Friends over at The Gospel Coalition have been promoting a new book, 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me, for several weeks. They have also featured videos of big-name pastors sharing about the things they could only learn in day-to-day ministry, not in seminary.
As a seminary professor and a churchman, I fully understand that seminaries don’t ‘make’ pastors, nor do they equip would-be pastors, missionaries, etc. with everything they need to thrive in ministry. Neither do medical schools, law schools, and so forth.
But I’m not sure seminaries have ever claimed that, nor have other professional schools.
Thus, I want gently to push back a bit on this motif—or at least an unintended side effect it may have. Even in my short tenure at RTS, I have noticed a general rise in the opinion that ‘seminaries are all about head knowledge’ and that they are unnecessary gatekeepers to ‘real ministry.’ This opinion tends to ebb and flow over time, but it is a strong force at present particularly among the non-denominational networks that do not generally require ministry degrees. The idea is that—if you must—you pay your dues and get your book knowledge at seminary, and then learn the ‘real stuff of ministry’ from your local pastor. Or better yet: try to make it without seminary at all.
No one doubts the value of on-the-job experience. My own internship was invaluable. It’s a major part of my dean of students role at RTS. It’s the reason why we, along with most if not all seminaries, emphasize greatly the ‘field ed’ component of our training (internships, apprenticeships, ordination prep, attending presbytery, etc.). But an unfortunate side-effect of the ‘what seminary can’t teach me’ motif is that it can unintentionally validate the broader trend that undermines the utility and role of seminary training altogether—though I know that is not the editors’ or contributors’ goal.
So I’d like to offer a different perspective that, I hope, will be received as simply a humble attempt at complementing the discussion. Here are 15 things seminary teaches you that your busy pastor(ate) can’t, in no particular order:
1. Gaining theological perspective from those who are unlike you
Every church where you will work and every pastor from whom you will learn unavoidably tend to think within a given tradition about theological matters. That’s as it should be. But there is something immensely valuable in studying the theologies of other parts of Christendom than your own. To read books written by those with whom you disagree; to converse with students and faculty who hold, with strong biblical convictions, a different position than your own. To study their arguments first-hand, rather than filtered second-hand through someone else from within your neck of the woods.
There are few opportunities to do this in such a rigorous way when one is grappling with day-to-day ministry. When push comes to shove, you are always pulled towards only engaging with your own theological tradition. But, as some of our Baptist students acknowledged, your beliefs are often tremendously sharpened when you engage with those who do not share your beliefs, rather than always hearing from an insider in your own church tradition. For instance, I recall being far more influenced by Olson’s robust defense of Arminianism than by any off-the-shelf book on Calvinism (particularly those that tend towards caricaturization).
This dynamic extends beyond denominational lines, however. Seminary is an amazing opportunity for male students in particular to interact with and learn from female students. One of the best parts of my Acts-Paul course is when the women share how the ‘hard passages’ (pastorals, 1 Cor 11, 14, etc.) impact them theologically and personally. It’s invaluable also to receive feedback from women in the preaching lab—especially since they will make up at least half of the congregation on Sunday!
2. Gaining practical perspectives from those who are outside your own church
Working in day-to-day ministry engender a kind of myopia in terms of how to ‘do’ church. Your philosophy of ministry will be profoundly shaped by your direct ministry experiences. Either you will look back on a prior golden-age experience as ‘how things should be done,’ or you will tend to think that your church now is the exemplar for all things.
While things like presbytery meetings and conferences can help broaden your horizon (learning how that church does their liturgy, or how this church does youth ministry, or how their website does helpful things from which you can learn), such opportunities are relatively rare. And, to be honest, we tend to sit at the lunch table (metaphorically and literally) with like-minded people.
Seminary—particularly one that is not exclusively wed to a single denomination—provides an unparalleled opportunity to learn how other sincere, thoughtful, historically-informed Christians do practical things in ministry: liturgy, preaching, music, men’s ministry, women’s ministry, evangelism, etc. You do not have to agree with them, but learning from them is essential to being well-rounded.
3. Thinking self-critically about yourself and your dominant influences
We live in an era of personality-driven churches. Particularly in big churches, there is a tendency for young men and women in ministry to idolize how their ministry team or senior pastor does things. At a certain level this is fine. But when one is immersed in a church full-time, the siren call is towards treating your own pastors/mentors as the fount of all things. To become a chip off the ole’ block. To fashion yourself after him or her.
Seminary—due to the presence of numerous seasoned voices (faculty, guest speakers, fellow students)—causes you to think critically about yourself, your own church, and your own pastoral mentors. You will have the chance to learn from other veterans and not just the heroes of your own tribe or church, so that you can with more clarity assess the strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots in yourself and your dominant ministry influences.
4.Using biblical languages in a responsible way
You can learn Hebrew vocabulary or Greek paradigms online, and you may even pass an online Greek course. You can do the videocasts or BibleMesh courses. You can learn how to click around in BibleWorks or Accordance, or use Strong’s or an interlinear. You can drop some ‘the original really is…’ in your sermons. But none of that necessarily cultivates the habits and instincts of responsible exegesis.
Apart from very rare exceptions, the tyranny of the urgent in day-to-day ministry will drown out the use of languages. It is simply not incented. Increasingly rare are pastors who can, or even want to, read the text in Hebrew or Greek (beyond merely ‘translating,’ which is a misnomer anyhow). Though the Word of God is the fountain of our existence, the upkeep of actual competence—not the appearance of competence—in the biblical languages in which the Word was written is increasingly difficult.
Seminary—at least those that still offer robust language training and not simply ‘how to use the computer’ shortcuts—is, ultimately, the only place you can not only learn the languages, but, more importantly, see them being used in a responsible way. That happens in community, in day-to-day grinding it out, showing how the stuff you learned in Mounce actually matters.
To use an analogy: anyone can ‘learn’ carpentry by watching YouTube videos. But you only have the appearance of competency until you actually grasp the tools and apprentice yourself under a skilled carpenter, watching them in action and then doing it yourself before their watchful eyes. There is absolutely no substitute for this, however fancy computers and video streaming and phone apps get.
For instance, when or where else in life can you sit in the office of Mark Futato—who literally wrote the book on Hebrew—and read Hebrew out loud, pick his brain on syntax in the psalms, ask him to check your work? When else in your life can you listen to Chuck Hill—one of a minuscule number of Reformed scholars inducted into the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas—and watch him pick apart a knotty bit of text in Galatians and describe (I’ve even heard that he’s welled up in tears before) the gospel implications?
5. Thinking theologically about important issues, not just pragmatically responding to fires
As anyone who works in a church knows, the week quickly fills up with crises. It’s inevitable in soul care. The temptation, then, is to slip into reaction mode. To do whatever works—whatever keeps staff happy, whatever the elders will agree to, whatever will keep the budget balanced, and whatever will keep attendance high.
This is all normal. We all do it. But one of the underemphasized blessings of seminary education is that it forces you (through assignments, lectures, guest speakers, etc.) to pause and think, rather than just respond. To study the broad biblical and church-historical teaching on something before it becomes a fire in your own church. To develop a theology of various issues that can ground how you respond—or, for new things brewing, to learn how to think theologically about them when they arise.
6. Receiving impartial feedback on your sermons/teaching from peers and instructors
When one is immersed in church ministry, two things happen: (a) your pastor becomes the only real source of feedback for your sermons/lessons (if you’re an assistant or intern, and if you’re lucky to receive anything at all), and/or (b) people in your own congregation (the ‘nice old lady’ or the ‘grumpy elder’ or your own spouse) become the only source of feedback.
It’s a remarkably one-sided setup, with the only sources of feedback coming from people who have relational skin in the game with you. It can become quite the echo chamber. Some pastors ask a group of other pastors or trusted advisors to listen to some of their sermons on occasion and give them feedback, but such efforts are extremely rare and/or very hard to sustain over time. Who has the energy?
Seminary is one of those rare opportunities to get serious critique of your preaching/teaching from people who have no skin in the game with you. Your classmates are not impressed by your senior pastor’s rhetorical abilities and have no interest in cutting you from the same cloth. Generally your peers do not have to worship with you on Sunday, so there is greater freedom to be honest. Your preaching professor(s) will not hesitate lovingly to give you a thorough evaluation of where you are and where you can improve. They don’t, honestly, care that your senior pastor wants you to do more clever anecdotes. This objectivity is immensely valuable, at least for those students who will allow themselves to be sanctified by it.
7. Cultivating friendships with those who will have similar ministry roles, but not be in your church
Nearly everyone who is new in ministry admits that one of the hardest things is loneliness and isolation. You are always ‘on.’ Few are the moments when people don’t look at you as ‘the pastor’ or ‘the youth worker.’ Everyone in your life either is (a) your boss or (b) your flock. It becomes difficult to be vulnerable. It becomes difficult to have friends.
Seminary is one of the few times in your life you can develop deep relationships with others who will be in a similar situation—and thus ‘get’ what you’re going through—but who are not in the same church as you.
Seminary friends are the few people in your life who are ‘safe’ for you to contact when you’re having a blowup with your Session or staff. And the seminary friends of your spouse play the same role, for they, too, understand the fishbowl but aren’t in your fishbowl. (For this reason, we at RTS-O invest a lot of time cultivating relationships among students and spouses).
8. Learning innumerable things that will form you as a person, even if others say, “You don’t need to know this to prepare a sermon”
There is always a sermon to write or a ministry project to do. This pressure is a built-in filter to how you spend your time in ministry. You learn to focus only on stuff where the ‘so what’ is obvious, measurable, and practical.
Seminary, by contrast, is a special time where you learn an incredible number of things that may not have immediately evident output other than forming you. And that, in fact, is of inestimable value.
My colleague Nicholas Reid will be teaching a course on Akkadian this fall. Other than those who pursue an ANE Ph.D., will anyone use that in, say, sermon prep? Probably not. But that’s not the point. The goal of education is not simply practical. It is you. Forming you to be a deeper, more well-developed person.
Regularly I have heard from former classmates or students that the most influential experiences they had in seminary were the canon/text course of Mike Kruger, or the manuscripts class with Chuck Hill, or the archaeology course with John Currid. By utilitarian standards, those classes would be judged a waste of time. But from a personal-growth standard, they were huge.
Unfortunately, the ’15 things seminary can’t teach’ motif reinforces the belief that the only things worth studying are those that have immediate practical impact. But this is not an MBA. Sometimes the impact is you.
9. Adulting…and all the other intangible benefits of grinding out a graduate degree
Particularly for younger folks, seminary training is of tremendous worth in causing them to work hard, be responsible, show up, and do their job. This basic adult formation is not happening with the same consistency in undergrad as it once was.
There is something about the challenge of graduate education that forces you, in the crucible, to develop patterns that will last a lifetime.
10. Integrating biblical exegesis, systematic theology, and church history in a way that you will (likely) rarely be able to do again
Some of the best moments as a professor are when what you’re teaching connects with what your colleagues are teaching, so that it all starts to click in a very 3-D way with students. I love it when I’m teaching covenants from 2 Corinthians 3–4, and it jives with Ligon Duncan’s or Reid’s covenant theology classes. Or when I get excited about divine christology in the Gospels, and it brings up the same questions raised by Swain in his theology/Trinity courses. Or when we think through the deep relationality of Paul’s ministry (his friends, his churches, etc.) and it cuts to the heart of Glodo’s pastoral ministry courses. Or when a lengthy discussion of gospel reception among the church fathers ties nicely with Allen’s assigned readings from Augustine.
There are few opportunities to do this during day-to-day ministry. One will read a commentary and write a sermon. One might brush up on Bavinck to do a SS class on election. But the integration of the riches of the Christian tradition in a deep way, for hundreds of hours inside and outside the classroom, is nearly unique in the seminary environment.
11. Writing taxing, difficult papers that will force you to think clearly, interact honestly with the Bible, use scholarly resources, and receive critique from someone who knows more than you
The current cultural moment privileges 1,000-word (or 280-character) hot-takes over carefully nuanced, serious reflection. This predilection for pithy; this veneration of the one who is talking the loudest; this ease by which we settle for emotional appeals—it pervades not only life in general but the communication of the gospel, too. The days of sustained, thoughtful engagement on a topic feel numbered.
Yet everything about what we do in ministry directly or indirectly relates to sustaining a particular thesis or idea about something, whether in a sermon (big-idea preaching) or in shepherding (believe-this, do-this, change-this). Unfortunately, it is precisely this skill that is rarely taught and even more rarely rewarded. Why read deeply on a subject—let alone put your thoughts down on paper—when you can just find a short blog post that supports your preconceived opinion about it, and move on?
This situation is precisely why I (along with other colleagues) assign difficult papers. There are few opportunities to grapple deeply with opposing perspectives; to exhaust the biblical text at both the micro and macro levels; to do research using materials that are not evangelical commentaries. To produce 4,500-7,000 words (my normal assignment) using at least a certain number of sources, some of which must be outside your comfort zone. Only rarely is this kind of endeavor a part of the day-to-day of ministry.
But it yields tremendous benefits to the student. There is simply no replacement for the task of reading deeply on an issue, honing your take on it, and submitting it to scrutiny by someone who can competently evaluate it.
12. Reading hard books
Life in ministry is busy, and to the extent that anyone makes time to read, the gravitational pull (no doubt impacted by Christian marketing) is towards topical, lightweight, 150-page-ish, ‘relevant’ books on this topic or that. And I’m not denigrating those books at all (I hope to write some).
I only say this to point out that the day-to-day of ministry is not configured towards, nor does it reward, the exercise of reading long, complicated, difficult books. Not when there are meeting agendas or sermons or budgets clamoring for your limited attention.
For everyone other than the dedicated bookworms, seminary is that rare opportunity to read a handful of hard books. The ‘big rocks’ like Ridderbos or Vos that are not easy, but which are worth it. Books that will change your life.
13. Gaining ministry humility
Most people who end up in ministry have received affirmation from others to pursue it. And that is important and good. But there’s a shadow side to this. The very thing that makes others notice giftings in you can also reinforce within your own heart that you’re ‘kind of a big deal.’ That you’re the well-read, articulate one in your church who can speak well in front of others. This kind of mentality, left unchecked, gets worse over time as it metastasizes into a guru mentality, with you at the center of all church life.
Attending seminary is immensely helpful in this regard, for you are taken out of your pond and placed in context with other people just like you, most of whom are also ‘kind of a big deal’ in their home churches. When you collide with others, there is a healthy self-recalibration that takes place. Hopefully, you learn that you don’t have the market cornered on this ministry thing, that you have a lot to learn, and that you can celebrate the gifts of others without seeing it as some kind of zero-sum competition.
(Jeff Robinson, the co-editor of the aforementioned book, reflects helpfully on this here)
14. Learning how to learn (for a lifetime)
Seminaries are not just about conveying information. They’re not even mainly about that. I’m fully aware that students will retain very little of the details we cover in class and readings. But that is not the point. The goal is actually to model how to learn for the long haul: how to read carefully and judiciously; how to assess arguments charitably and wisely; how to learn from others with whom you disagree; how to track down resources and judge their worth; and so on.
It’s a set of tools, not the data itself, that makes the seminary experience so invaluable. I fear that this somehow gets lost in the general trend of maligning seminaries for their focus on head knowledge.
15. Developing expertise
Last year the death of expertise was declared—the latest victim of the toxic imbalances of social media and the attention-span-less internet generation.
This antipathy towards specialized knowledge impacts the church, as well. For some, expertise is traded for efficacy. For others, expertise is met with outright suspicion, a latent carryover of the anti-intellectual roots of the early American fundamentalist movement.
But the ministry remains at its core a learned (learn-ed) calling. While you will gain numerous things on-the-job by your pastor or others in your pastorate, there is also nothing that can substitute for being trained by numerous people who are actual subject-matter experts.
For instance, the day-to-day can help you sort out some of the practicalities of covenant theology, and that is great and important. But where or when else can you learn from someone like my colleague Nicholas Reid, a legit, bonafide Assyriologist (and churchman) who actually studies ancient covenant documents in cuneiform: handling artifacts, producing editiones princepes and translations, and then integrating insights into his lectures on the Mosaic Covenant? Or when else will you be able to work directly with the church historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (John Muether) on polity and church government? When else can you learn directly from Guy Waters about the New Perspective on Paul?
In other words, in pursuing a calling to become a trustworthy handler of God’s Word, there is value in admitting there are things beyond the wheelhouse of any given pastor, but which can be taught to you directly by verified experts.
In sum, my point is not to pendulum-swing back to the other extreme in what can easily become a church vs. seminary battle. Neither I, nor the seminary where I work, even remotely think about it in that way. We see ourselves as servants of the church, and few things delight us more than seeing our students grow and thrive in the day-to-day, both during and after their time with us.
I do, however, hope this list may give anyone pause before they allow the title, 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me, to mutate into ‘Why bother with it at all.’