James Miller is hardly the first to call into question the future viability of the M.Div degree and the seminary model for training pastors. He’s just the most recent. Indeed, when I was in seminary (RTS), one of my professors had our class read John Frame’s essay on this very problem. As Dr. Miller points out, the main reason new pastors are not getting the M.Div is simply because their churches don’t require it of them. There are lots of other sub-factors of course, but that’s the bottom line.
And my own ecclesiastical affiliation is one such group that doesn’t require an M.Div or seminary training. Several of our most high profile pastors don’t have degrees from a seminary. There’s something of an inevitability regarding the future. Still, I’d like to give a few words of caution.
The most common knock against the M.Div, along with most academic degrees (the M.Div is technically a vocational degree), is that it is not practical. It does not prepare you for “the real world.” And there’s some truth to this. We wrote a lot of sermons at seminary. We wrote a sermon for a funeral. We wrote a sermon for a wedding. We even talked about pastoral case studies and ethical dilemmas. But it was all on paper. We never did a mock funeral service, a mock wedding service, nor even a mock worship service! Not once in our worship class did we discuss how to go about making a bulletin all on your own, nor on how to decide which parts of the service to include or exclude and why. We also did not talk about the financial reality of being a pastor– the need to keep proper tax records, whether or not to opt out of Social Security, what sort of insurance arrangements to make, etc. There were tons and tons or real life necessities that were simply passed over in silence. Oh yeah, and all of that personal-pastoral relationship stuff. You can’t manufacture that either. It has to be earned over the years.
But still, with all of that said, there is an obvious counter-point. I have been involved in three pastoral ordination exams now, two of which did not have degrees from a seminary and one who did. The men who did not go to seminary were far, far behind the man who did when it comes to theological and academic skill. I don’t simply mean brain-power or the number of books read. I mean that the man who went to seminary knew how to answer questions, how to approach theological issues, how to write papers and explain his positions in public, and he had a broad knowledge of the differing views which are commonly held. He had a confident grasp of the religious and theological landscape. Oh and let’s not forget, he knew his biblical languages. Though I only have a small sampling, I believe it is fairly typical.
This is no small thing at all. And frankly, if you had to decide which sort of skill sets could be acquired “on your own,” I think most people would say that the former– the practical and experiential ones– are the more easily acquired through apprenticeship and experience. The scholastic stuff almost always needs, well, a school. And we have to be honest here, very few churches have the resources and personnel to put a proper seminary-level training center together. Most pastors are far too busy to do intensive study once they are at work in the job. And very few sessions, elders, and deacons know enough about what a pastor needs to know to put together a program without outside help.
So if the M.Div. and the seminary are outdated, something else is going to have to be created to fill the vacancy, and so far there haven’t been many success stories. There are certainly enough academic resources available for people to construct theological programs on their own, but they must have some sort of guided leadership and a grading system with real teeth to it. Deadlines and real scores are important.
Also, the idea that a man should be married with a few kids, working full-time to provide for them, and also doing this sort of intensive study in his “extra time” is unrealistic, and that’s putting it charitably. People will point to the Apostle Paul’s tent-making, but they forget that he had a prior rabbinical training and spent three years off by himself in Arabia. Also, though it is a disputed point, he does not seem to have had a family. So if churches do value a fully-trained pastor, they are going to have to have ways to finance that. This doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t ever have to pay anything, but it means that there should be some sort of structure in place that he knows about and understands, something that makes the task attainable and credible.
Of course, making the observations is the easy part. We need someone to give us some creative solutions.
Steven Wedgeworth is the pastor of Christ Church in Lakeland, Florida. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Trust. A graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS), Steven lives in Lakeland, FL with his wife, son, daughter, and two terriers.
The Calvinist International is a forum for research, resourcement, and renewal of Christian wisdom.