Benefits of Going TO Seminary

Brian LePort has a post where he laments the financial cost of going to seminary. He suggests that online education may be a way to alleviate some of the cost. Brian makes this point:

If seminaries want their students involved in ministry why would you ask them to leave their pastorate in Wyoming to move to attend your seminary in Oregon so that they can train to do what they are already doing in Wyoming? That doesn’t make sense. Sure, being in a classroom is superior in many ways to watching a recording of a class, but watching a recording of a class while continuing in your present ministry is better than quitting that ministry to attend classes on campus.

In my education, I have done both in class, and online courses, and I have had positive and negative experiences in both formats. To further the conversation a little bit and interact with this critique that removing a person in active ministry to have them go to seminary to train them for the ministry that they’re currently doing doesn’t make any sense, I thought I would re-post my article on the benefits of going to seminary:

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There has been much discussion over the move to offer M.Div degrees in such a way that the person in ministry does not have to remove themselves from their current ministry position. This has an advantage because going to seminary often means the uprooting of a family and taking a significant paycut while attending school fulltime.

Christianity Today had a cover story on the rise of online offerings and the shift to seminary education that allows the student to remain in their ministry context while getting a degree.

Some schools have moved to a modular format, where classes are week-long intensives. This allows the student to come for a week, participate in class and then when back home, to work on the papers, exams and other assignments. (This is the model at Briercrest, though there also are semester-long courses occasionally offered).

While it can be a sacrifice to go away to seminary, I would like to suggest some reasons why going to seminary can be advantageous.

1. A New Perspective.
Sometimes we become so embedded in our current ministry context that we cannot see anything other than how “we do it.” To go away to seminary, to join with a different community allows us to see the forest rather than just the individual tree that we have lived and worked in. This can lead to a humbling realization that how we do church is not the only way to do church. As well, it can give us a new perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of the congregation that we serve.

2. A Time of Refreshing & Healing.
With the threat of pastoral burnout an ever constant danger, going away to seminary can be a time of refreshment. It can be a time to be ministered to, to learn, to grow and to be filled up so that we can remain effective in ministry.

3. A Time of Exploration.
A pastor begins to wonder about how to read Genesis 1-3 and wants to wrestle and ponder and deconstruct his theological presuppositions. To do this while in a ministry setting can be dangerous. The congregation could begin to wonder if the pastor has “lost it” or is destined to become an apostate, or worse, a heretic. Going away to seminary can provide the pastor the time, space, privacy, and community to question and explore. This can be especially true if a seminary is chosen that is non-denominational, inter-denominational or at least open to academic and theological inquiry (as opposed to some seminaries that focus on training pastors to have the “right” answers).

4. A Time to Discover New Gifts.
A pastor has spent 10 years in congregational care and chaplaincy. In going to seminary she discovers that she loves wrestling through Hebrew and text-critical issues. A new passion emerges, and the pastor respecializes, going on to doctoral studies with the goal of becoming a professor of Old Testament.

Likewise, a preaching pastor goes to seminary and discovers a gift of listening, and chooses to pursue a degree in biblical counseling. By having the experience of being a preaching pastor, and now learning how to provide pastoral counseling, the pastor feels equipped to provide wholistic ministry to a small congregation that cannot afford to have a multi-staff configuration.

5. A Time to Network and Develop New Friendships.
It is said that 80% of ministry postings are never advertised, but are filled through the search committee having a list of “recommended” candidates. Particularly for churches that are non-denominational, the invitation to candidate at a church comes because of “who you know”.
The same can be said for invitations to speak at conferences or retreats. It is often based on friendships and relationships at seminary where fellow pastors and professors have opportunity to see a person’s giftings, ministry, and calling.

6. A Time to Focus.
One of the downsides to taking classes while still in full-time ministry is that our attention can be divided. The night before a paper is due, a congregant has a family crisis, and the pastor is forced to put aside the paper to deal with the congregant. This can result in a) the pastor choosing to hand the paper in late and thus taking a penalty, or b) not giving the paper the care and attention that it requires. Very often a congregation does not understand the amount of time and study that is required in coursework, and thus when they hear that the pastor is “only” working on a paper, they think that it is okay to interrupt them with more “practical” concerns. (Of course, this can be remedied by having a board of elders who can take on some of these distractions which then allows the pastor the time to focus on the classwork).

On a personal note, while my coming to Briercrest was precipitated by Chuck getting a job out here, I am very grateful for this chance to “go” to Seminary. I had been taking classes while in ministry in Hamilton, but it was a different experience. Being at seminary has given me a chance to refocus and rest. It wasn’t until we moved out here that I realized how burnt out I was from being in ministry. I have a new perspective. I have a new passion and I have a renewed desire to help people get excited about God’s word.