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August 7, 2014

Why do seminaries matter?

When most pastors are asked about seminary education, the conversion quickly turns to all the things that need to be taught: conflict management, dealing with difficult people, administering volunteers and so forth. In contrast, when I have offered these subjects at three seminaries over the last 20 years, students do not sign up. It seems that what matters most in seminary depends on one’s perspective.

Pastors know how complicated it is to lead a congregation. They face ministering at the death of a child, guiding the finance committee in allocating limited resources and serving on the local hunger ministry’s board. Students want to dive into issues of deep and lasting significance: justice for the poor and oppressed, food for the hungry, a future for the hopeless.

Pastors have an incredible opportunity to preach and teach each week. In contrast with organizational leaders -- who guide through developing strategy, hiring and supervising staff, administrating budgets and determining programs -- pastors have a chance to address a significant number of their members for 20 minutes or more each week. With this opportunity comes a huge responsibility to proclaim ancient truths in a way that is fresh and relevant.

Discussions about the relevance of seminary education often miss this critical responsibility. Seminaries are developing habits of study, introducing foundational sources and the art of interpretation for this creative, demanding work of preaching and teaching.

In the past few weeks, I have consulted with key leaders in an amazing and complicated urban congregation whose senior pastor recently resigned. In the conversation they discussed the work the congregation needed to do to be prepared to select a new pastor. They wondered if they could get an interim pastor with all the skills needed to guide the church in the process.

Every interim pastor has to deal with the temptation to start acting like the church’s permanent pastor. There are always leaders and members who want the interim to be the pastor because of the power of the person’s sermons. Because preaching is such a common occurrence on Sunday mornings, those of us in church can be lulled into forgetting its shaping power.

For me, seminaries matter as long as congregations value an original sermon from the scriptures preached by someone they know. Given the fact that pastors are under significant stress from their other responsibilities and seminaries have limited time to help degree-seeking students prepare for ministry, what else can seminaries do that will matter?

The reality that is driving consideration of this question these days is the cost of seminary education. Most seminaries are small and provide intimate learning environments that are ideal for informal mentoring and seminar-style education. Yet students are having trouble paying tuition and the schools struggle to pay faculty and staff a living wage. The increasing complexity of administration means that professors now have less time for their scholarly pursuits. Recruiting dramatically more students does not seem feasible. Few seminaries have any experience of scaling their services to meet the demands of a larger student body. Given the decentralized nature of Protestant seminary education, it difficult to see how seminaries could attract enough students to achieve a scaled-up model.

Like many people, I have ideas about how to make seminary more cost-effective by blending focused classroom experiences on foundational subjects with experiential education tied to work in a congregation or other ministry. Designing the curriculum would not be difficult, if the Church was in agreement about why it wanted pastors to have a seminary education. If we can get agreement on the core purpose, a quality, affordable system can be created out of currently available resources.

I have staked a position that forming Christian leaders with the background, character and skill needed to preach and teach should be the core organizing purpose of a seminary education. What do you say? Why do seminaries matter?

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