I have served in pastoral ministry for almost thirty years. When I surrendered to God's calling as a pastor, I began counting down the months until graduation at the university I was attending. I knew, immediately, that seminary was my next step. This is likely due to the fact I lived in Fort Worth, Texas which was home, at the time, of the largest evangelical seminary in the world (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.) My pastor was a student at SWBTS, as were the numerous student pastors who served part-time at the small church where I was a member. In fact, it never occurred to me that seminary was not an option.
I am currently back at seminary, working toward a Doctor of Educational Ministry at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
So, I would understand if in your reading of this article, you deem me to be biased. I am. I believe seminary education is good and valuable for the one called to pastoral ministry.
I also understand that it is not a biblical requirement of the office.
Nevertheless, as I have had opportunity to serve in the local church and see young people surrender their lives to what we term "full-time Christian service" there is a trend I have noticed of minimizing the need for theological education. This is not true for all, but there are those who just want to hurry up and get on the field and forego the study.
Do You Have To Go To Seminary to Pastor?
Well, no. You won't find a verse that commands the called out ones to enroll in an accredited school for the purpose of earning a degree. Yet, we must not dismiss this as a viable option for pastors, or in some cases a recommended one.
Dr. Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary states it this way:
Seminaries, when they are faithful as servants of the church and accountable to the church, training ministers without apology for the churches, and doing so effectively, can offer a pastor the most comprehensive background for ministry that can be put into about a three year period. Now, as I say, I hope every pastor would have at least that much, because I think to really be a skilled preacher of God’s word and a pastor, to continue to grow, most pastors will go beyond that and if not in formal study, at least that better be the investment in how they study on their own.
Yet, we have all heard from those in the local churches who have decried the seminary education for fear that all that training messes with good preachers and makes them ineffective. Well, if you haven't heard that type of talk, you haven't been around many of our smaller congregations who struggle with the sending off for educational purposes.
In some cases, these complaints are valid. In fact, in Baptist life just a few decades ago, the great fear was becoming a reality. Biblically-based, theologically conservative institutions were not just leaning, but running quickly to the left and disavowing the veracity of Scripture as inerrant. While many Baptist colleges and universities were lost to the cultural shift, the six Southern Baptist seminaries were reclaimed through what has become known as the conservative resurgence.
Therefore, over the past few decades, much like many years ago, the ministerial training offered at our seminaries has proved to be quality, biblically-sound, and effective. Of course, there will always be small exceptions, but by and large, this is the what God has provided, all to his glory, in our schools.
Pastoring Without Seminary
Yet, there are many godly men serving in pastoral ministry who do not have seminary degrees. These are not unlearned men. They are wise and biblically sound.
Matt Chandler, Pastor at The Village Church, is one such man and has addressed this clearly. He states:
I have been asked recently about what my thoughts are concerning seminary and why I never finished. I have found this to be a very polarizing subject where people put me in the camp of those who think that seminary is unnecessary or put me into the other camp that thinks scholarship isn't important for the pastorate. The truth is I think most men need to go to seminary and scholarship is extremely important.
There is a recent trend of really sharp, entrepreneurial, driven men skipping seminary all together and planting churches. I don't have a problem with this at all if those men have picked up the tools they need in other places and are continuing to grow theologically and philosophically. If a guy can handle the Greek and Hebrew, knows at least at the cursory level Christian history and can wrestle through and find answers for deep, difficult theological questions then he might not need a degree from a seminary. These men are usually driven, avid studiers and readers by nature. If they could, they would spend their whole day with the scriptures as well as with men like Calvin, Luther and Spurgeon. I said might because seminary then becomes an obedience issue between him and the Lord and may still be a very good idea.
On the other hand, if you don't have the tools, have a tendency to be lazy in study, can't handle the languages, know nothing of how to find answers to deep, difficult theological questions except to quote John Piper and know nothing of our rich history then you need to go get some tools. If you are lazy in study and continue to get in front of people and teach, you have much more courage than I do. I would strongly recommend seminary for its accountability and plan to educate you in doctrine, language and history.
Speed Doesn't Justify Poor Theology
Dr. M. David Sills has written an incredible book titled Reaching and Teaching: A Call to Great Commission Obedience. As a former field missionary overseas and now as a seminary professor, he brings great insight into the flawed model of ministry that offers little discipleship training and provides empty titles for those determined to be leaders.
With a desire to reach the unreached, we have unfortunately turned previously reached groups into unreached groups while ultimately seeking to speed the return of Christ (as if we actually can manipulate God to adjust a time he already has set.) Yes, reaching the unreached is a mandate. It is biblical. It is right. Nevertheless, as Dr. Sills states, "The great missiological error of our day is the mistaken notion that the Great Commission equals reaching the unreached."
Reaching and discipling are not synonyms. (TWEET THIS)
The great tragedy of the world is not that it is unreached; it is that it is undiscipled. Jesus commanded us to make disciples, not just to get decisions.
Sills continues in a recent article posted on the International Mission Board site...
Theological preparation is necessary to plant the pure seed of the gospel in the soil of the target culture rather than simply bringing a potted plant that is indigenous to the missionary’s home culture.
Yet, a degree from a theological seminary may not be necessary, and in fact, some seminaries might do more harm than good. But every missionary must have a masters degree from the School of Christ, no matter how or where he gets it.
Missionaries would be wise to go to the best seminary they can find, one that teaches sound theology and biblical missiology, and get all the education they can in preparation before deploying to the nations.
If God opens the door before they actually graduate, then by all means they should follow his guidance and go. The Lord knows what each missionary needs to do all he has planned for him or her to do, and he also knows what the world needs.
Make sure you hear the still, small voice that says, “This is the way, walk in it,” and then obey that call as if souls depended on it. You shouldn’t run before you’re ready any more than you should delay once you are. God’s timing is not ours. If he hasn’t yet said, “Go now!” then get all the education you can get while you’re home.
Planters, Pastors, and Missionaries in Hurry Up Mode
As we have mentored and coached young ministers and pastors over the years, a few challenges have arisen. In some cases, a person surrenders later in life (when it comes to schooling, this may mean over age 30) and while working a full-time job and seeking to raise a family, deem theological education as not being an option. While some, as in Chandler's case, may rightly continue serving without any training, others drastically need coaching.
When there is an urgency to hurry up and get to work in the ministry, things often do not go well. Don't get me wrong, God remains sovereign and can work through anyone willing to serve. I'm not negating his power or call. Yet, I have seen unteachable people rush to service only to do more harm than good for the kingdom.
Sills states "If God opens the door before they actually graduate, then by all means they should follow his guidance and go." I agree, but I also have seen some vibrant newly surrendered ministers and missionaries who actually forced the door open. In these cases, undone work remains undone.
In these cases, it's really not about seminary or continued education. It is about having a teachable and learnable spirit.
If he hasn’t yet said, “Go now!” then get all the education you can get while you’re home.
Patience is a pain, but it's a virtue too, right? In the waiting, God prepares and provides. Seminary and theological training are not tools to cool one's passion for the gospel. It is a gift of God. We should remember that and take it to heart.
And, just as a building with the name church on it does not make it a viable option for education and worship, neither does an institution with a name college, university, or seminary mean it's a good option. That being said, I'm glad to say that as a Southern Baptist pastor, I can wholeheartedly recommend our seminaries for those called into ministry, for the furtherance of their training. I can, and do. We live in an era where quality theological training does not mean uprooting one's family and moving across the country (though it could.) Distance learning is provided by all our schools, and depending on the region one lives, most likely an off-campus site is available in a short driving distance. If not, then by all means move. As God calls, he provides.
Our SBC seminaries:
- Gateway Seminary - Ontario, CA
- Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary - Kansas City, MO
- New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary - New Orleans, LA
- The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary - Louisville, KY
- Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary - Wake Forest, NC
- Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary - Fort Worth, TX