The (Real) Challenge Facing Seminaries

Dr. James Emery White
Dr. James Emery White

A recent article detailed the declining interest among those called to ministry in the three-year Master of Divinity degree, long considered the quintessential degree for both ordination and vocational ministry. If a seminary education is even now pursued, it increasingly tends to be a two-year Master of Arts of some kind, typically focusing on leadership. According to a new projection from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the number of seminary students enrolled in various Master of Arts degrees will likely exceed the number of Master of Divinity students by 2021.

But even with the turn to shorter degrees, seminaries are losing ground. They have been in decline, year by year, for more than a decade. Even when figures released by ATS in 2017 showed a leveling-off from that decline, it was because ATS admitted five new schools. Remove those five and the decline continues.

But what’s the real reason for the gold standard seminary degree losing its luster? Why have seminaries been in a decade-long decline? Is there something going on beyond students not wanting to uproot or go in debt?

Yes, and it’s time to speak about it openly and honestly. 

Many seminaries are simply irrelevant to contemporary vocational ministry or, even worse, in an adversarial role toward its mission and theology. 

There are several reasons for this. 

One is that there is often a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) antagonism toward contemporary approaches to ministry, worship/music, organizational structure and evangelism. Contemporary approaches to ministry are just that – contemporary. New wine can’t be poured into old wineskins, and too often seminaries are the torchbearers for the old of both and work to lead their students to embrace said traditionalism.

There was a meeting between a seminary president and a number of church leaders in the ’80s. The president wanted to know why so many larger, more contemporary churches were no longer recommending their staff and members to attend. One of the pastors stood up and said, “I sent you three of my very best, and by the end of their three years of study you had turned them against everything we’re doing.” He’s not alone in that sentiment and, if anything, it’s only grown more common over time.

A similar concern is theological. Most seminaries will say they have no theological or methodological agendas. Please. The majority of seminaries most certainly do, whether stated publicly or not. Sometimes it’s from the top down; in other cases, it’s just the preponderance of a particular viewpoint among the faculty… but it’s there. And since existing faculty tend to nominate and affirm prospective faculty, the agenda becomes entrenched.

Yet most pastors and church leaders don’t want such agendas, regardless of their own moorings. They want seminaries to provide a theological education, not a theological indoctrination.

A third reason many seminaries are increasingly seen as irrelevant by those in ministry is because many seminary professors have never actually led a church beyond interim positions or short-term part-time stints while in seminary or graduate school. They are theoreticians at best, not practitioners. If you want to learn how to, say, grow a church or plant a church or lead a church, a seminary professor often can’t help you. Why? Many, if not most, have never done it.

A fourth reason seminaries are having a growing disconnect with the local church is because many seminaries do not truly exist for the local church, much less exhibit passion for the local church. Let’s be honest: many exist for the academy. They are trying to serve the academy, please the academy, impress the academy. That is their passion. 

I remember a student in one of my theology classes who came to me at the end of the semester, thanking me for teaching “electric” theology. I didn’t know exactly what she meant, though it sounded like a compliment. She then added, “I know so many students who came into seminary full of passion for the local church, only to see them – three years later – bowing down before the altar of the academy.”

Why?

That was the passion of their professors.

Finally, many seminaries are growing increasingly irrelevant because of the lack of a truly relevant curriculum. I talked with one seminary president who said to me (with obvious pride) that, while it took him 17 years, he finally got evangelism added to the school’s core curriculum.

That.Is.Insane.

Insane that it took 17 years to get evangelism added as a required course for those preparing for Christian ministry; a ministry that is, at its heart, the Great Commission. Insane that there was such internal resistance among faculty to have a required course on evangelism.

But here’s why such a seemingly obvious thing was debated: Are the 90 hours for a Master of Divinity degree to go toward the preparation for vocational ministry in a local church, or to the preparation for advanced academic work and a life in academia? If the degree is for vocational ministry, then course requirements will be tilted toward the practice of ministry—such as leadership, church health, church growth, the equipping of the saints, cultural exegesis, communication skills and more. To be sure, biblical studies, theology and church history should very much remain in the mix. But all too often, they are the mix and vocational preparation is an afterthought.

This is why so many pastors and church leaders will attend a Global Leadership Summit at Willow Creek, a Catalyst event or a John Maxwell seminar, and walk away saying, “I learned more about how to do my job in this one day than I did my entire three years of seminary.”

And they were probably right.

This is the real challenge facing seminaries. And it is why an increasing number of large churches no longer encourage seminary for their staff, at least beyond very select courses. They can train their own staff better than a seminary can, at least for the practice of ministry. And when there is the need for other forms of training and education? It’s easily outsourced through books and online courses.

At Mecklenburg Community Church (Meck), we’ve developed the Meck Institute, a “community college” approach to advanced learning and development. We offer courses on books of the Bible, overview biblical studies, church history, apologetics, theology, the spiritual disciplines and more. We also have a one-year Leadership Development Program (LDP) that offers an entire course in systematic theology with additional seminars on leadership, mission, vision, values and a leader’s personal life. The LDP is then enhanced with additional readings and monthly cohort gatherings.

You might be thinking, “Why not have a partnership between churches and seminaries to bridge the gap and solve many of these issues?” 

Amen and amen. 

But as one who has tried to do this with more than one seminary, it has always ended with frustration. The seminaries I have approached, or have been approached by simply (in the end) wanted our people as future students. They wanted to either offer their existing courses on site or for us to send our students their way. The one or two times true collaboration ventured creatively beyond this point – worked out between, say, us and one of the school’s deans – it was quickly shot down by the faculty.

There was no interest in a true partnership where the church could assist in the education a seminary might provide, supplement the education a seminary might provide, shape the education a seminary might provide, or even help process the education a seminary might provide. It is as if they are wedded to the old overseas mission model that goes, “Pay, pray and stay out of the way.”

I love the vision of seminary and the education it can provide. The ideal. The potential. The hope. Much of my life has been given to serving it. I am a former president of a seminary. I remain a ranked adjunctive professor at a seminary. I continue to serve as a visiting professor at many seminaries. And, before all of that, I was part of a three-year residential seminary program from which I received a Master of Divinity. 

Which means you have been eavesdropping on a lover’s quarrel.

And it also means I will remain hopeful that one day,

… seminaries will actively seek out pastors and listen to what they feel a seminary education needs to hold for people they might send their way;

… seminaries will embrace the contemporary church instead of being threatened by it;

… seminaries will work collaboratively with churches to provide a seminary education, which means letting the church truly contribute to that education in ways only the church can;

… seminaries and their faculty and staff will realize they do not serve the academy but the local church, and pray for appropriate passion to that end;

… seminaries will ruthlessly evaluate their curriculum in light of what it is most trying to do, which is prepare men and women for vocational ministry;

… and that seminaries will lose their theological agendas, teach diverging viewpoints within historic orthodoxy with fairness, and build faculties with robust diversity on said viewpoints.

Oh, for that day to come.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Yonat Shimron, “More Seminary Students Leave the Master of Divinity Behind,” Religion News Service, May 11, 2018, read online.

Eliza Smith Brown and Chris Meinzer, “New Data Reveal Stable Enrollment but Shifting Trends at ATS Member Schools,” Association of Theological Schools (ATS), March 2017, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.

 
Originally published May 21, 2018.

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