Home > Brian's Blogs, Pastoral Ministry > Should You Go to Seminary?

Should You Go to Seminary?

Have you ever considered seminary?  Do you know anyone who is thinking about seminary?  In either case, you need to read John Stackhouse’s blog titled Seminary: Who Needs It? I think he surveys the landscape well and comes to some great conclusions.  Read more for the full text.

[This is a copy of a post that has received a lot of attention, so I thought I’d put it up also as a page in case it can be useful to more people.]

If you survey leaders of megachurches in the United States…if you consider most leaders of the burgeoning house church movement in China…if you examine the leadership of exploding congregations in Africa…you notice one striking commonality: Most of them have little or no formal theological education.

A North American correspondent writes:

“Is theological education necessary for people engaged in occupational ministry? If so, is the contemporary seminary scene the best form for education to occur in the future?

“I have been wrestling a bit with this regarding the emerging church, rising student debt, and the complexity of the postmodern world. I think we live in difficult ministry times that demand excellent formation and education, but it seems the pragmatic opportunities for such education is being limited by ‘market realities.’”

I think this friend puts it well. Every leader does need to be “excellently formed and educated.” Those who seek to lead without being properly shaped as persons and educated as leaders may well attract a lot of followers by dint of charisma and hard work. But the lack of well-formed hearts and well-informed minds will put their congregations and themselves in peril: in peril of narrowness, of shallowness, and of heresy. God certainly has guided the church in the past through people without seminary education–indeed, ever since he called fishermen. But he also provided the early church, and every church since, with educated leadership, such as the carefully-trained apostle Paul.

Does a Master of Divinity degree necessarily produce and then certify a fine church leader? Certainly not. But does theological ignorance and immaturity of spirit somehow improve the picture? Hardly.

Yes, seminaries can and do narrow one’s options, but they are supposed to help students avoid bad choices and make good ones–about doctrine, about piety, about liturgy and evangelism and polity and the rest. Yet sometimes seminaries do narrow the options too much, so that those who are not socialized in such places sometimes are the ones who spontaneously innovate.

Creative people, however, normally have a considerable store of knowledge of a field before they innovate–in a way that produces lasting, influential, and positive results. Anybody can do something merely new in church: that doesn’t require knowledge, insight, or special imagination. Just have everyone who leads the service wear a pink hat, or just have everyone who attends a service keep hopping from one foot to another. (I hope I’m not giving anyone any ideas….) But lasting, influential, and positive results normally come from people who know a given field well–so well that they can see what needs changing and then how to change it for the better.

(A terrific book in this regard is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity [Harper, 1996].)

Still, most aspiring pastors aren’t looking to be especially creative, but competent, compassionate, and Christ-like. So do you need to go to seminary for that?

Well, yes. At least, some people do.

Obviously, for at least some kinds of ministry among some kinds of people, a high degree of sophistication is necessary. To be sure, well-educated congregants have the same basic needs as everybody else. But they have other needs as well that require leaders to have thought about a number of things and to have thought through at least a few of them. So those who are considering pastoral work among university or high-tech populations, therefore, will need to take seriously the peculiar intellectual demands of such work.

Yet ministry among anyone can be improved by good theological education: among kids, among teenagers, among the oppressed, among the interested and the confused of any age and situation.

For everyone asks about the problem of evil. Everyone wants to know about how to interpret Genesis 1-3. Everyone wants to know how to take the Bible’s “tall tales” of Flood, Exodus, Jonah’s fish, and Jesus’ resurrection. And everyone wants to know how to find Christ, follow him, and enjoy his company forever–in a way that avoids extremes, or compromises, or imbalances, or pat slogans.

So who shouldn’t get a proper Christian education? (That’s why I like teaching at a place that educates even more laypeople than it does pastors.) Yes, theological school is costly. But, as the old saying goes, if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.

Okay: so far, this is what you’d expect from a guy who earns his bread at a theological school.

So let’s recall again that lots of leaders around the world today don’t have seminary education and seem to enjoy God’s blessing. And that’s been true in every era of the church.

You don’t need a seminary education to introduce people to Jesus. You don’t need it to preach the gospel. You don’t need it to administer baptism or the Lord’s Supper. There is much that can be done, has been done, and is being done by simple Christians with a simple understanding–and much that puts our educated, sophisticated churches and leaders to shame.

The point is not, however, whether God uses some people in some situations to do good pastoral work. The point, rather, is whether God is calling some people in some situations to do pastoral work that really does require sustained education in the Scripture, theology, history, liturgics, administration, counseling, and other staples of contemporary seminary education.

The point is whether God is calling such people to join seminary communities in which, for a few years, they can be immersed in an environment of mutually reinforcing teachings and practices that will form them in a fundamental way for a lifetime of fruitful–and, doubtless, also creative–service.

And the point is whether we ourselves want to be pastored by people who have never been taught even the basics of Bible history, of how to interpret a parable, of the history of missionary success and failure, and of what makes for a good marriage. Yikes, I say.

I know seminary costs a lot. I didn’t earn a typical seminary degree at a typical seminary, but my theological education cost a pretty good whack of cash and it took me quite a while, so I sympathize.

Medical education and engineering education also require a lot of money and time, however, and I don’t think that pastoral work is any less conceptually difficult than medicine and engineering. I want my surgeon to know what and how to cut, and I want my engineer to know how to build a bridge that will stay up, and I want my pastor to know how to lead us to become a better church. So the money and time is justified if the education helps a lot toward that goal.

Thus the question is whether, in fact, seminaries offer good, and good enough, education for those whose callings require it. And I would then say that some seminaries do, and some don’t. Some are academically arcane; some are dogmatic and authoritarian; some are sloppy; some are only warm and fuzzy; and some are self-righteous–and guess what kinds of students they tend to attract and to produce? Yikes again, I say.

So this is not a brief for seminary education in general, nor is it a blanket endorsement of every theological school. Heavens, no! But it is an encouragement to those serious Christians, like my friendly correspondent, who wonder if the time and money is worth it. For some people, at the right theological school, it is. And maybe it is for you, too.

In sum, academic snobbery–”Every pastor ought to be a seminary graduate”–flies in the face of church history and contemporary experience around the world.

Yet anti-academic snobbery does, too–”No pastor needs to go to seminary, and I sure don’t.” The church has been too richly blessed by well-trained leaders–from Paul to Hildegard, from Augustine to Luther, from Aquinas to Bonhoeffer, from John Wesley to John Sung–for us to cavalierly congratulate ourselves on our avoidance of formal training.

The church today needs a wide range of leaders with a wide range of preparation. Let each of us, then, seek the best education available to us: counting the cost, yes, and also the benefit of it–to ourselves and to all those whom we will influence.

  1. Brian D.
    May 22, 2009 at 8:18 am

    I could not help but think of a news show I saw where Pastors in Congo vilages were casting “bad spirits” out of children in what they claimed was by the Holy Spirit. I more or less thought that this was just a long line of vilage tradition passed on through the generations. However, if these so called Pastors had any formal Bible or Seminary training perhaprs an entire village could be changed?

    I think when it comes down to it the Holy Spirit will give us everything we need to be effective in what ever calling we get and Seminary is only a tool to equip us to those means.

    • Erin C.
      January 12, 2011 at 1:24 pm

      The congo minister casting out demons from children by the power of the Holy Spirit knows exactly what he’s doing. Our culture needs to read the Bible again and again till we realize that we are perishing for lack of knowledge. Christians and children can and do have “evil spirits”. I know you won’t take my word for it, but do some research on the subject- good research, and not from a one sided perspective either. An evil spirit can not occupy our spirit where God dwells but it can most certainly occupy our flesh where sin dwells. The Bible is very clear on this. It can happen and did happen, even in Jesus’ day. Jesus cast out demons from children and “christians” in His day and gave us the power to continue. We have gotten it in our heads that this is no longer the case, but that is a lie. We need to wake up and realize that it’s real and we have the power through the blood of Jesus and the authority of Jesus to fight. I recommend http://www.tdsministries.org for some research on this subject. Don’t automatically disqualify it just because it’s what you’ve been told or it’s what you have always thought.

  2. mikewittmer
    May 25, 2009 at 10:35 am

    I appreciate the general tone of this post, but a bit puzzled by his conclusion that not all pastors need to go to seminary. To use his examples, would he say that not all surgeons need to go to med school or not all engineers need to earn degrees in their field? Why is Christian ministry one of the remaining callings where education not quite essential?

  3. Brian McLaughlin
    May 26, 2009 at 7:48 pm

    Mike – I’m not totally sure of Stackhouse’s theology, but it may be because of the priesthood of all believers. I agree for a couple of reasons.

    First, I think you have to define “Christian ministry” pretty narrow to say that it requires formal Christian education. I realize in this context he is talking about “pastors,” but biblically our “elders” are “pastors.”

    Second, I don’t know this 100% for sure, but I imagine that it is European and NA Christianity that has highly educated pastors. My guess is that Africa and China, for example, are not quite as educated but are doing just fine.

    Now I remain a big advocate of education for pastors. I’ve been in one form of seminary for 8 of the last 10 years. I also encourage those considering the pastorate to go to seminary (but to get a “normal” undergrad degree!). So I know the value of it, but I have a hard time saying it is essential.

  4. May 27, 2009 at 12:53 am

    It’s good to remind ourselves that many pastors within the baptist tradition attended some sort of Bible college without ever attending seminary. Good or bad… not sure. Just a reminder though.

  5. Kit Joy
    January 12, 2010 at 9:22 am

    I’m only 20 this year. And the pastor of my church gave me an offer. They are willing to sponsor me to seminary to equip myself to take over the youth ministry of my church. Then work my way towards being a pastor. It’s such a huge thing I have no idea where to start thinking. I’ve never even thought about being a pastor. I just finished something equivalent to A Levels and am waiting for my results. The normal path for such student is to enter university in June. For now it’ll be a long holiday for me. I want to be a social worker. Will I be learning the same things in seminary to be a social worker?

    • Kali
      May 19, 2011 at 10:54 pm


      That is a huge offer ! Your pastor must really see something in you. Since you have never thought about being a pastor, I recommend that you go through a very deep process discernment and prayer with your pastor. Even if you thought about being a pastor this would be a very important step to take. Seminary and social work education can be very complimentary but are different from each other. Many seminary programs in the United States offer a dual-degree often known as a Masters in Divinity and Masters in Social Work. Both of these fields are callings in their own right though with the right person….both degrees taking together can be away of further equiping yourself. It would be a good recommended step to find out more about the substance of a theological education and how that would relate to work after graduation which will tend to be different from the Ivory tower unless you become a professor. The big first step is to really discern you calling and really sit down with your pastor and go through a process of spiritual direction/discernment regarding your calling. May God bless you in your endeavors. These are things that I am currently wrestling with as I go through my process of discernment.

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