“Turn left!” I shouted. Such a simple command. You’d think it would be easy to follow. Yet I could only stare helplessly as we breezed through the intersection.
The problem: too many voices. I wasn’t the only passenger in the car. And the others also thought they knew where to go. Too many cooks in the kitchen ruins your dinner. Too many voices in the car gets you lost.
I think seminaries find themselves in a similar situation today. Everyone has an opinion about what seminaries should do: students, alumni, accreditation boards, government agencies, donors. So many voices. Each with its own idea about where to turn and what to do. Turn left. No, right. Stop! Go!
One of the tragedies of this situation is that the cacophony of voices has at times drowned out a key voice: the church. The seminary exists to serve the church. It’s that simple. We didn’t build seminaries simply to write books, teach classes, and host conferences. We built seminaries to train leaders for God’s people.
That’s one reason I am always interested in hearing what pastors and other key ministry leaders have to say about what the church needs from its seminaries today. So, when I recently had the opportunity to hear Leith Anderson speak on that very subject, I paid close attention.
And, according to Anderson, there are seven things that the church expects, or should expect, from the seminary. I’d be very curious in hearing what you think about this. Is there anything you would add to this list? Are there any on the list that you don’t agree with? What do you think the church should expect from its seminaries?
1. Leaders who are orthodox and biblically literate
The church doesn’t need its pastors to be disciplinary experts, people who can lecture brilliantly on the intricacies of infralapsarianism or the details of the documentary hypothesis. (If you don’t know what those are, that just means you’re normal.) The church needs leaders who are biblical literate and faithfully orthodox, leaders who have a Bible-shaped way of viewing the world and our role in it. Disciplinary expertise is great for the classroom, not the pulpit.
2. Leaders who can preach and manage well
Communication and administration: twin pillars of effective ministry. According to Anderson, “If you’re a good talker and a good manager you’ll always have a job.” Unfortunately, people who can do both are unusual. Instead, these tend to be almost mutually exclusive gift sets. But seminaries need to help students develop in each. And this is a real challenge for seminaries given that neither of these can be learned well in a classroom setting. They require someone willing to come alongside the student in a real ministry setting to coach them through their ministry experiences.
3. Leaders who can lead
This one seems obvious, but its among the hardest to address. The trick here is that the church doesn’t need people who know about leading; the church needs people who can actually lead. Those are two very different things. And, since many students enter seminary with little leadership experience, seminaries need to give students opportunities to start and lead something, anything. The classroom provides the necessary time and distance to reflect critically on leadership experiences, but real leadership only develops in the field.
4. Leaders who know what organizational health looks like
According to Anderson, this is the one that most churches probably aren’t really looking for, but they should be. He sees it as one of the greatest challenges facing seminary students today.
The problem is that we expect seminary graduates to develop and lead healthy churches when they’ve never actually seen “health.” Coming from broken families and dysfunctional churches, these students have never experienced healthy organizational dynamics. And then they graduate from seminary and enter churches that have their own unhealthy patterns. So we send dysfunctional people to minister in dysfunctional environments. Then they, their families, and their churches become casualties, reinforcing the dysfunctional spiral.
So churches should expect that seminaries will do two things. First, they must model healthy organizational dynamics. Anderson fears that relationships and decision-making processes at some seminaries reflect the same dysfunctional realities, becoming part of the problem rather than its solution. Seminaries need to model how a healthy group functions. And second, seminaries need to partner with healthy churches to provide good learning environments for their students. Students need to see and experience health before they can foster it.
5. Leaders who can relate
Pastors work with people. That’s just how it works. So, although churches need well-educated pastors who are good with books, they need pastors who are good with people even more. Poor people skills destroys more pastors and churches than poor research skills.
Anderson discussed how church size affects this one. A common truism maintains, “The smaller the church the more important relationships are; the larger the church the more important performance is.” In response, Anderson quipped, “Relational skills are more important in smaller churches; the appearance of relational skills is more important in larger churches.” There’s probably an unfortunate amount of truth in that statement.
And he also commented on generational differences. According to Anderson, the boomers (and Gen X to a lesser degree) focused largely on performance. They wanted pastors who could get things done. Millennials are far more interested in relationships, making relational skills more important for pastors today, even in larger churches.
6. Leaders who can integrate
Ministry is complicated. When an issue arises, church leaders need to be able to draw on everything they know about the Bible, theology, history, pastoral care, leadership, and people, integrating these disparate sources of information, and applying them to the matter at hand. But seminaries have traditionally trained students to work within discrete disciplines. You write a Bible paper in one class, a theology paper in another, and discuss ministry issues in a third. That may work in the classroom, but real-world ministry requires constant integration. “The luxury of specialization is not a parish luxury.”
7. Leaders who survive
Finally, churches need seminaries to produce leaders who know how to survive in local ministry. According to Anderson, research suggests that most churches enter their best years in the seventh, eighth, or ninth years of a pastor’s tenure. Sadly, most pastors never make it that far.
Young leaders need to know about the biggest pitfalls in ministry and how to handle them. Things like dealing with criticism, people leaving the church, bullies in the congregation, board dynamics, personal and church finances, creating healthy families, and more. Without understanding these things, they’ll never survive.
In the past, denominations were the best agencies for providing this kind of pastoral support. But, since that’s not happening for many pastors today, seminaries need to step into the gap and make sure that our pastors are prepared to survive for the long haul.
What do you think? Anderson offered some interesting thoughts on what churches need from seminaries today. Is he right? Are these truly the seven most important things that seminaries need to focus on? And should seminaries really try to address all seven? Or is there a danger that trying to do them all will distract from the two or three that you think are the most important?
[This has also been cross-posted over at the Transformed blog. Feel free to join the discussion there as well.]