What I Really Learned in Seminary
I hope you enjoy this article. The first half is really tongue-in-cheek, born out of my strange sense of humor and my love-hate relationship with seminary. I really do hope no one is offended. The last half is a bit more serious, with both positive reflections and sober observations.
======= Part 1 — Interesting (?) things I learned in seminary =======
(A few of these are inside jokes, for those who have had some experience with advanced studies)
Greek and Hebrew: I learned that I will never be a Greek scholar, or translate a single sentence from the original language with any credibility.
Old and New Testament Studies: I learned that although we have no idea who wrote most of the Bible, we are quite certain that a number of these authors had single letter names like, J – E – D – P – Q.
Systematic Theology: I learned that after two thousand years, we still cannot quite define what Jesus did for us through his death and resurrection, even though that is the basis for our salvation.
Church History: I learned that over the centuries, the Church has fairly effectively demonstrated its propensity to imitate Israel's endless cycle of going astray, experiencing revival, and losing its focus again.
Missions: I learned that the Western Church has become weak and flabby because of its inward focus, and we are now trying to solve this problem through better contextual marketing of our anemic Christianity to others.
Apologetics: I learned that the answers provided by this discipline are mostly for different questions than the ones people really care about.
Ecclesiology: I learned that what makes the church different from other organizations is that it preaches the Word and administers the sacraments (no wonder we are in trouble!)
Foundations for Ministry: I learned that the Master of Divinity program was designed to prepare us for the Doctorate program, not to prepare us for ministry.
Evangelism: I learned that our culture is more resistant to the gospel than it used to be. (Duh!)
Pastoral Counseling: I learned that pastors are not getting trained very well in counseling.
From some of my flawed professors I learned:
Calvinists have no sense of humor when it comes to their own religion.
Pastors ought to be stoic and not let their congregations see them as they really are.
Getting the right answers on a trivia quiz is more important than grasping the big picture.
Brilliance can sometimes lead to arrogance.
Even intelligent people can write boring text books.
Living in an ivory tower is still possible. And it can make you irrelevant.
OK. I owe them all an apology here. Because the truth is, seminary changed my life in many good ways.
=============== Part 2 — Some Serious Reflections ===============
I am truly grateful for my experience at Fuller Seminary. My education there was invaluable on many levels, and I will always treasure my time there. I really did find most professors to be incredibly intelligent and compassionate human beings, and I have a lot of admiration for all the work they do there in spite of being poorly compensated.
Interestingly, in most cases the content of the course material is not what benefited me the most. It's the things I caught along the way that I value and that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Things like: How to think better theologically and do meaningful theological research; How to read a good commentary; How to even identify a good commentary; How to communicate my thoughts better and more gracefully; Understanding the limits of knowledge; Understanding the value of knowledge; The fact that good Biblical interpretation is hard work and requires as much humility as it does intelligence; How to develop good course material that will be meaningful and helpful to others.
So in many ways, it was my experience of being a graduate student at a reputable school that made the difference, more than the specific content of the courses. I chose Fuller for very specific reasons, which I still stand by. Truth is, I looked at over a hundred seminaries on line, reading the president's statement, the school's vision, and the like. What I discovered is that the vast majority of seminaries (perhaps 98%) exist for the purpose of preserving the thoughts and culture that are unique to their denomination. I guess that makes some sense. But the problem is, that I don't think the church is doing well for the most part. It's falling apart all over the Western world. One of the biggest movements in recent history (Willow Creek Association) is being completely rethought today because it was a colossal failure in terms of growing people up spiritually (although I have to admire Willow Creek's willingness to be transparent and to learn from their attempts). For these reasons, I did not want to attend a seminary that would spoon-feed me one strain of theology or one denomination's way of maintaining the status quo. I needed a place where I could explore and ask questions and find ways to address the issues we are facing in the twenty-first century. For me it came down to either Regents in Vancouver or Fuller in Pasadena. I am convinced either one would have been good, and I do not regret choosing an open-minded school.
But I do have a number of lingering concerns. My biggest one is for the students who are coming to seminary today and who will become the leaders of the church in just a few short years. I say this only with concern and compassion, not with contempt. The truth is these young people have been raised in a culture that has completely lost its bearings. Or should I say a culture that has deliberately destroyed any compass for life, and now denies that there ever was a compass. And even if these young people have been raised in church, they have been terribly malformed by our culture and our technology. Many no longer care to read, and have little to no faith that anyone born before 1980 has anything to offer them.
From my conversations with young people when I was attending there, it seemed as if very few had any idea that the Western Church is falling apart. They were still high on their Youth Group experience from a few years prior, and could not wait until they could talk everyone else into being as excited about church as they were. Most of them were still too young to know that they are not invincible and that their energy level will not last. Nor that their high enthusiasm and willingness to work hard will not be enough to save the church. What's more, they will spend at least three years in seminary where the workload will be overwhelming, to say nothing of the financial stress. As a result, by the time they graduate, they will have had several years of heavy training in self-interest and looking out for number one. That's not very good preparation for ministry. And to top it all off, their own spiritual life will suffer for lack of time or mentoring in regard to how they themselves are being formed. All those factors are probably why most of them will leave the ministry within five years of graduation (true statistic!).
For those who still want to go to seminary, here are my recommendations. First, after you finish your undergrad program, go find a job and learn how to practice your faith in the secular world for at least five years; ten would be better. Second, during that time, go find a spiritual director and work on your own spiritual formation. You can only give away what you have received. And you have far more to discover yet than you know. Third, do some research on Christian Formation and learn how to be formed by God — read books on this, practice what you discover, and learn how to live from your heart. Fourth, find a seminary that will let you think. Then spread their program out by a year or two so you have time to breathe while you are learning. If you take my advice, you will be much more effective in ministry, and you will be more likely to want to continue in ministry for the rest of your life.
Let me say again that I am truly grateful for my seminary experience. I am far more understanding of others, have a much broader context from which to work and view theological issues, and in many ways better equipped to wrestle with the problems that are so common in our churches. I would be much poorer had I not gone to Fuller. My prayer for that school and for the professors there is that they never stop learning or listening to what is going on in their own school, in the lives of their students, and in the heart of the churches. Blessings to you all.