I graduate from Seminary in a week. Having been through most of the process, I want to give those considering seminary some things to think about. Of course, existing pastors who have been to seminary can speak to this much better than I.
The obvious negative is the cost. I’ll be blunt here – seminary is offensively expensive. It’s just silly how much seminary costs. For me it cost $40 a lecture or $12,000 a year (hence the donation button on this blog). An MDiv, the standard pastor’s degree, is around $36,000. Clearly seminary is out of reach financially for almost all potential pastors in the world. Due to the time and money requirements of seminary, the denominations that have expanded historically are those that haven’t required seminary training of their leaders, the Methodists and Baptists of the 19th century and the Pentecostals of the 20th century. Denominations that require seminary simply cannot expand rapidly; seminary, as currently done, isn’t scalable. Of course, there is a downside to this. Pastors without training often, but not always, pastor like they haven’t had training, with some messy results.
At this point you may be thinking, “I don’t need to spend all that money. I’ll just learn everything myself.” Imagine for a moment that instead of seeking to be a pastor, you wanted to be a doctor. How many hospitals would hire you if you said you had taught yourself? I would imagine none. Similarly, you need training from somewhere to be a pastor. Since I’ve been a bit negative about seminary up to this point, let me say some things in its defense. On a personal level, my family has never been happier, and I have loved the experience. In general, you will certainly become a much more knowledgeable and competent pastor if you go to a good seminary than if you don’t. Having experts teach you daily does makes a difference. That fact has to be weighed against the monetary and time costs of seminary.
In my experience the average American evangelical, besides not knowing how to read the Bible well in general, doesn’t know how to read the Historical books theologically, doesn’t understand the major and minor prophets, doesn’t understand how to read apocalyptic parts of the Bible, doesn’t know how to answer modern criticisms of Christianity well, etc. This is because their pastors haven’t taught them how.
The last point, answering modern criticisms of the Bible, is a huge responsibility for pastors these days as so many of our young are leaving the faith when they go to college and face questions their churches haven’t equipped them to answer. According to the Southern Baptist convention, 88% of their youth leave the faith after leaving home. Clearly, learning to address the historicity of Joshua, the creation accounts and modern science, the problem of evil, and apparent discrepancies in the synoptic gospels isn’t a waste of time. These are the very issues that are causing young Christians to fall away in droves. If you as the pastor can’t address these issues, how is your youth group going to? Where are you going to learn how to address them well? A good place is in seminary.
However, I don’t think seminary is absolutely necessary. I much prefer a practical apprenticeship with a pastor who has been to seminary. That way you can learn the knowledge, but also get practical ministry experience, understanding doctrine being only one of the requirements for church leadership after all. However, it may be the case, as it was with me, that there is no one in your church who is seminary trained. In that case you have to find someone you can learn from who has been trained, either by attending a seminary yourself or going through a curriculum such as the one from Third Millenium Ministries.