what to do about seminary?

bush on fire with fall

About a week and a half ago, I spent the day talking about leadership with my colleagues. We sat in a circle, nibbling on chocolate mints and letting the unseasonably warm wind blow off the water and into the house.

At one point, several of us weighed in on this question: Have you ever been thrust into leadership without sufficient preparation and perhaps to the detriment of those you were leading?

My mind immediately flew back to my seminary internships, when I was responsible for leading Bible studies or for preaching or for calling on home-bound people. For so much of that time, I was not certain that I was called to be a pastor or to lead. Like many of my seminary peers, I had enrolled in seminary with the intent of figuring out my calling while I finished my degree. This was especially true for those of us who went straight from college to seminary. We had heard that people used graduate school as a place to stall, a place to put off deciding how they would spend their lives—but surely we weren’t among them.

So we went to seminary.

And we led Bible studies without being confident that we should be leading them. And we preached—not with the congregation in mind, but with our own calling in mind. I for one spent a whole lot more time introspecting and fretting and crying about myself and my uncertain vocation than I did about the lives of the people I was charged to care for.

Instead of absorbing the history of Israel or the Hebrew language, I turned my homework into another chance to ruminate on whether I had leadership chops. I rarely completed an assignment without turning it back toward myself, no matter where it started—Greek grammar, organizational leadership, the book of Esther, an ecumenical council. My fifth-grade teachers would have been ashamed: my papers never bothered to avoid first-person pronouns.

Apparently, this is increasingly common. More and more students are using seminary as a space for discernment, rather than a space for preparation. Once upon a time, people felt a call to ministry and attended seminary in order to be adequately equipped to serve as ministers. But now, in an era when jobs are hard to come by and adolescence is extended well into the twenties, people need more time to figure out their vocations.

And, from what I heard from my colleagues that day we talked about leadership, the seminary is having to figure out its own vocation. If students are using seminary not to learn the skills to be pastors but to discern whether or not they should be pastors at all, the curriculum needs to look a lot different than it has. Maybe we need to separate out the discerning and the equipping, because it’s pretty hard to acquire the skills for leadership when you cry over your homework every night, deep in an identity crisis.

I’m not sure what all this means, and I’m certainly not going to sort out the role seminaries play all by myself. But it has been on my mind. There’s no going back on the cultural shifts—the majority of new college graduates may never again be sure of their vocational path immediately out of school—so we’ll have to figure something else out.

Should we advise college students to take some time to work and to do their discerning before seminary, while they are earning, rather than spending, money? Should seminaries revamp their curricula? Should we stretch the length of seminary programs so that students have a chance to grow as leaders once they’re actually fairly confident they should be leading? I’m not sure.

But I just don’t feel good about sending seminarians into churches to try to care for a congregation while their gazes are pointed straight in.

(This post is one in a November series for NaBloPoMo, National Blog Posting Month. You can find the rest here.)


9 thoughts on “what to do about seminary?

  1. Excellent reflections and ideas. I have found that my first year in ministry has been just as saturated with discerning as my seminary years were. That work doesn’t end, it just gets clearer and more focused. Seminary should play a role in guiding appropriate discernment and theological reflection, which will continue throughout ministry.
    But seminary also must be a place of preparation for students. I wonder if another component to all this is the role of the supervisor-mentors. That’s a specific work of both preparation and reflection, within the context of grace and truth. I rarely was partnered with someone who could both supervise preparation and also mentor reflection. The seminary’s TFE is excellent in theory, but they have to invest just as much training and oversight for their volunteer supervisor-mentors as they do for their students.

    • I love all the feedback I’m getting! This is rounding out my thinking, Cody. Grace Miguel made a comment about God’s ongoing work in our lives — that we’re never fully prepared, and it would actually be sort of tragic if a seminary graduate thought she was fully equipped upon finishing her degree. I think you’re saying some of that here.

      Say more about supervisor-mentors! Are you thinking that they can bridge some of the gap between skill-acquiring and vocation-discerning?

      • The point of giving them two names — “Supervisor/Mentor” — is to emphasize that they have two primary facets to their relationships with their interns: first, to oversee meaningful ministry tasks that prepare pastoral interns for greater future work and responsibility; second, to shepherd the intern’s theological reflection before, during, and after these ministry tasks, in order to foster deep spiritual discernment about God’s call. The seminary does right to partner with local pastors and kingdom agents to help train their students. But when local pastors are just as distracted by personal insecurities or fatigued by ministry burnout to helpfully do both tasks together with their intern, then interns are fortunate to receive one or the other in any amount. The seminary (with Journey) should CONTINUE (they are already at work in this, certainly) to grow their capacity to prepare and equip pastors for lifelong ministry.

  2. Interesting post! I think that this is an opportunity for the church as a whole, and not just seminaries. When I was finishing seminary, I remarked to an elder at my church, “I can’t believe that soon I’m supposed to be able to pastor a church!” to which she remarked, “no, you’ll be able to start learning how to pastor a church.” How right she was! I think some of this is the root of the church order’s requirement that all newly ordained ministers are to be provided a mentor by the classis.

    I think that some of the challenge of this is that we are asking seminaries to do something that they were never designed to do, and in fact, cannot do. With professionalization and specialization of ministry, I think that we have forgotten the crucial role that the local church plays in vocational discernment. Local churches outsource a lot of their vocational formation and discernment task to seminaries and expect to get a fully formed minister at the end, which simply isn’t possible. So, while I think that the role of seminaries may shift a bit, I think that it is a mistake to expect the seminary to also fill the role of the local church both before and after seminary in the discernment and formation of ministers. Good thoughts, though, and a great conversation!

  3. I recently met a Calvin grad who is here in NJ at a CRC church Ina sort of gap year program they do for students going straight from college to seminary. They send them out to be in full time ministry for a year before they begin seminary. I thought it wasn’t a bad idea. You see similar things in Western Theological Seminary’s distance program where many students are already in ministry positions as they’re learning. I suspect having done it differently I envy them and the way their experiences will help drive their learning. Although I’ve heard them say they envy my ability to go straight to seminary and be done and in full time ministry at 26. Grass is always greener?

    • Ha! Probably true.

      But I often sensed throughout seminary that the way I approached assignments was far more in the abstract than the way that DL or even second-career students approached them. Seminary was largely an academic exercise for me, and I had a hard time imagining the congregational context for many of the assignments. If I had some time in ministry first, maybe that would’ve been different?

      Thanks for weighing in, Andy!

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