April 1, 2013
Do We Still Need Seminaries?
Reports of declining seminaries raise many questions about the future of the church.
I graduated from seminary 12 years ago. At the time it seemed like seminary, or some kind of post-graduate theological education, was expected for those pursuing pastoral ministry. But after graduating and entering the "real (church) world," I discovered how few of my peers suffered through courses on Greek, Hebrew, systematic theology, hermeneutics, or ethics. This was especially true of pastors under 40. What I found instead were quite a few with undergraduate degrees in Bible or ministry, and a number with no formal training at all. Their informal theological reading or mentoring was their only preparation for leading a church apart from their success in the marketplace.
We all know how difficult it can be to carve out the time/funding for education once you are working and supporting a family. But what surprised me about many of these younger pastors was their complete lack of interest in seminary. "Why would I want to go to a cemetery?" one said to me. He was getting all of the ministry training he needed on the job, he argued. and the deep theological stuff he could pick up from books and blogs. Why incur the debt and bother learning languages he'd never use?
Apparently this pastor is not alone in his thinking. An article by Libby Nelson for Inside Higher Ed indicates seminaries are facing tough times. Enrollment is down, financial support from denominations is eroding, and the demand for seminary trained pastors is weakening.
Many colleges have been hit hard by the recession, but the article indicates seminaries are facing a perfect storm. As denominations see loyalty and support decline, they are offering fewer financial subsidies to seminaries. Therefore the costs are passed along to students. That means the cost for a pastor to get a seminary education is going up just as church budgets and pastor's salaries are going down. And the challenges didn't begin with the recession. Nelson reports:
Long-term challenges existed for theological schools before the economic downturn. The damage to seminary endowments in 2008 threw those problems into sharp relief, and there has been little overall improvement as the economy improved, said Stephen R. Graham, senior director of programs and services at the Association of Theological Schools.... The economic struggles of seminaries cut across the major divisions in American Christianity, affecting evangelical, mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic seminaries alike, Graham said.
Among the biggest factors causing the crisis: declining interest in attending seminaries. Seminary enrollment has been falling since 2005, and since many seminaries are small -- the median head count for a member of the Association of Theological Schools is 155 students -- the margin for error is small as well.
What do you think about this decline? Does the church still need traditional seminaries? Should church leaders still aspire to learn Greek, Hebrew, hermenueutics, theology, and ethics? And does this learning have to occur in a post-graduate setting like a seminary?
And what does all of this indicate about the future of the church? I think it's interesting that we've been moaning about the declining biblical literacy of evangelicals, while at the same time the demand for theological education by church leaders is softening. How are we going to properly educate those in the pews if those in the pulpit are more likely to have a degree in business or marketing than theology or Bible?
Of course it is unfair to present this as an either/or issue. The question isn't really about seminary or incompetent clergy. There are many ways pastors are trained beyond formal post-graduate study in a seminary. What do you think the future of pastoral training should look like? Share your thoughts in the comment section.