Training Pastors in the Local Church, Part 6 of 7: Traditional Bible Colleges and Seminaries

by Doug Smith

We have looked at mentoring, internships, church-based seminaries, and partnerships between churches and other churches or ministries as ways to train pastors in the local church.  We will now consider the concept of traditional Bible colleges or seminaries accountable to local churches as avenues for training men for ministry.

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Why Consider Anything Other Than Traditional Bible Colleges or Seminaries?

To some, it may seem counter-intuitive to place Bible colleges and seminaries last in this list.  Seminaries, in particular, have long held pride of place for a pastoral training program.  Bible colleges are set up to provide undergraduate level education to pastors and others training for ministry.  Normally, seminaries are graduate-level institutions that provide rigorous academics with a stated goal of preparing students for ministry in the church or in religious education or research.  Graduates have typically had harder assignments, have read more widely, have engaged with other ideas, and have a deeper education than they could get in most other settings.  Most pastoral training programs include the opportunity to learn Hebrew and Greek, giving the minister the opportunity and privilege to read the Scripture in its original languages.

However, there are some problems associated with Bible colleges and traditional seminaries.  All these issues need not be the true of a seminary, but they often have been true, at least in some times and institutions.

1. Not everyone is cut out for the academic rigor of Bible college or seminary.  Although many high school graduates could get into a Bible college, most seminaries have other prerequisites, such as a bachelor’s degree, and a certain attainment of writing proficiency.  Seminary is supposed to be graduate-level education, after all.  You could have a man who is biblically qualified to pastor, but who would not be accepted for training at a seminary because he cannot meet their requirements.  He may not be able to master the biblical languages.  Such a man needs another avenue of training.

2. Traditional schools have traditionally required relocation, unless one happens to live in a reasonable proximity already.  This has changed in recent years with the advent of more distance education programs and even entire degrees that can be obtained online.  Yet many schools retain residency requirements, at least for certain degree programs, although some bridge a gap by limiting requirements to a few classes that can be taken in week-long bursts, with the rest by distance.  Some seminaries have satellite locations that allow for the fulfillment of this requirement as well.

3. Some students have difficulty finding practical ministry during their education.  Schools may tend to be more academically-oriented to the point that practical ministry is tacked on, and relatively neglected.  This need not be the case and certainly isn’t always the case.  But students relocating to a large school may find it hard to simultaneously engage in church ministry because of the over-saturation of Bible college or seminary students in the churches near the school.  It’s not impossible, but it may be harder to find ministry opportunities than in one’s own home church and community.

4. Cost is prohibitive for some.  Some simply cannot afford traditional education.  Education, especially for accredited schools, costs money.  Buildings must be maintained.  Professors must feed their families.  Books must be bought.

5. Academic freedom is an issue in many traditional schools.  Sadly, the notion that a professor should be able to teach anything that he comes to believe is prevalent in some schools.  The school may even have a statement or confession of faith that the teachers have signed, and still have instructors who teach contrary to what they have claimed to believe!  This is problematic for the training of pastors.  As those entrusted to guard the deposit of God’s truth and avoid the changing winds of conflicting and false doctrines, a pastor needs a school that stands firmly on the authority, inerrancy, truth, and relevancy of God’s written Word (1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:14, 3:16-4:5).  When a school is not accountable to the local church, then it can easily drift, as many have.  It may still drift even if accountable, but at least there is a reasonable possibility of restoration and recovery of the school’s original mission, if the local church has some say in the school.  (Southern Baptist seminaries, for instance, demonstrated a great deal of drift from their original mission and beliefs, but their accountability to the churches enabled the replacement of leadership who put them back on track; for a brief account of this change at one school, see Gregory Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009 or watch the 25-minute documentary at http://www.sbts.edu, “Recovering a Vision: the Presidency of R. Albert Mohler Jr.”)

What to Consider When Thinking about a Bible College Or Seminary

In light of these issues, some now may wonder why one should consider a traditional school!  However, the Bible college or seminary may be the best choice for some individuals.  While it can be the farthest removed from the pastor-training-pastor in a church setting ideal, it need not be a dry academic “cemetery” for preachers.  If you are considering a traditional school, ask yourself these questions.

1. What kind of academic program would I be fit for?  If you’re looking into Bible college, this can be pretty straightforward, but seminary may offer more options.  The Master of Divinity is the traditional seminary degree for pastors.  However, some jokingly call it the “Master of Infinity” because it can take a long time to complete (many schools have M.Div’s with 90 credit hour requirements, about 3 times the length of some other master’s degrees).  Some simply can’t do an M.Div. and may go with a shorter degree like a Master of Arts in Theological Studies (about half the length in some schools) or a more focused degree, like a master’s in expository preaching.  Some degrees must be done in residency, while others may be done with partial residency, and other may be done completely online.  Some may be looking to teach other pastors in a seminary setting one day, and could have an eye toward a Th.M, Ph.D., Th.D., or D.Min.

If you’re looking at a school, gather all the information you can about its programs from it’s website, talking with admissions counselors, etc.

2. What about relocation?  Will you need to relocate to attend the school?  Some let you travel for the occasional week-long modular class, and others let you stay in your hometown and take your classes completely online.  Depending on your situation, you may not be able to relocate.  If you are looking at relocating, you’ll need to find out housing options at the school or in its city.  Count the cost, for yourself, and especially for your family.

3. What about practical ministry?  Some leave home for a school and get disconnected from local church ministry.  They may attend a local church, but school is pretty much an academic experience for them.  Try to find a local church where you can get involved.  It doesn’t have to be preaching; there are plenty of other ministry opportunities, some of which may take you into the larger community as well.

4. Can you afford it?  Some schools cost more than others.  You will need to have a good idea of how much it costs per class.  If a school charges $400 per semester hour, a normal 3-hour class will cost $1200 + any other fees and your books.  If you’re taking multiple classes at once, which is normal, your expenses can get pretty high.  You may want to spend some time working to save for school, seek scholarships through the school and/or from your church, and look at the possibility of working through school.  Be careful here.  Your family situation may be such that if you do what you need to in order to afford school that it may come at incalculable cost when you consider all the time you lose with your wife and your growing children.  There are other ways to train for ministry.

5. What about faithfulness to the truth and accountability to the church?  It is a shame that some schools are in the business of training pastors, yet they employ teachers who seek to destroy the minister’s trust in the Word of God.  Seek a school that has a doctrinally sound statement of faith, and that requires its professors to teach in accordance with it, and not contrary to it.  Look for a school that’s not independent from church accountability.  Completely independent schools have no anchor to prevent them from straying, but schools that can be influenced, especially monetarily, by local churches have more of a reason to remain faithful.  After all, who is the school supposed to be serving?  Many have forgotten, thinking that they need to serve the academic elite and seek their approval.  However, a Bible or seminary should be serving Christ and His church.

What do you think?  Are there other things to consider when thinking about traditional Bible colleges and seminaries as avenues for pastoral training? 

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