Doug Sweeney started a warm discussion about the current seminary model with a piece for the Co-Allies that echoes points John Frame made about the limitations of the seminary model. Sweeney’s larger point concerns the growing distance between the academy and church, and the way the seminary may be tilting toward academics away from pastoral ministry:
American Protestants have only had such schools for a couple hundred years. They are relatively new. And, in the main, the theological life of our churches has declined during the years they’ve been around. I suggest we move toward a seminary model in which thoughtful, seasoned pastors play a greater role on campus (not just in preaching and polity classes) and, correlatively, that seminary professors play a greater role in the educational ministries of their region’s congregations.
Bill Evans jumped on board and praised Sweeney for questioning the seminary model:
. . . the theological seminary has been perhaps the most important engine in the “professionalization” of the clergy–the notion that the Christian ministry is another of the “helping professions” in which ministers are to conform to humanly generated standards of professional “best practices” as established by guardians of the guild (such as the Association of Theological Schools).
Finally, Carl Trueman responds responded with a good point:
Here is my question: could it be that the indifference to and ignorance of the basic elements of the Christian faith are themselves functions of a widespread belief that these things are not important? And if they are not deemed important by Christians, then we must ask ourselves why they are not deemed important. Could it be because the church and her preachers and teachers are not stressing the reasons why these things, these basic elements of faith are important — that human beings are dead in sin, possess no righteousness in themselves and live in imminent danger of falling into the hands of a God who is a consuming fire?
It has always struck me as fascinating that we today lament the biblical ignorance of people in the pews while at the same time we behave in ways likely to exacerbate rather than ameliorate the problem. We reduce the number of Sunday services from two to one, thus halving the amount of preaching people hear; we look to stand-up comics as providing the key to successful communication of a serious message; we warble on endlessly about cultural transformation and about what the world will and will not find plausible in our confession; and, most crucial of all, we soft-pedal on preaching for conviction of sin.
Conciliator that I am known to be, I wonder if all of the pieces are making the same point — namely, that seminaries need to be closer to the church, professors need to be pastors who are called to the work of ministry, and the institutions themselves need to stress the skills necessary for working in congregations and discipling God’s people.
In which case, the culprit here may not be accreditors or the universities that credential seminary faculty but the seminary administrators themselves. In the 1970s conservative Protestant seminaries received a massive infusion of students who were not planning on going into the ministry (I was one of them). Masters degrees other than the M.Div. proliferated, seminary budgets expanded, and academic deans conducted searches for faculty to keep up with all the new students. All of a sudden, the seminary became the place other than the local pastor to receive instruction in the basics of the Christian faith and then go with a Christian W-W into a number of other different occupations — most often graduate school for a Ph.D. in a subject that would position someone to teach at a seminary. In turn, seminaries became used to the revenue stream and now have trouble going back simply to programs designed for prospective ministers.
The seminaries’ production of Christian or biblical counselors only underscores this shift. Rather than looking for counsel from a pastor and a set of elders (not to mention parents and grandparents), believers now look for seminaries to send out a set of credentialed and licenses “professionals” who are redundant to the work of pastors. These counselors (as far as I know) even charge their clients for their services. Can you imagine your pastor or elders passing along a bill to you after a family visit?
In which case, the real problem with seminaries is the crisis of special office more generally. Do Protestants believe that pastors do anything holy or sacred when every Tom, Dick, or Sally has his or her own “kingdom work” or when I, for instance, have a writing “ministry”? Instead of defending the unique work of pastors and the holy ordinances they administer, seminaries welcomed all the hoi polloi (myself included), expanded their programs, and watered down the specialty of special office. One way to restore the seminary’s wits is to go back to training pastors exclusively. But which school will survive in that great day?