This post was originally published 13 May 2013.
The Proof Is in the Graduates
How does one determine a seminary’s effectiveness? Modern institutional benchmarks include endowment size, capital projects initiated and completed, enrollment growth, campus attractiveness, and other such pragmatic and aesthetic indicators. While these standards are not irrelevant, they are not paramount either. If a seminary exists for the Church, the most appropriate benchmark of effectiveness is how purposed and equipped its graduates are to serve the church.
Though the quality of a seminary’s graduates is directly linked to the quality of students the churches send them, a seminary still exercises profound influence over the students it trains. A seminary is not a spiritual or ministerial panacea, but there is, at least to some degree, a correlation between the type of minister a seminary seeks to equip and the type of graduate a seminary ultimately produces.
To this end, theological education must be a holistic endeavor that seeks to nurture and equip the whole minister for service in the church. When a church calls a minister, they do not call a portion of him. The church calls the total person for a ministry assignment that will prove wholly demanding. Therefore, a seminary must influence all four aspects of the seminarian: heart, mind, hand, and soul.
Ministry preparation, though primarily given to instructing the mind, is initiated in the heart. Students arrive at seminary to learn, but only because first they have perceived, and their churches have affirmed, God’s ministry calling on their life.
Ministry convictions and passions are baked into the soul over the course of a student’s time on campus. To be sure, a seminary education is not an all-purpose spiritual disinfectant or a holy cure-all for students. But students should nonetheless graduate more in love with Christ, not less; more committed to the Great Commission, not less; and more resolute in their calling to serve the local church, not less than when they first arrived.
As Paul exhorted Timothy to kindle afresh his call to ministry, so at seminary students’ love for the ministry should be deepened and fortified. Moreover, the call to ministry should be nurtured and cultivated to produce graduates with the Pauline aspiration of not only imparting the Word, but also their very lives to the congregations they are called to serve.
Theological education, like other forms of Christian discipleship, begins with the mind. Due to Adam’s sin, and the resulting noetic consequences of the fall, to be a Christian is to be engaged in a life-long pursuit of renewing the mind. In fact, Paul makes the renewing of the mind integral to sanctification, writing: “Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed, by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
Renewing the mind by instilling sound doctrine is the sine qua non of faithful theological education. To be a disciple is to be a learner, and to make disciples is to teach learners. In its most distilled form, theological education is the mere fulfillment of II Timothy 2:2, one disciple teaching another so that he can teach others also, thus preserving continuity of biblical truth and sound doctrine for the church.
A seminary education should be more than an intellectual experience, but it must never be anything less. In an age marked by the dumbing-down of academic standards, the seminary that best serves the church maintains a commitment to teaching the original languages, the full body of divinity, and the classic, timeless disciplines of ministry preparation.
The lion’s share of a seminary’s curriculum ought to be perennial, unchanging from generation to generation, and fixed, even in light of changing contexts and cultures. This does not negate, however, the need to train ministers with an eye toward the contextual and practical as well. Cultural considerations, contemporary methodologies, and an awareness of current ministry opportunities and seasonal local-church needs shape and facilitate, not abrogate, the conveyance of timeless truths of Scripture. After all, the goal of theological education is not merely to graduate “seminoids,” young theologs with encyclopedic doctrinal knowledge, but detached from local church expectations and congregational needs.
Moreover, too many aspiring pastors have graduated from seminary without a proper understanding of how to coordinate and lead a funeral service, officiate a wedding, administer the ordinances, or rightly engage in crisis counseling. Theological education must not be an abstract endeavor; a mere clinical transmittal of ministerial theory is insufficient. Real students must receive real preparation for real ministries in real local churches.
Finally, a seminary must intentionally seek to strengthen the spiritual health of its students. A gifted minister may gain a position of notoriety, but if he does not have biblical character he will not stay there. Residing in every graduate is a measure of the glory of God. When a minister is faithful to the gospel and lives a life above reproach, the church is strengthened and Christ is glorified. When, tragically, a minister is struck by scandal, not only is his life ruined and the church harmed, but the glory of Christ is tarnished.
As Robert Murray McCheyne, noted, a minister is “a chosen vessel unto him to bear his name. In great measure, according to the purity and perfection of the instrument, will be the success. It is not great talents God blesses so much as likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.” McCheyne therefore concluded, “The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness.”
Furthermore, in his Lectures to My Students, Charles Spurgeon writes, “We must cultivate the highest degree of godliness because our work imperatively requires it. The labour of the Christian ministry is well performed in exact proportion to the vigour of our renewed nature. Our work is only well done when it is well with ourselves. As is the workman, such will the work be.” Thankfully, the building and prevailing of Christ’s church is ultimately not dependent upon the righteousness of his servants, but he has called his servants, as they serve his church, to be holy as he is holy.
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Warren Buffett famously referenced the irresponsibility of excessively leveraged businesses, remarking, “It is only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.” Similarly, it is often not until a seminary graduate is in the rough and tumble of local church service that he fully knows how helpful—or unhelpful—was his seminary experience. The faithful seminary endeavors to train the whole person for the variegated ministry opportunities and challenges before him. Midwestern Seminary intends to produce such graduates—proven, equipped and resolved to serve for the Church.
A seminary will not rightly impact a student’s heart, mind, hand, and soul coincidentally. Rather, a seminary must be intentionally seek to influence these four areas, and in next week’s for the Church essay, we shall consider how an institution’s culture, curriculum, and classroom experience can purpose to affect these four dimensions of a minister.Church & Ministry, Education, Featured, Leadership, Other