This is a hard time for those who work in theological seminaries. Secular people view the theological seminary as a place where people discuss matters of little importance in the real world. Many of those who work in seminaries have heard the old joke in which someone says, “How are things going at the ‘cemetery?’ I’m sure that most of the time it is good natured ribbing, but sometimes it is an indication of what people really think about seminaries.
Even in some church circles, the seminary is devalued. Some ministerial entrepreneurs see the seminary as a place that refuses to change and does not teach the latest methods, or respond, to the latest trends. There are some ministers actually counseling fledgling ministers to avoid seminary altogether. I believe both of these assessments are unfair. Many seminaries today make great efforts to keep up with the latest trends – sometime embracing them, sometimes assessing them.
What about the fledgling minister? How does this person view the seminary? Too often, it is seen as just a place to get a credential. I remember with great pain something I said to a fellow sem
inarian when I was involved in my first seminary experience. He mentioned the many intellectual and spiritual benefits he was receiving and I said, “I’m not worried about learning anything; I just want to get the sheepskin.” I don’t think I really believed that even at that time; I was just trying vainly to be funny. The fact is that I did not have the right motivation the first time I tried seminary, and I didn’t stay long. When I tried it the second time, my motive was much purer, and I completed my studies.
The fact is that any educational experience has value because it helps to make the student a certain kind of person. We don’t just take classes to learn a trade, although there’s nothing wrong with professional training. We take classes so that we might become more knowledgeable, competent and wiser people.
What can a seminary do for a preacher? For some of you who are reading these words, a seminary education is required for your ordination. That provides its own motivation. For others, a seminary education may be optional, but is seen as a benefit for ministry or academic advancement. Regardless of the reason for
38 Setp/Oct 2007
THE BENEFITS OF SEMINARY
going to seminary, it is the hope of all of us who labor there that the classes students take will make them better people as well as better ministers.
How does a seminary bless a preacher?
It deepens the preacher’s resources.
An older minister friend of mine used to say that “you better dig your well deep if you don’t want to suck mud.”
It will deepen the student spiritually. Most seminaries now are placing great emphasis on spiritual formation. For some time critics have been saying that seminaries are only interested in the intellectual aspects of religious and ministerial studies. This is no longer the case.
It will also deepen the well intellectually. There are books one would never read and thinkers one would never know about apart from the seminary. Knowledge is not all we need, but it is the foundation of wisdom.
It broadens the preacher’s horizons.
Classroom discussion, course assignments, lectures and books will take students beyond the borders of where they have been. They will interact personally and through reading with a wide variety of people from a wide gamut of perspectives. They might even find themselves disagreeing with some of those perspectives: there is nothing wrong with that.
It will lengthen a person’s influence.
Networking has been a buzzword for the business world for some time now. Having a good relationship with professors will enable the student to use their gifts in a wider circle. Students might be recommended to ministry opportunities that might otherwise have been unavailable. There is also the opportunity to network with peers. Here are people who may be able to bless one’s ministry some day by coming to do seminars or sermons at different churches. The opposite is also true.
While credentialing and academic status is not all there is, there is a benefit to the student. The education received will give him or her the opportunity to be able to bless and teach others in the academy.
So a seminary deepens, broadens and lengthens. This is a good and noble work to do. I know there are some who claim that it takes three years to get through seminary and three years to get over it. Every student needs to place the seminary experience in the context of real world problems and congregational issues.
Take note that the word seminary comes from a Latin word that indicates “a place where seeds are nurtured.” The seminary is a seed house, not a cemetery. I know – I have seen seeds grow and flower there. ?
J. Michael Shannon is Academic Dean and Professor of Preaching in the Seminary of Cincinnati Christian University.