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Four Reasons Why Seminaries are Ineffective (And What We Can Do About It)

Today’s seminaries are largely ineffective. We know this objectively and subjectively, but it’s hard to put our fingers on why they are ineffective.Wrong-Way-Sign-K-6608

What do I mean when I say that we know this objectively and subjectively? Objectively, we can see that there is a significant negative correlation between seminary education and both church health and church growth. (Christian Schwarz, Natural Church Development, p. 23)

When I say that we know subjectively that seminary education is ineffective, I mean that leaders and lay people—like your uncle Harry—have been complaining about the impact of seminary education upon young pastors for years.

Why are seminaries often ineffective in preparing leaders? There are four reasons.

In a nutshell: seminary education often fails to adequately equip high impact leaders because it has the wrong goal and wrong methods, and uses the wrong teachers in the wrong setting.

I realize I’ve probably already made a bunch of people mad. But please hear me out and consider my rationale. I am not writing as an outsider. I’ve taught for two seminaries and been involved in pastoral training in many different forms for over 30 years. My masters thesis was on “Leadership Training for the Church of the Future.” Even now my primary job description is preparing future pastors, church planters, and missionaries. So this is not a blog entry written on a whim. It’s a subject I’ve researched, struggled with and thought carefully about. I may not have it all figured out, but I think I have some insights that we need to grapple with. My question for you is: Do you agree with all, some, or none of my four reasons?

I’m going to talk about the wrong and right goals and methods in this post. Then we’ll look at the wrong and right teachers and settings in the next entry.

The Wrong Goal

Seminary education is ineffective in producing leaders because it has the wrong goal. Seminary education is, after all, education. The core goal of education is to create scholars. But scholarship and leadership are significantly different. Some people who get straight A’s in school fail in leadership, while others who drop out of seminary because they just can’t cut Greek class end up excelling in leadership and ministry.

Actually, seminary can be quite effective. It’s just that it’s effective at the wrong thing. Good schools excel at producing great scholars. I’m not saying that we don’t need scholars. Jesus speaks of God-sent scholars (sophoi) in Matthew 23:34. We do need great scholars. I’m called to scholarship myself and have a Ph.D. The problem is, however, that too often we use a system perfectly designed to produce scholars in order to develop leaders and then scratch our heads wondering why it’s not working. It’s because we are using the wrong tool for the right job.

The Wrong Methods

One of the surprising things that I discovered when I researched Jesus’ leadership training methods in depth when doing doing my masters thesis on leadership training is that, contrary to popular belief, Jesus did not use the dominant leadership training model of his day. Other first century rabbis, in fact, used an academic model much like our own seminaries that involved residential schools in which students enrolled. One of the first things that these students were required to do was to learn Hebrew so that they could study their Bible in its original language. (Most first century Jews spoke Aramaic or Greek as their mother tongue.)

Jesus, in contrast, used an in-service training model. His disciples did not need to be able to read Hebrew. He didn’t use textbooks but simple, easy to memorize stories. His training methods included life-on-life modeling, mentoring, and active engagement in hands-on ministry.

Where did the rabbis get their more cognitive, academic model? The same place we do, from the dominant Greek culture of their day. They took Plato’s Academy and poured different content into it, not realizing that in many ways the method is the message. By embracing the Grecian educational model, in significant ways they abandoned an Hebraic mindset for a Hellenistic one.

Jesus’ methods included cognitive instruction and he is rightly called “teacher” and “rabbi” repeatedly in the Gospels. But the cognitive teaching was an integrated part of a life-on-life, relational training model.

Interestingly, the Apostle Paul had gone through one of the finest rabbinic seminaries and could have easily replicated that model himself. His education may have come from Gamaliel, but his leadership training came from Barnabas who used the same relational, in-service techniques as Jesus.

When Paul needed to train emerging leaders like Timothy, Titus, Priscilla and Aquilla, he didn’t create a school like Gamaliel. He invited these young leaders to join his team and to come with him in his leadership journey, as Jesus had done with his disciples and as Barnabas had done with him.

So What Am I Saying?

Here’s what I am trying to say. Our leadership training should include education, but at its core the training should be life-on-life leadership development not academic schooling.

In other words, what successful leaders like you should be asking is not, “What emerging leaders should I be sending off to school?” Instead, you should be asking, “God, what emerging leaders should I be bringing alongside me and pouring my life into?” Yes, perhaps you should send them to school at some point. But realize that that will only make them better scholars. It’s up to leaders like you to show them and train them—in the nitty-gritty of ministry—how they can be high impact leaders. This involves significantly more personal investment than sending them off to school, but it’s far more rewarding and effective.

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2 Responses to Four Reasons Why Seminaries are Ineffective (And What We Can Do About It)

  1. Doug Overmyer (@DougOvermyer) July 21, 2013 at 9:24 pm #

    Good article! Sounds a lot like HLI!

    I used to coordinate training and career development for the American Red Cross in Chicago (Disaster Services). The Red Cross trains its volunteers with limited classroom courses, and multiple on-the-job experiences. Class time is important (it’s good to know the policies, read the various manuals and values of the ARC), but working in the field is more important – you develop real life problem solving and people management experiences that class times talks about, but can’t really simulate.

    In the ARC, we identified potential leaders from the pool of volunteers, and carefully tracked their training and (more importantly) disaster experiences, to promote them into managers and leaders on disaster assignments. Even now, I still volunteer, and last week, I took 2 new volunteers to a house fire in Mattoon, and opened a case for the displaced family (who lost 2 pets). The 2 volunteers hadn’t taken the appropriate class yet, but I guided one of them through the paperwork, working with the client, etc… You can’t simulate how to handle a situation with real people in shock and grieving their lost pets in the classroom.

    It’s good to learn policies, but it’s better to learn people.

  2. Andrew Mason August 12, 2013 at 12:21 pm #

    Great article Jim!

    “…scholarship and leadership are significantly different.”

    “…in many ways the method is the message.”

    Just to add or maybe say some of the same things in different words, education doesn’t always measure people skills and spiritual vitality. In ministry you MUST be able to rally people and get them excited about moving toward a preferred future.
    Also, I think there are many teachers (who are great people) that have amazing knowledge but not a lot of successful ministry experience. The up and coming generation that is called to ministry needs the transfer of wisdom from leaders who are doing it right now.

    These are simply items for reflection and possible refinement of the process. Education is very important and valuable for ministry!

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