Don’t Expect a Seminary to Do the Church’s Job

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

As a graduate of two seminaries and as a current seminary instructor, I have often internally cringed at statements like, “Seminary classes need to be more practical” or “The seminary isn’t doing enough to care for the students’ spiritual needs.” On the one hand, a theological education should not be impractical, not should it ignore the spiritual formation of students. After all, the primary purpose of most seminaries is to train people to serve the local church in various capacities. But in the same breath, I fear that statements like those above betray a misunderstanding of the respective roles of both seminaries and the local church.

Many churches (but not all churches!) seem to believe that it is the seminary’s job to train, mentor, educate, and evaluate future ministers, evangelists, church planters, etc. But the seminary is being given an impossible task. Churches often perfunctorily sign-off on a recommendation form, and hand over people who are immature in their faith, expecting the seminary to single-handedly transform them into pastors. The seminary is seen as a pastor factory that should churn out graduates who are academically and practically prepared for full-time ministry, with the requisite personal spiritual maturity and godly character.

Problem #1

The problem with this is two-fold. First, the church is delegating to a parachurch organization (the seminary) a task for which is it primarily responsible (see 2 Tim 2:2; Acts 20:24,27; 2 Thess 2:15; Eph. 4:11-13). It is the task of the church to disciple and raise up the next generation of church leaders. When the primary responsibility for that task is outsourced to some other organization or institution, then the church is neglecting its calling. Notice that I said “primary” responsibility. It is not unreasonable for the church to call upon believers with advanced training, specialized knowledge, or broad experience to help it accomplish its task. The meaning of the word “parachurch” is “alongside the church.” A parachurch organization or institution labors alongside the church, lending support to the church in accomplishing its God-given tasks. But “alongside the church” does not mean “instead of the church,” as if the church can hand over essential parts of its responsibility for others to do instead. Because of the nature of the church, there are some tasks that it is uniquely equipped and called to do, and those tasks often cannot be done effectively by other organizations.

Problem #2

This brings me to my second point. Most seminaries are structured as traditional educational institutions with classes, grades, written assignments, faculty, degrees, and (often times) accreditation. Teachers see students in classes and at other select times, but they often do not know the students well and do not often observe them in ministry settings. The structure of the typical seminary facilitates reading, writing, thinking, talking, and teaching. A teacher can see the character and personality of a student to a certain degree but his primary tool of assessing the student is through written and oral assignments in the classroom. A seminary is best suited to passing on large amounts of specialized knowledge and facilitating critical reflection upon that body of knowledge. But it is not best suited for personal discipleship and mentoring, with an aim to character development. The student to teacher ratio is often high and it is impossible to provide the personal attention and individual feedback that is necessary for well-rounded spiritual growth.

Seminaries Can’t Do It All

Given the limitations of the traditional seminary environment, it is not fair to expect seminaries to take near-full responsibility for spiritual and character formation, and development of practical leadership skills. Seminaries can do both of those to a degree, and many seminaries make a concerted effort to do so.   But classroom teachers often don’t see students ministering to people in the congregation, or in the midst of a tense discussion with other leaders in the local church. They often don’t know their students on a deeply personal basis, nor do they know the particular sins or character flaws they struggle with. Some teachers do, and are a great blessing to the few students with whom they have that kind of relationship. But many teachers and students don’t know each other very well in that capacity.

Sharing the Work: Ideal & Reality

With all of the above in mind, it seems that the churches should do what they do well (personal, practical, spiritual leadership development), and the seminaries do what they do well (academic / theological training). My intention is not to create a false dichotomy where the church neglects theology or the seminary neglects spiritual formation. But the nature and structure of the church, and of the seminary, are different. Each is suited to a different primary task, and should focus on its own task without expecting someone else to do their job. That said, if a church desires to do the entirety of a future pastor’s practical and theological training using its own resources, that is commendable and a very valid biblical option. A seminary, however, is a parachurch organization, and thus is neither structured or called to do the entirety of the task of forming and training leaders.

Everyone doing their job well is an ideal situation, of course. The reality is that a number of churches don’t see it as their job to train future pastors, and thus hand off the job to the seminaries.   In response, some seminaries short-change serious academic and theological study in order to accommodate the demands of students and churches that their course of study focus on practical skills and spiritual formation.   In many cases, churches could provide the practical skills and spiritual formation that future leaders need, but decide not to. Seminary interns are given stuff to do at church, but are often not effectively mentored. Churches need rise to the occasion and stop demanding that seminaries produce graduates with more “practical skills”, and rather get to work on equipping their own budding leaders with the practical skills and spiritual care that they are better equipped to provide. And for heavy-duty theological and academic preparation that is imparted well in a traditional educational institution, the seminary can come alongside local churches to further equip their people.

When Churches Can’t Do Their Job

With that said, some churches may want to train future pastors, but feel woefully unequipped to do so, and thus default to seminaries and Bible schools to do the lion’s share of the work.   In a number of places in the global church today, local congregations are small and their leaders have little to no training to begin with. Thus it is difficult for them to think about effectively training future leaders, when they themselves have not been well trained.

In some places where the Gospel has spread rapidly, this situation is difficult to avoid and churches should not be faulted in such instances. Seminaries and other groups need to do the best they can to provide the training that is needed, rather than the training that they would like to give and are best structured to provide. Sometimes this can be accomplished through offering both academic and full-time ministry degrees, as well as more basic Bible, ministry skills, and discipleship courses for those who have different needs.

When Missionaries Abandon Immature Churches

However, the problem of churches being unable to disciple their own leaders is sometimes preventable. Missionaries have started churches and then moved on to other fields as soon as the church is stable enough to not fold when the missionary is gone. The church will survive but its growth will be stunted, perhaps numerically but most certainly spiritually. This is like sending a 10 year old out into the world to fend for himself. He will probably survive but will likely bump along with great difficultly for many years, and be ill-prepared to raise to mature adulthood any children he may have in the future.   Some missionaries give a lopsided emphasis to evangelism over discipleship, and bow down the idol of speed, leaving immature ill-equipped churches in their wake, barely able to care for themselves, never mind raising up new leaders.   Seminaries and bible schools, online classes, short-term seminars and training courses can help equip the leaders of these local churches, but they have a lot more to overcome compared to a church whose founder stayed around long enough to see the job to completion. But even if a church planter can not (for whatever reason) stay to see the church to maturity, he must find a way to make that happen. The Apostle Paul had an itinerant ministry but he left Titus on Crete (Tit 1:5) and Timothy in Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:3; 2 Tim. 2:2) to ensure that the churches there had competent leaders.

Going Forward

It is likely that there will continue to be tension between churches and seminaries for some time to come, and there is probably no precise formula for neatly dividing the respective spheres of responsibility for each. However, both church and seminary must look at their respective calling, roles, and structure. They must focus on their strengths, while enlisting help to make up for their weaknesses. The church should try to what God has called it to do, and request parachurch help as needed, without abdicating its own responsibility or demanding seminaries to do the church’s job. At the same time, seminaries should come alongside the churches by doing what seminaries are structured to accomplish, and be realistic about their own limitations in forming future leaders.   Seminaries and churches need to help each other, showing grace and flexibility, but also realizing that that they can only do so much and still stay true to their purpose and calling.



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