Five Reasons Why Christian Ministry Majors Still Need Seminary

The following post was written by John Hammett. Dr. Hammett serves as Associate Dean of Theological Studies and Professor of Systematic Theology at Southeastern Seminary. This post is adapted from a recent talk that he gave to undergraduates in the Religion Department at Charleston Southern University. While at Charleston Southern, Dr. Hammett also delivered the annual lecture for the Staley Distinguished Scholar Series on the topic “Three Views of Knowing God’s Will.” You can read a press release about his lecture at the university’s website.

Five Reasons Why Christian Ministry Majors Still Need Seminary

By John Hammett

There are many fine Christian colleges out there who offer majors to students who feel called to some form of pastoral ministry. After four years of college in which they have taken courses in Bible, theology, church history and other ministry related topics, they may naturally wonder if they need three more years of seminary. Many want to go immediately into ministry.

Others  may be open to taking some additional courses from a seminary along the way (online), but do not see the need to relocate to a seminary campus, put their ministry plans on hold for a while, and study full time. I can understand such thinking, but want to offer some reasons for their consideration why seminary training may be very well worth the additional time, effort, and money it will cost.

1. The challenge of contextualization. Anyone seeking to minister in today’s post-modern, post-Christian culture must do so as a missionary. We can no longer assume a familiarity with the Bible’s grand story line of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. Basic Christian terms and themes are akin to a foreign language for many of those to whom we minister. Learning to communicate the gospel and practice ministry in a way that speaks intelligible language and engages the culture effectively without becoming captive to culture and compromising the gospel is one of the most difficult challenges imaginable. Attempting to do so without acquiring the tools and skills that allow one to theologically analyze culture is a recipe for disaster at worst, or ineffective, irrelevant ministry at best. Those tools and skills are honed by study in how Christians in the past have encountered their cultures and contextualized the gospel. Such topics are the stuff of classes in church history, theology, ethics, and philosophy. Such skills presuppose an accurate understanding of the gospel, drawn from Scripture itself and not only from seeing how it is communicated in this culture. This is the goal of classes in Old Testament, New Testament, Hebrew, Greek, and Hermeneutics. Some Christian college majors may give students some exposure to the tools they will need, but few will enable them to develop the depth they will need to minister effectively in the context of 21st century North America.

2. The nature of pastoral ministry. Pastors are called to be generalists, because the church is called to offer all the ministries Christians of all types need to grow to maturity. Aside from the small minority of multi-staff churches, most churches look to one man as their primary leader. He needs expertise in teaching and preaching the Bible, competence in counseling and other areas of practical ministry, skill in evangelism and discipleship, ability in educational administration and worship leadership, and more. Certainly the members of the body are called to minister; he cannot do it all. But he is called to lead it all. Few colleges have the breadth of faculty that seminaries do—experts in homiletics and preaching, counselors and administrators, educators and worship leaders, evangelists and missionaries. Pastoral ministry is comprehensive ministry; training for pastoral ministry should be similarly comprehensive.

3. The value of informal learning. This reason especially applies to those who think online learning delivers essentially the same educational experience as residential study. But imagine the difference between listening to an insightful lecture online, one which sparks all kinds of thinking of how the ideas discussed could affect the shape of one’s ministry, compared to hearing the same kind of lecture in person. In the first scenario, you complete listening to the lecture and in most case have no one around you who heard the same lecture, has the same interests, with whom you can debrief and discuss the implications of what you have just heard. In the second context, you can go up to the professor after class and ask if your implications are valid, you can grab a couple of guys in class and stop for a cup of coffee or lunch and discuss what you have just heard and what it means for ministry. This is the reason why Google and Facebook and all the big technology companies see the value of having a physical headquarters. They know how to Skype and videoconference  with the best of them, but they have found that the type of informal learning that occurs when people talk together over lunch, or chat around the water cooler, or work on projects together to be irreplaceable. To be sure, such conversations can begin among Christian ministry majors during their college years, but the conversations become deeper and more profoundly formative as students mature.

4. Mentorship in ministry. In the area surrounding Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, we are fortunate to have numerous churches who offer various types of ministry opportunities to students—mentorships, internships, supervised ministry experiences, involvement in counseling, mission trips, worship leadership. These churches feel a special calling to involvement in the training of those called to ministry, and the seminary actively partners with them to allow students to get seminary credit for ministry involvement. Such mentoring opportunities seem to me the perfect complement to seminary education, as they allow students to test the value, validity, and viability of what they hear in the classroom in the crucible of church life. Again, some Christian colleges may have some similarly helpful churches around them, but there is a significant difference between what a church can and should allow an 18 year old teenager to do compared to what a 25 year old young adult can and should do. Churches can rightly expect more of and offer more to seminary students.

5. An environment in which to mature. Young adults in their early twenties are in the midst of some of the most important decisions of their lives. This is the time when many young people find a mate and often begin a family. This is the time when a career trajectory begins to take shape, when partnerships in ministry are formed, where iron sharpens iron as students work, study, live and play together. In my years as a professor, I have seen many students meet a future spouse in my classrooms. In more recent years, I have heard of many finding kindred souls and forming church planting teams to go together into the cities of this country. Others develop friendships with professors or other students that will be sources of advice and encouragement for decades to come. Perhaps this can happen in the contexts of a Christian college, but many of these types of decisions are not finalized until well past the college years. I can think of no healthier environment to spend these maturing years in which you are making these life-shaping decisions than one in which you are surrounded by those who share your passion for serving Christ, who are involved in loving God with all their minds and discovering how they can be used by God to serve kingdom purposes in this world. They will provide the examples, friends, and community in which healthy growth happens.

The Preacher wisely observes, “If the ax is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed, but skill will bring success” (Eccles. 10:10). Yes, seminary takes time and effort and money; you will not be able to devote your full attention to ministry for a few more years. But it is time well spent in sharpening the edge of your ax so that you minister with the skill needed for success.