and learn from Paul, first-hand?

    Alas, you are more in a position like poor Josiah – the boy king who one day was told, “Hey, someone found a bible in the back room!” Now what?
    Rely on God, and God alone.

    Keep going, guys. There are those of us who lurk around the fringes, watching what you do, and praying that you succeed where we morons failed.

    The main thing: focus on bearing fruit … with all your might. Bring in the sheaves.

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