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The Shocking Truth Behind Seminary Education and Ministry Readiness

Dr. James Emery White | Serioustimes.org | Updated: May 15, 2024
The Shocking Truth Behind Seminary Education and Ministry Readiness

The Shocking Truth Behind Seminary Education and Ministry Readiness

I was recently asked during the weekly Church & Culture Podcast why I wrote the book, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary. A book which, to this day, is one of my favorites.

The reason I was asked this was prompted by a conversation on Generation Z becoming known as the “tool belt generation” for its return to the practical nature of learning a trade, bypassing four-year programs of higher education. Gen Z has a sense that school lacks a sense of purpose and isn’t motivating. They are far more excited and motivated for what is happening outside of the classroom.  

Couple this with the staggering rise in college tuition, and it’s not surprising that the number of students enrolled in vocationally focused community colleges rose 16% last year, bringing the number of students in that arena to the highest level since the National Student Clearinghouse began tracking data. The number of students studying construction has risen by 23% since 2018 alone.

My co-host’s question was akin to throwing me red meat. Seminaries across the nation are in decline, and many have shuttered their doors. The Associational of Theological Schools (ATS) has compiled its data on seminary enrollment for 2023, and the classic seminary degree – the Master of Divinity – experienced another 5% decline.

And yes, there can be little doubt that one of the reasons is what is behind Generation Z becoming the tool belt generation, and certainly was behind my reason for writing that particular book. As I wrote in the introduction:

My life has been lived largely in two vocational worlds: the church and the academy. I am the founding and senior pastor of a church; I am a professor and former president of a seminary.

More than that, I loved seminary. I loved learning about church history and theology, philosophy and ethics. My pulse quickened the first time I was able to stand behind a podium and say, “In the Greek, this word means....” I loved building my library with works from Augustine to Zwingli. Adding entire multivolume reference sets, such as Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, made my hormones bubble.

I was the classic three-year residential MDiv student. But toward the end of my seminary studies, just before I started my doctoral work, I received a call from a church near the school asking me to consider coming as their interim pastor. It was an established denominational church in a county-seat town near the seminary. The interim turned into a full-fledged invitation to serve as their senior pastor….

[When] I, as a new pastor, was asked to officiate my first wedding, my first funeral, my first baptism, and my first communion, I was totally clueless. So why did they ask me to be a pastor in the first place in order to do such things? It was assumed that since I was nearing my graduation from seminary, I knew what I was doing.

I didn’t.

So in panic mode I ended up buying every “minister’s manual” the local Christian bookstore offered.

It didn’t get any better.

I needed to raise money to meet the church’s budget, and I had never had a class on that. I wanted to try to grow the church numerically by reaching out to the unchurched, and my coursework had never touched on it. I had a problem with a combative and disagreeable deacon, and I searched through my seminary notes and found nothing. I found I needed to be in the office for administration, in my study to prepare my talks, in people’s lives to stay connected to the community, and in my home to raise my family—and there hadn’t been any instruction on how to manage that.

It was becoming painfully clear how little my seminary education had actually prepared me for the day-in, day-out responsibilities of leading a church.  

I knew about the Council of Nicaea, but no one had ever told me how to lead my own council meeting. I knew about the Barth-Brunner debate but not how to handle the breakdown between two Sunday school teachers when one was asked to start a new class, for the same age group, from the existing class. I knew the significance of the aorist verb but not how to parse the culture to know how best to communicate. I could tell you the leading theologians of the 16th century but not about leading and managing a staff.

This is why so many people look back on their seminary education with a critical eye. It’s why pastors will go to a two-day leadership conference headlined by seasoned pastors passing on their insights for effective ministry and feel like they gained more in those two days than they did in their entire three years of seminary education. It’s why quickly after graduation, Melanchthon gets dropped for Maxwell, Luther for Lucado, and the seminary’s continuing education program for pastors for the latest megachurch conference.

Like so many others, I had gone to seminary to prepare for ministry, and I was not prepared for ministry. I was prepared academically to begin a life of teaching, which is, of course, invaluable. But in terms of the vocation of ministry beyond teaching? And even in regard to teaching, how to teach effectively? Not so much. Even worse was how ignorant I was about the life of ministry. I did not know how to manage my time, care for myself spiritually, nor raise my kids in a way that was sane.  

In other words, I never learned to do the things that I would actually have to be doing every day for the rest of my life.

We need seminary. But in fairness to a seminary education, there are certain things it will never be able to impart, even if it tries. God bless professors, but most of them have never been the pastor of a church. They may have been interim pastors or had a short-term pastorate while in seminary, but they are, in truth, academics. They are not practitioners. We need them, and we need the academic education they give us. But we also need what they don’t teach you in seminary. We need insights and wisdom on leadership and relationships, emotional survival and communication, hiring and firing, sexual fences and our struggle with envying the pastor across town. We need best principles about money and time, decision making and church growth.  

And we need it from someone who has done it. We need the raw street smarts that can only come from someone who has been educated in the trenches.

As I re-read those words now, they seem more prescient than ever.

Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Callum Hill 
The Church & Culture Podcast can be found HERE.
Chris Meinzer, “Bright Spots Emerge in Fall 2023 ATS Enrollment Update,” The Association of Theological Schools, read online.
James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker), order from Amazon.
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of CrosswalkHeadlines.

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on XFacebook, and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.



The Shocking Truth Behind Seminary Education and Ministry Readiness