By Jacob Elwart
In preparation for representing the seminary at a conference in Iowa, I have been reflecting on the ‘why’ of going to seminary. Why should a future pastor pursue a seminary education? On occasion, I’ll come across a college graduate who suggests that seminary is not for him. When I inquire as to why, he tells me that he has to get into ministry now because people are lost and dying. The implication is that the urgency of seeking after lost souls is more important than slowing down to get a seminary education. It is true that people are lost and dying, and that we should be urgent about pursuing the lost, but skipping seminary in order to rush into ministry would be like performing a surgery without any schooling.
If going into pastoral ministry were like working at a fast food restaurant, we should encourage as many young people as possible to skip seminary to go into ministry. But pastoral ministry is a high calling of God — less like flipping burgers and more like performing surgery. Working at a fast food restaurant requires minimal training and has few serious implications if the training is shortcut. Performing surgery is the opposite.
Patrick Connolly, a neurosurgeon, argues in a 2016 article that becoming a doctor takes such a long time because it helps medical students grow in their skill and ability. He writes,
Training in medicine takes so long because it is incremental, adding responsibility very gradually. You want to see as many permutations of a problem as possible so that you have a good chance of working it safely on your own when the time comes. Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment, so it’s important to see and do as much as you can before you go out into the world on your own without anyone looking over your shoulder.
I would suggest that seminary training is very similar. It allows the student to gradually take on more responsibility, and learn how to develop good judgment regarding the latest fads in doctrines, and how to apply the Scriptures to specific situations.
I would like to offer three reasons why a young man pursuing ministry ought to go to seminary.
Perhaps the most basic reason to go to seminary is for a person to improve his skills for ministry. One of the reasons that seminaries exist is to improve the depth and breadth of a person’s understanding of the Scriptures and how to apply the Scriptures to a ministry context. The Master of Divinity degree at our seminary requires a person to complete 96 hours of master’s level work, including a mastery of theology and the Biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew.
Suppose a young man desires to go into ministry without being trained in these areas. Will he have a vibrant, God-honoring ministry? Will he be able to unpack the Scriptures in his personal study? Will he know how to handle a variety of issues that come his way? The fact is that he could succeed in all of those areas, but in most cases, he would have to rely heavily on the work of other people. In other words, there is a difference between knowing Greek and relying heavily on commentators to know Greek. There is a difference between knowing theology, and relying heavily on theology books and study Bible notes. Seminary will improve a young man’s skill in preparation for ministry so that he can think for himself while still learning from commentaries and theology books.
The second reason that pastorally minded young men should go to seminary is precision. My youngest brother, who completed his boot camp training for the Marines at Paris Island, became one of the top marksmen in his class. His instructors taught him how to reload his weapon with precision. They taught him that “slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” Those who tried to reload too quickly would often make more mistakes, and as a result, they were actually slower than those who slowed down and worked for precision. Admittedly, seminary slows life down for the purpose of precision. Paul demands that overseers exhort in sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it (Titus 1:9). No one stumbles into good theology. Good theology comes from careful study of the Scriptures. The seminary slows students down enough to hone their understanding of the Bible and its theology. Knowing sound doctrine in order to teach it is critical to ministry, and knowing sound doctrine does not happen apart from slowing down.
Quickly producing pastors must not be the primary goal of churches. The primary goal should be producing pastors who are well equipped. Of course, the flip side is that someone can pile up lots of training and never get out on the field and serve. Because of this reality, DBTS takes a balanced approach to a minister’s education, encouraging each student to be involved in local church ministry while taking classes.
The clinching reason in my mind for why future pastors should go to seminary is what the office of the pastor requires. The office of a pastor requires character that is consistent with 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Of course, God can form this character in many different ways, but I would suggest that seminary education has a way of confirming or denying a person’s desire to go into ministry. Seminary has a way of shaping and revealing character. All who begin seminary will not finish. All who finish seminary will not necessarily go into ministry, and that is okay. To be fair, full-time vocational ministry is not for everybody. Those who graduate from seminary and go on to work in a nonministerial job while serving in the church prove to be valuable assets to Christ’s work.
College graduates may like to take the easiest path to ministry, but seminary is appropriately difficult in order that pastors will be prepared for the difficulties in ministry. Seminary is rigorous because ministry is even more rigorous.
Future pastors, let me encourage you to slow down and pursue a Master of Divinity degree. You will likely find that your urgency for doing Christ’s work will not be quelled, but instead, it will be stoked into a blaze that will fuel your future ministry for years to come.
Jacob Elwart is associate pastor of Inter-City Baptist Church, Allen Park, Mich. This article was first published on the blog of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary and is reprinted here by permission.