In Defense of Traditional Seminary Education

R. Scott Clark comments on the Distributed Education (DE) seminary model, which instead of having students come to a campus sends the professors to the students. It is primarily a response Tim Keller’s suggestion that the current seminary model is now inadequate¬†and a different approach is needed.

Until parishioners are prepared to see physicians or surgeons who earned their medical degrees online, they should not accept ministers who have only an online degree. There is a reason why we send physicians to brick and mortar schools, because we know from experience that to do otherwise is to cut corners and we are not prepared to do that with our physical health. Why then are we willing to consider training the physicians of our souls with less care?…

Students traveled to them for a reason: education is not a consumer product that can be distributed by Amazon. Education is a process. It is a culture. It is a habit that is formed in community. It takes time in a community of scholars…Distributed education seeks to disconnect the outcome of education from the process: initiation into a culture and the formation of habits. It assumes that education is what happens when a prof travels to a church and delivers lectures thereby transmitting information. That is not itself education. The lecture is only a beginning of education for the student. Lectures are clues to a world of learning but they are rudiments, bread crumbs that invite the curious to continue learning.

Clark’s whole post is worth reading, and there are a few points I think are worth adding.

The first is that DE disconnects students from other students. The community aspect of education is not just student-to-professor, but peer-to-peer. There is accountability, wrestling through doctrinal implications together, being in the same stage of training and learning together, and having friends in ministry that understand you and where you are coming from. This is absent in DE. I did my M.Div in a traditional seminary setting and my M.Th remotely. The M.Th was more difficult partially because there was no community of fellow students. If I had not previously done an M.Div, the M.Th would have been close to insurmountable for that reason alone.

One of the appeals for DE (and distance education) is for people already in ministry. I know many people who are already in ministry and question why they need something like a seminary to qualify them for ministry if they are already doing ministry. This is especially true if they have to move away from and give up the ministry they already have in order to receive that education. DE is checking a box or supplementing the “real” education, which is seen as hands on ministry. This relates to Clark’s agreement with Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind: there is a bias in American evangelicalism against an educated clergy. I believe this is connected to a Baptistic, populist mindset that prioritizes the priesthood of all believers to the point of abolishing hierarchy: “Anyone can be a minister, because every Christian is already called to minster to other people! All of us are really shepherds and disciple-makers to those in our lives, so what makes you special?”

This is how non-ordained, uneducated people end up in pastoral ministry. The cultural¬†death of expertise, along with the (sometimes subconscious) theological commitment that loving God and loving people is enough for ministry, convince people and churches that a graduate level education is elitist and unnecessary. DE is enabling uneducated, unprepared ministers to continue unchallenged in their basic assumption that their current lack of qualifications is actually adequate for gospel ministry. It also tells those who are uneducated and already in ministry that it is not worth it to step aside for a time in order to become better equipped to shepherd God’s people. And this does a disservice to their congregations.

This is why congregations begin to think that seminary is unnecessary: since their pastors don’t have fancy degrees, seminary must not actually prepare pastors for real ministry. This is an idea often echoed by seminary-educated ministers once they start pastoring, but the sentiment reflects the expectation that pastors are not primarily called to rightly handle God’s word.

See this thread:

DE is intended as a way of rounding out the edges of an apparently otherwise qualified minister. The traditional seminary model is premised upon the conviction that grasping God’s word is difficult, and that in order to truly prepare pastors for ministry, they need to be in a setting that prioritizes a deep and thorough education in understanding the Bible, from grasping the original languages, being educated in hermeneutics and biblical theology, the unity of scripture (systematic theology), the history of how scripture has been understood and used by the church, to its application in preaching and counseling. DE shortchanges this for many of the reasons that Clark mentioned, but also because DE tends towards a hyper-customizable understanding of ministry. Part of Keller’s reasoning for recommending moving away from the traditional model is due to its perceived inadequacies for urban ministry. I agree with him that pastors need to understand their social context to better minister to the people in their congregation and community, but his perspective also appears to suggest that there is something special and new about our social moment that renders the traditional ministerial preparation for handling the Bible deficient. DE plays into the hands of people who believe that being educated is unnecessary for pastoral ministry in their setting, and what is really needed is a specialized set of administrative or sociological skills.

Give me a pastor who knows God’s word deeply and is a stranger to his city any day. Of course, this does not have to be an either/or, but it is DE that bends towards that division, not the traditional model.

It’s been my observation that the way in which people are educated for ministry informs how they do ministry. When that training is disembodied, impersonal, limited to quick professorial visits to download information, that is how the minister has been trained to do ministry. And that is how they will minister to their people. When ministerial training is done in a community with peers and professors, the student is being trained for an embodied, communal approach to ministry, which far better reflects the vision the New Testament holds out for the church.