Friday, October 12, 2012

Straight talk to people considering attending seminary

In yesterday's post I addressed the problem of seminary trained ministers seeking churches to serve and the reluctance of many of them to serve bivocational churches.  What makes this problem worse is that increasing numbers of our churches are moving from being fully-funded to bivocational.  Many of these churches are not seeking managers as much as they are seeking entrepreneurial leadership who can help them begin to move forward again.  One of my concerns, which I also mentioned in yesterday's post, is that many seminaries continue to prepare ministers for churches that no longer exist.  Today I want to speak to people who are considering a seminary education.

In the past I have been accused of being anti-education.  It may help to know that I have three degrees including a DMin which I received just a couple of years ago at the age of 62.  I am not anti-education; I am anti-education that doesn't prepare a person for living in the real world.  Too many students leave school with enormous sums of student loan debt with an education that has not prepared them to make a living in the real world.  That is a waste of both time and money.  When I decided at the age of 54 to pursue a master's degree I had already been in ministry for nearly three decades. For twenty of those years I pastored a bivocational church, and for the previous five years I had served as a judicatory minister in our denomination.  I didn't need a degree to get a job.  I wanted the knowledge and the personal growth that would come with pursuing the degree.  I purposefully chose not to seek an MDiv but instead enrolled in a MAR program with a concentration in leadership.  After completing that program I enrolled in the DMin program again for my own personal growth.

Why did I not pursue the traditional MDiv?  That has become the degree that most persons going into ministry seek, but I chose the MAR for several reasons.  The primary reason is that I question the value of the MDiv for most pastors.  This post is about talking straight so that is what I am going to do.  The traditional MDiv provides the student with a lot of knowledge and skills that he or she will seldom, if ever, use in an actual church ministry.  In my twenty year pastorate no one ever asked me to exegete a passage from the Bible, but I did have people want to talk to me about a child who had a problem with alcohol or couples who came to me with issues in their marriage.  I can hear some of you asking, but how did you prepare for your sermons without an understanding of Greek and Hebrew?

I'm glad you asked that!  In most MDiv programs I've seen three semesters of biblical languages are required.  That's fine, but that does not make anyone an expert in those languages.  In my library I have several hundreds of dollars of books written by individuals who have spent a lifetime studying biblical languages as well as the history and geography and customs of biblical times.  I can go to those commentaries and reference books and benefit from their years of study as I prepare my sermons.  I simply don't believe that three semesters of biblical languages is a good substitute for the wealth of information I can receive from these trusted authors.  I've come to believe that the MDiv is now the program that persons planning on doing PhD work take while those of us called to pastoral ministry should look at the MA programs being offered by many seminaries today.

My MAR program consisted of courses one would expect from a seminary program but also included a number of courses designed to help me develop as a leader.  Because my program included a concentration in leadership, five leadership courses were included in my studies.  These practical courses would serve any pastor well and provided the kind of training that many churches now seek from their pastoral leaders.

Many of our churches today are much less concerned with a pastor's credentials as they are if he or she can do the job.  I do not mean to take away from the spiritual nor do I want anyone to think I am downplaying the value of biblical studies.  Anyone who knows me will testify as to my strong belief in the integrity of the Scriptures and my use of those Scriptures as the foundation to my messages and my ministry.  But, at the same time, our churches want people who can build relationships with the membership as well as with persons outside the church.  They want people who have experienced more of life than is found sitting in a classroom.  They want people who have skills that are useful outside the church.  They are less interested in someone who can manage the church as they are in finding someone who can provide them with servant leadership.  The degrees you seek from seminary must help you acquire these skills if you want to enjoy ministry in the 21st century.

One last word to persons considering seminary.  I may have taken a very unorthodox approach to getting my education waiting so long to get my master's and doctoral degrees, but I also didn't incur any student debt either.  When I talk with seminary graduates with $60,000 in student loan debt who are serving in churches paying $35,000 a year I have to wonder why.  It may have taken me longer than most ministers to complete my education, but doing it the way I did I was able to cash flow it and avoid that debt, and I was involved in ministry during all that time so I could put into immediate practice what I was learning.  Just one more thing to consider.

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