Seminaries 200 Years Later & Beyond

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American Protestant seminaries have been around for just over 200 years. Andover (MA) Theological Seminary was the first, established in 1807. Many followed shortly thereafter. Today, few would bet money on American Protestant seminaries surviving this century. The seminary model is simply not suited for our post-modern and post-Christian context. In short, the numbers just don’t work. The up-front annual costs of turning the key and opening the doors to a school with even a small staff of administrators, support staff, and faculty requires a healthy number of donors committed to seminary training, complimented by a robust number of students paying significant tuition to work in a field with little promise of financial return—that in a context where church membership has plateaued, at best.

While the future of Protestant seminaries in America looks bleak, not so the future of ministerial training. The church remains as committed as ever to theological education as evidenced by the development of new forms of training. The most prominent of these new forms boasts a return to the early centuries of the church when mentorship and apprenticeships were valued. Residency programs, for example, bring theological training back to the church. They also flip the model from the seminary approach—in which supervised ministry in the local church complements seminary courses—to a church-based approach in which courses complement on-the-job-ministry-training in the local church.

If all this sounds out of line, I point you to a book written by the incomparable Cuban-American historian, Justo González. In The History of Theological Education (Abingdon, 2015), he provides an insightful overview that prophetically challenges the American Protestant church to reconfigure theological education. In summary, González calls for “a total reorientation and redefinition of theological studies and ministerial training” (127). But he does not stop there. He also suggests several general directives for a new vision of theological education training (127-30).

First, theological education and ministerial training will return to its proper place: the local church. The best learning takes place in the community of faith. “But this is not primarily a community of students and teachers, as it was in the very notion of ‘seminary’ that developed in the sixteenth century, but rather the community of faith in which every student and faculty member is grafted” (127). Within such a vision, seminaries may still have a place but it will not be as separated from the local church. Plus, it will support local churches rather than vice-versa.

I anticipate that seminary officials will be quick to respond to that first suggestion by assuring us that the mission of the seminary has always been to support the local church. I counter with my own experience as both a pastor and seminary professor, that seminary support has more often than not come from a position of superiority, even condescension, with seminary faculty claiming, in effect, that if churches just listened to them all will be well. Local congregations benefit little from such ivory tower support. Instead, they are enriched by seminaries, embedded in the ministry of congregations, which respond much like a physicians to patients—contextually, specifically, biblically, theologically, and practically.

Second, the church will “develop methods of teaching and evaluating courses that focus less on what one learns than on the manner in which one is able to share and teach both content and the process of learning” (128). In other words, what good is theological education to the local church if pastors cannot relate what they are learning to their communities of faith?

I love this suggestion by González. It speaks to one of the greatest needs in the American Protestant Church today: preachers. In my work as a church consultant, I have heard this refrain from countless sources: “Where have all the preachers gone?” There is not space enough to try and answer that question here. Suffice to say, on this point, training a person how to write a sermon does not impart that same person with the gift of preaching. Writing and delivering a sermon differs from effective preaching. We need churches and seminaries to partner in such a way that the end result will be a wave of preachers able to communicate the Gospel to communities throughout America. My hunch is that this partnership must begin with local congregations which take responsibility for identifying and encouraging their sons and daughters to consider service to Christ as preaching pastors.

Third, theological education will be embraced, not as destination but as a life-long process.  The goal of those called to ministry is not a degree or diploma, but a deeper and richer relationship with the Triune God. “Within this vision, continuing education is not an ancillary service of a seminary or theological school, but part of its very essence” (128).

This suggestion assumes that those called to ministry adopt continuing theological education as a regular practice.  I fear many will need encourage from their colleagues to work hard at being the best they can be in their service to Christ and His Church. They may also need encouragement from local churches which affirm the benefit of an educated ministry and provide financial support for personal and professional development.

Fourth, the curriculum for theological education will offer help to the entire church as it faces “constantly evolving circumstances and unexpected challenges” (128). This means that education will not be content with cookie-cutter answers to today’s questions but offer training on how to exegete culture, think critically, and respond appropriately.

This suggestion brings to mind a story now decades old. Robert Schuller, a pastor with the Reformed Church in America, went to California and planted what became the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove. This guy knew how to exegete culture, think critically, and respond appropriately. One of his strategies was the drive-in church whereby people could park, roll down their windows, sit in the cars, and listen to the service. This seeker-sensitive tactic attracted some attention and a Reformed Church in Florida decided to do the same. But what worked in California did not work in Florida—for one simple reason: humidity. People in Florida did not want to sit and sweat in their cars. Each ministry context is unique. Each congregation requires cultural exegesis by those who think biblical and theologically, as well as critically, and who then respond appropriately.

Fifth, local congregations will establish theological education, provided in-part by seminaries, in and to the whole church. “There are a great number of people who seek theological studies, not necessarily to order to practice ministry… and there are a vast number of people who  are already in the practice of ministry who seek theological studies as a means to improve that practice” (129).

This suggestion sounds great but I must admit that I have tried it to no avail. I am not certain that “there are a great number of people” looking for graduate level study of the Scriptures, church history, theology, and more. My seminary recently partnered with a local mega-church.  That effort invited me to teach a class on church history to just under 30 people—about 1% of the worshiping community. Maybe 1% is OK but I am thinking González had a bigger number in mind. In contrast, the Bible Study Fellowship has been organizing in-depth Bible studies for years with impressive results. According to their web site, “each week, more than 2,000 classes and groups meet across more than 40 countries — all learning and growing through the Bible.”

Sixth, the church will invest in training of mentors in the task of “theological reflection and pastoral practice” (129). The church will also insist that all involved in the teaching ministry of the church view themselves as such.

Here González enters dangerous waters by challenging the assumption embedded in many seminaries that individuals with PhD’s and specializations in particular areas, but without significant and recent pastoral experience, can effectively train pastors. Is there another field that employs non-trained people to train people with a specific skill set? The military? No.  Medicine? No. Trades? No. Entertainment? No. Ministry? Yes.

Seventh, those within the church given responsibility for theological education will produce and promote resources to accomplish the preceding. “The problem that the church has had to face constantly ever since the invention of the printing press is not a lack of resources but the enormous abundance of resources that are not useful.”

This suggestion implies, for one, that seminary professors will write, not for their academic peers, but for the local church. And this suggestion hurts as I have just finished a nearly 600 page project that my wife claims no one will read. She wants to know when I will write a book that makes money! Of course, that is not what González proposes but he does encourage seminaries to redefine “the criteria by which faculty publications are evaluated, making relevance and usefulness a fundamental criterion”—write for local congregations (129).

In conclusion, the American Protestant seminary experience is now about 200 years old and few forecast that it will last much longer—without significant change. Justo González offers some suggestions, perhaps you have others. Still, I fear seminaries will not hear his call. They will not willingly acquiesce to a complimentary yet sub-ordinate position to the local church. Instead, seminaries will continue doing what they have been doing, but trying to outdo others as they compete for a diminishing pool of students; in the end, the strong will survive a while longer than the weak which will continue to close, one after another.

As a result, we will witness the development of even more church-based programs for theological education and ministerial training. My concern with that scenario is that the end result will be a theologically-lite church. In and of itself, that prognosis may not bother many. But think about it.  A theologically lite church is a church that is not growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord. Ultimately, a theologically lite church is an idolatrous church for it cannot help but worship an unknown god.

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