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.

Andrew Fuller on Theological Education

I love teaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. I’ve wanted to serve on a faculty in an institution like this one since I was a senior in college. As a full-time professor, I love theological seminaries, divinity schools, and Christian Studies departments at colleges and universities. But as a Baptist, I’m quick to admit that formal theological education is not prerequisite to gospel ministry.

I’m regularly reminded that many of the finest pastor-theologians in my own tradition never received a seminary or even college education, including my all-time favorite Baptist, Andrew Fuller (1754-1815). In the excerpt that follows, Fuller addresses theological education. I find it interesting how similar his context was to contemporary Southern Baptist life:

As to academic education, the far greater part of our ministers have it not. [William] Carey was a shoemaker years after he engaged in the ministry and I was a farmer. I have sometimes, however, regretted my want of learning. On the other hand, brother [John] Sutcliff and brother [Samuel] Pearce have both been at Bristol [Academy]. We all live in love without any distinctions in those matters. We do no consider an Academy as any qualification for membership or preaching, any farther than as a person may there improve his talents. Those who go to ours [academies] must be members of a church and recommended by them as possessing gifts adapted to the ministry (Fuller letter to Mr. McLean, 20 April 1796, in Michael A. G. Haykin, The Armies of the Lamb: The Spirituality of Andrew Fuller, pp. 151-52).

I agree with Fuller. Though useful and even preferable, formal theological education is not necessary for one to be a pastor. What matters most is that God has called and gifted a man for ministry and that a church has recognized that calling and those gifts. As in Fuller’s day, it’s still the case that a potential seminarian must receive an endorsement from his or her local church before being accepted as a student. This endorsement includes a recognition and affirmation of the prospective individual’s call to and giftedness for the work of the ministry.

As someone who loves being a part of the culture of theological education, I’m thankful for seminaries (and colleges) that better equip men and women for ministry. But as a Baptist, I’m also thankful that God’s call is not limited to the educated alone. Andrew Fuller did not have the benefit of a college or seminary education, and he did just fine in his ministry. But since you’re not Andrew Fuller, you should consider applying to Southeastern Seminary. You can find out more information at our website.

On the Importance of Creatively Unoriginal Theology

This semester at Southeastern Seminary, I’m teaching an elective course on the theology of Andrew Fuller. I’ve been excited about this class for a long time. If you spend much time around me, you know that one of my burning desires is to help train a generation of pastor-theologians and theologians who are pastors. In my mind, Andrew Fuller is a great historical example of a missions-minded pastor-theologian in the Baptist tradition.

In our first class meeting last week, I attempted to make the case for the importance of studying particular theologians. In that discussion, I argued that any theologian worth his or her salt is “creatively unoriginal”; each of these words is important. Good theologians are creative, finding new ways to communicate doctrinal truth to the audience whom they are addressing, whether church or academy (or both). They recognize that passing on theological content is both an art and a science, so they try to frame theology in a way that captivates believers and contributes to spiritual maturity. They are the theological versions of poet-philosophers. As far as I’m concerned, dull theology is an epic tragedy that cheapens the significance of doctrine and can, at times, even push people away from the faith. Good theologians are creative.

But good theologians are also unoriginal. Contrary to academic trends in some circles, the task of the theologian is not to say something new, but rather to say something old—apostolic, even. Good theologians attempt to sound as much like the apostles as they can in their content, even as they try to sound as much like the culture as they can in the way they package biblical truth. I once heard a seminary president say something like this: “you’ll never hear an original idea at our seminary.” While the theologically faddish among us will dismiss a comment like that without a second thought, I think I know what that brother was saying and I’m with him all the way. The church doesn’t need theological originality; that’s the stuff of which heretics are made. The church needs theology that is creatively unoriginal.

If you are involved in a ministry of preaching or teaching God’s people, commit to being as creatively unoriginal as you can be. Fellow pastors, this is the type of theology that feeds the sheep and builds up the church. Fellow professors, this is the type of theology that equips your students to be the type of pastor-theologians who make a lasting difference in local churches.

(Image credit)