Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Strange Lives of Seminarians: Working Fools

One of the challenging aspects of seminary is this: the need most of us have to work. Unlike other graduate students, we are not usually given funding for our program of study. This makes for an interesting and often difficult journey through seminary.

Many seminarians here in Louisville work at the local UPS shipping house. They get good benefits and a decent salary from UPS, and many are grateful to the company for its compensation. Yet one has to ask how ideal this situation is. I have observed several UPS employees falling asleep in class here at Southern. This is a sad situation. It is illustrative of the difficulties many seminarians have in making it through their programs. The need to work and provide costs nearly every seminarian something significant. Maybe it's family time, or study time, or a healthy life. Having observed this situation now for over three years, I've often thought that there must be a better way to train pastors.

It strikes me that it would be better if churches could support seminarians. It would be best if seminarians could get credit for a number of classes while working in a church--classes such as evangelism, preaching, counseling, and so on. Students could then fly in to seminaries to take classes in specific periods of time--say for a week or two weeks or a month. In this way, men who are heading off to the ministry could serve a church, gain the experience and teaching they need, and yet also complete a seminary course without undue hassle or harm. No one would be getting rich off this scheme, but that's not the object. Most of us would love a couple of years to work part-time in a church, live in church housing, and complete a reduced course load limited to the disciplines that only academic experts could teach--the languages, advanced theology, philosophy, and so on.

In my opinion, this option really improves the current seminary model. It requires churches to step up their giving and to view the housing and care of their in-house seminarians as an investment. Churches would not simply send seminarians off to study, but they would actually draw them into the life of the church, love them in very tangible ways, and take responsibility for their training in a way most churches do not currently do. Seminarians would have more time to serve the church--which is what they're training for, after all--spend time with their families, and be mentored as they prepare for a lifetime of ministry. Seminaries might shrink in size a bit, but that's okay. The model would work itself out in time. In general, seminary life as it is currently practiced is quite difficult and it exacts a heavy toll from seminary families. At the very time in their life at which they really need to focus on their studies and their vocational training, many students are worrying more about their schedules, their bills, and their suffering families. This is an unfortunate and needless situation. If churches could commit to financial provision for seminarians, if pastors would commit to mentoring their charges, and if seminarians would commit to a mere (but rich, spiritually speaking) lifestyle, it's my guess that you'd have alot less dozing seminarians--and alot more healthy churches.

(I will answer questions posed on this series tomorrow.)


Blogger Jed said...

Here's something I've found interesting. Due to the structure of the education system in England, the UK does not really have seminaries. People interested in the ministry study divinity as an undergraduate. Now Oxford and Cambridge are not expected to train pastors for the ministry--they provide the inellectual rigour but not much in the line of practical application. Consequently, the church of England will provide internships for aspiring ministers that are conducted almost entirely by the church or parish which they are serving. For noncomformists/evangelicals, a couple of different approaches have been tried. One is to mimic the U.S. seminary approach (Hence a place like Oak Hill College). Another option is to mimic the Church of England approach. My church has been trying out what I would call an apprenticeship model. The young man is under the care of the church and presbytery, serving as a deacon and preaches, teaches, is involved with the Cambridge Christian Union. He gets his formal education through distance courses via RTS and has flow to the Jackson campus for the summer term to take language classes. This has made life a lot easier on his wife and child, and has given him valuable experience and training and throughout, the elders and church family have been supportive (so far as I can tell). It seems to be working quite well and avoids some of the problems that Owen pointed out. However, I do want to say that it is only because of the existence of institutions like RTS with its sizable resources and infrastructure that allow such a model to work.

10:54 AM  
Blogger Jed said...

P.S. The 'student for the ministry' (as we call him) is analogous to a U.S. seminarian in that he has a B.A. in something other than divinity (history, I believe) and, having been called to the ministry, is pursuing training.

10:58 AM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

Hey Owen,

This is a great idea, but of course the key problem is that so many seminarians come from small churches. My last church, for instance, sent out two seminary students within a year of each other... but wouldn't have enough money to provide even minimal support to either of them, much less give them a job. And how many churches would be willing to hire someone who didn't have theological education yet?

11:25 AM  
Blogger Claire said...

One point to clarify what Jed said--The student for the ministry also has a full time job teaching secondary school. He has to juggle 3 things--Church, 1/2Seminary, and Work.

12:03 PM  
Blogger Dad said...

Owen, I think you are on to something! One point that has been alluded to but not mentioned directly is that, as a general rule, churches ought to be setting men aside for the ministry, rather than individuals pursuing this on their own.

I have become a firm believer that young men, or older ones, do not need to rush into the ministry. (Again, there will be exceptions to all these.) And if, as Benjamin noted, there are two or more men being set aside for this training within a small church, perhaps a larger church might help, or - is waiting really a bad thing? Generally speaking I think it is a good thing, time to grow, mature and learn. One thing negative about college and advanced degrees is that there is not much time to really digest the Word, the doctrines and we might not see fruit in the students life for some time.

Also, there is no mandate from our Lord that a pastor must have all the right degrees. There are other things that God sees as more important. I believe churches need to be educated regarding this point.

Lastly, remember that God is in control, whether the pace be swift or slow. Yes, sometimes we foolishly rush into things, and there are consequences for our lack of faith.

And lastly, last, we really need men who walk with God, know the Word, even if it be just in English, and have a good understanding of what it is to live in the world (making a living, raising a family, etc.) while loving God. This is certainly something churches, large and small, could be instilling in the lives of a few godly men.


Al (Not Owen's dad nor that other "Al".)

3:41 PM  
Anonymous AE said...

Why not form a synod or presbytery of local SBC pastors to evaluate who should be sent off to seminary? This cuts down on the number of students sent, which in turn, could mean full paid tuition for all who are sent. Of course, this would infringe upon that sacred doctrine of local church autonomy.

2:32 PM  
Blogger JoshKnipp said...

I am so thankful for our church family. They saw this need and met it big time.

Check it out!


7:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This will call for churches to make tough decisions about who to support and who not to support among seminarians or aspiring seminarians in a given church. This raises the question of criterion. What should be the church leadership's criterion for discriminating between several "gifted" individuals whom they think are all gifted enough to be in ministry?

It seems feelings will ultimately be hurt; decisions ultimately come off as "favoritism," in many cases. Can this be avoided by some sort of objective criterion that would make the selection of gifted people less arbitrary?


5:40 PM  

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