Undermining the Faith – The Problem with Seminary

The recent study by Tufts University about Preachers Who Are Not Believers, as it was addressed in the Washington Post this week, has raised a number of questions for me. The one that intrigues me the most is the role that seminary has played in the formation of these unbelieving clergy.

The study very pointedly claims a connection between these pastors’ loss of faith and their seminary education. And for all those of us who’ve been to seminary it is hard to argue against their anecdotal evidence. More often than not seminary tends to undermine the faith in our modern day rather than form it and strengthen it.

Two quotes from my seminary days still hang with me. First: “Our job isn’t to make pastors. Our job is to issue degrees.” And second: “Sometimes we have to tear down their faith before we can build it back up.”

The first was spoken by an administrator at the seminary I attended, the second by a professor at another school. Both reflect part of the problem I see with seminary and how it contributes to the crisis of faith for many.

On the one hand, seminaries have often decided that it is no longer their job to produce pastors. As this administrator claimed in his instance, it was to “issue degrees.”

In many other instances, the goal is to compete for academic recognition in the scholarly fields. That means hiring well-published scholars who are respected by their peers and have a scholarly reputation to bring to the school in question.

Often, theological and creedal convictions are set aside in the name of academic freedom. In the end, what they teach their students is of less importance than the books they publish and the prestige they bring. (Read here: publish or perish.)

The effect of this on students is noticeable. Scholarly theories are taught as fact to young students who often don’t know how to distinguish fact from theory. They are young and impressionable, and they often believe what they are told.

In the hands of a good teacher, that results in education. In the hands of a lesser individual, it’s “deconstruction” and “demythologization.” Neither of which is particularly helpful for pastoral ministry in my opinion.

The end result for many schools is a disconnect between the faith of the church and the academic agenda of its professors. In many instances, what the church believes is scoffed at and purposely undermined by the very professors who are supposed to be teaching it.

Note, that was the intention of seminary, after all. Teach the faith. Equip pastors to do the same.

That mission has been lost. Many seminary professors not only do not believe the Christian faith, they openly mock it. And several do everything in their power to undermine it.

The smug air of intellectual superiority is intoxicating. Students feel like they’ve gained a “secret knowledge.” They are urged to infiltrate the church and pass it on.

For those who accept the challenge, they return to the local church equipped to undermine the very faith they’ve sworn to uphold. The rest simply go back unsure of what to do. They may not have bought into what their professors were selling, but they also don’t have anything in its place to rely on.

Mind you, this is the worst case scenario. There are good schools and good professors out there. But, this worst case is playing out pretty regularly these days. So many of our pastors have endured this. Why?

Seminary was supposed to be a help. It was supposed to equip pastors. It was supposed to teach the faith. It was supposed to assist the church.

Now it seldom does any of that. The growing rift between pastors and laity that Tufts University points out is a direct result of the chasm between the seminary and the church.

So why are we sending our best and brightest to seminary? Why risk it? If it’s not helping us, why not equip our clergy by another means?

What’s more, why fork over millions of dollars a year to schools who refuse to do their job? Put that money to good use somewhere else.

If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. If it is broken, though, I say dump it and find another way. I think that time has long since come for the church. Seminary is in many instances an unnecessary liability. Why not replace it?

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5 responses to “Undermining the Faith – The Problem with Seminary

  • John Meunier

    These are important questions, Lauren. My naive hope is that there are still seminaries that see themselves as crucibles for pastors. May their tribe increase.

  • Christopher Gudger-Raines

    Mr. Porter, I am sorry that your seminary experience left you with such bitterness. Your position that a significant population of seminary educated pastors have had their faiths destroyed and are in turn destroying the church is simply insulting.

    I affirm your concern that seminaries ought to be more interested in the formation of pastors. My wife and I returned to Drew to lead chapel and were disappointed to see so few faculty there. Whereas I left seminary with good theological foundation, I also left with considerably fewer leadership skills. But if I had my choice of good leadership skills or good Biblical and theological foundation, I would still take the latter. In all, I find that Drew did its job in equipping me for ministry.

    I also agree that seminaries are interested in demythologization, but it is a good thing to separate truth from falsehood. If you wanted your seminary to affirm everything you already believed in, then you shouldn’t have gone. I, for one, appreciate having a faith that is built on high-quality biblical and theological education. When all was said and done, those truths that were already in my faith rose to the top and the falsehoods faded away. It has made me a better Christian, and it has certainly made me a better pastor.

    • Lauren

      Christopher,

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I’m not so much bitter about my own seminary experience as I am deeply disappointed with the current state of seminary education in general.

      Seminaries in general have lost sight of what they’re really here for. Seminaries were founded to prepare pastors for serving the church. As a result, seminary was supposed to be an extension of the church, at the service of the church. This is why our bishops in the Methodist church were all on the boards of trustees. Their job was to produce pastors.

      This is the root of my discontent. Contrary to your assertion, I didn’t go to seminary expecting them to affirm everything I already believed. I expected them to teach what the church teaches, to affirm that doctrine, and to better prepare me to preach and teach that doctrine. That was, after all, the whole point of seminary historically.

      The seminary I attended did a better than average job of that. They at least tried. I had enough good professors to make up for the bad ones.

      Many other seminaries apparently haven’t done so well. That was part of the finding of the Tufts University report. And I don’t think they’re alone in that finding. This seems to be a trend. That’s worth being deeply concerned about. How do we get back to what seminary should be?

      We may disagree over the “should” in that. But that was my intent. Sorry it caused offense. I am glad your seminary experience was so positive, and I hope many others feel similarly. Thanks again for your reply. God bless.

  • ivan carlo manongsong

    Dear: sir

    I would like to us from your generous heart about some article and writings about human formation of the seminarian in line with prayer, community life and with their study, these will help me to accomplished my study about human formation of the seminarians. thank you sir,

    -vhan-

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