Seminary has not been an easy or especially fulfilling journey for me. It seems I am not alone in this as I have heard both professors and students talk about how seminary was/is a spiritually trying time. Fortunately, I have found great joy in the last six months through being able to do ministry in the area where God has called me.
In March of this year, I finally started to work in the mission field that God has called me to. I also started to see how life experiences and educational experiences have both prepared me for ministry and have also revealed that often experience is the best teacher.
I have learned more about ministry in the last six months than I have learned in nearly three years of seminary. Why? Because for the first time I am doing ministry where God has called and equipped me to do it. While seminaries do encourage, and often require, students to be involved in some type of ministry, more needs to be done.
There are many things that are best taught in a classroom. Church history, Biblical languages, theology, and exposition of Scripture are things that come to mind immediately when thinking of area where seminaries do a great job in preparing people for ministry. Where I have long felt seminaries lack is in the area of applied ministry. Sure, classes exist that “require” a student to do certain types of ministry for a certain amount of time and if it is not done properly than the student will fail the class. Is that really a good way to teach students how to do ministry?
I think it is time to look beyond the classroom and build a leaner M.Div degree for those who learn better by doing. In looking at my M.Div degree plan (91 hours) I can see how easy it would be cut 20-30 hours out of the degree and instead offer the option of doing actual ministry with a seminary mentor or adviser to help guide the students through issues that come up.
Classes that could go (and no disrespect to professors who teach them):
Evangelism, Missiology, Foundations for Christian Ministry, Introduction to Expository Preaching, Advanced Expository Preaching, Spiritual Formation, Administration of the Church, and some elective hours
These are all classes with concepts that could be learned through hands on ministry and the guidance of a mentor. This practical training would allow students to take the educational aspects of their degree and see how they apply to real world ministry. Students will learn that while academics is important in preparing for the ministry, even more important is having a heart for the people you are ministering to. In my experience, people going through crises in their lives care less about whether you can parse a Greek verb or explain the finer points of the Calvinism vs. Arminianism debate. No, what they care about is someone who can be there to listen to them and who can show them the love of Jesus and offer them hope when their life seems to be crumbling around them.
Seminary is good in that it makes us learn new things and refine our beliefs, but it cannot replace and cannot replicate hands on ministry in a classroom. Thus, an M.Div degree with an option to earn 20-30 credit hours from actual ministry experience would send ministers into the field far better prepared than with a degree where most of the applied ministry is learned in a classroom.
I understand that this may not even be possible due to accreditation issues, but we should at least stop and think about it. The best way to learn ministry is to do it.
How it would work:
1. A certain number of hours of total ministry time would be required per week.
2. The student would have to work with someone experienced in their field of ministry who would be willing to verify to the seminary that the student is indeed fulfilling their obligations.
3. A seminary professor would meet with the students regularly in a classroom environment with people involved in similar ministries to debrief the issues. This will allow students to learn from what their fellow students are experiencing as well.
4. The seminary classes would be divided up based upon ministry types (military chaplaincy, youth ministry, pastor, children’s minister, music ministry, etc.). This will allow the professor to assign books and readings to the class to help them as they minister.
5. Students finish the year long class having learned things that could never be adequately taught and with invaluable experience as they graduate seminary and go into ministry full time.
Modern society seems to have, in many ways, overvalued the classroom education while scorning the apprentice/mentor model of learning. This would combine the two.
I think we could learn a great deal by following the example of Jesus in how he taught his disciples. They learned by observing Jesus work and Jesus would teach them as he taught. The classroom of the disciples was the real world and their teacher lived and worked in that world. What better way for seminary students to learn than to get out of the classroom, get dirty, and learn by watching and doing.