How Not to Train Pastors (Part 1)

I wrote this near the very beginning of the Heidelblog in 2007. As high-speed internet service was becoming more widespread, online education was beginning to catch on and many seminaries were beginning to adopt it. The world has changed since then. The widespread turn to distance education during the Covid pandemic revealed the weaknesses of that approach. My students more or less insisted that my school return to face-to-face education as soon as possible. They testified that though they understood the necessity of going online temporarily, they realized that they were not learning as much online as they were in person.

In the years since, it has become clear to me that the educational systems, both public and private, are not flourishing. Standards are falling rapidly. What those with undergraduate degrees might have been assumed to know 20 years can no longer be safely assumed. Knowledge of Western civilization (including the classical world), the English language, European languages, critical thinking and reasoning skills, and the ability to write a term paper has declined dramatically—much faster than I anticipated. As students’ knowledge of the exterior world has declined, their knowledge of the interior world, i.e., of their feelings has increased.

The first part of this series was written well before the creation of the Heidelblog and it first appeared in EVANGELIUM volume 5, published by Westminster Seminary California.

This series was originally prompted by the creation of an online seminary with the improbable name, Wittenberg Reformed Theological Seminary. If memory serves, I first learned about plans for this school via the Puritanboard. There is still a non-profit entity registered in Flagstaff, AZ with this name but I do not see any evidence of a school.

I see that someone is starting an(other?) online seminary. It has the intriguing name of Wittenberg Reformed Theological Seminary. To the best of my knowledge, “as of today,” (as folk say during congressional hearings) Wittenberg was a staunchly Lutheran town (the official name is Lutherstadt Wittenberg) and school. Invoking Wittenberg as the qualifier of “Reformed” is a little like a Lutheran starting Geneva Lutheran Seminary or Dort Lutheran Seminary.

Incongruous is a word that comes to mind. Now, I love my Lutheran cousins (even though they regard us a “crafty” sacramentarians—Formula of Concord Art. 7) and I have defended the proposition that the Reformed and the Lutherans have a common doctrine of justification. Nevertheless, there are significant differences (e.g., Christology and the resistibility of grace). I see that WRTS is oriented around Reformed standards and they do not include the Book of Concord (in which case the adjective Wittenberg might make more sense) so one has to wonder about the intellectual capital behind an enterprise that proposes to train pastors but does not seem to know what Wittenberg was. (Now, of course, Wittenberg is a tourist town. They are not invoking “tourist” as a metaphor for theological education are they?)

The whole business of online/distance seminary education is troubling. Because the confessional Reformed churches (i.e., NAPARC) are conservative and theologically oriented, we tend to attract ideologically committed folks. That is okay but it means that we might have more than our fair share of ideologues and even a few crackpot groups (e.g., King James Only—”if it was good enough for Paul, it is good enough for me,” and geocentrists—”Copernicus and Galileo could not tell a galaxy from a candy bar”). Since, by intent and its very nature, online seminary education skirts the usual educational process, the usual faculty interview and appointment process, and of course, the regulatory process, it is hard to see how the growing trend of online “education” will help us curb the tendency toward wackiness in the conservative Reformed world.

It is also hard to see how an educational institution that relies entirely upon online libraries and tutors will produce a genuinely intelligent ministry. There are a lot of great books online, but most online books are in the public domain, which means that they were published before 1923. Would you trust your health to a doctor or your legal well-being to a lawyer who had only read medical or legal texts published before 1923? If you do not mind not having access to polio treatments (1952), I guess that is a choice but, as a matter of public health, it would be best if everyone did not see that physician.

Why Pastors Need A Seminary Education

Over the years, many things have changed at Westminster Seminary California (WSC). In the most important ways, however, the seminary has not changed. We still believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God. We still believe the historic Christian faith as summarized in the ecumenical creeds and the Reformed confessions and catechisms. We are still dedicated to training men for the Reformed, pastoral ministry.

Though WSC has not changed fundamentally, the seminary business has changed dramatically in recent years. Today, seminaries are offering their product (education and preparation for ministry) at a distance—WSC is enthusiastic about these emerging technologies and is exploring the best way to use them to advance Christ’s kingdom. One possibility under consideration is finding a way to provide continuing education to pastors through online resources (see below).

Some folk, however, see the Internet as a way not only to supplement a pastor’s seminary education and to strengthen his ministry (it surely is these things) but also as a way to replace seminaries altogether. This is a worrisome trend, frankly. The strongest argument which proponents of “home grown” pastors make is that the church should have a more intimate role in the training of her ministers. They see the Internet, therefore, as a way to harvest the best of scholarship while keeping candidates for the ministry in their local churches. This program, though initially attractive, rests on some false assumptions.

Face to Face is Best

Though there are many benefits to be had through the internet—you and I are using it right now to communicate—it can never replace the sort of community which exists between professors and students in the classroom, lunchroom, and office.

The word community is the right one in this context. Most of the students attend local Reformed churches (many of which exist because God used the Seminary faculty and students to plant new churches in this area) in which WSC faculty preach and teach. Some students live with faculty and there are gatherings in faculty and student homes regularly, which makes school and church life a sort of seamless garment. All this interaction contributes to the formation of men for the ministry. We regard the spiritual and theological development of students to be part of our ministry. So, it is not true, as is sometimes implied in the discussion about the relative necessity of seminary, that men who go to seminary are somehow in the wilderness.

Would You Trust Your Heart to a Mail Order Surgeon?

At WSC, we are still old-fashioned enough to believe, however, that a seminary education comes only one way: through hard work. Therefore, while many seminaries are now advertising (quite seductively it seems) that one can earn a seminary degree while never leaving home, at WSC we believe that self-sacrifice is a part of ministry. Ask yourself this question: Would you choose as your heart surgeon one who learned his skills via satellite and video tapes? Even with the assistance of a seasoned physician nearby, such training would clearly be inadequate. There is something about knowing how deep to cut which can only be learned through hands-on, tactile, face-to-face training.

Your soul, as our Lord Jesus taught us, is of infinitely more value than even your heart muscle. Notice that I keep saying, “At WSC” instead of “through WSC.” This is because seminary is not just a vehicle, a means to an end. While students are here, they are students. They are not just passing through seminary. Their vocation is to study and prepare with pastors and scholars, to become pastor-scholars. By challenging, praying with, and lecturing to students, we believe that we are preparing them to serve in churches, providing them with the tools they will use every day for the rest of their lives in their pastoral ministry.

What we think about seminary is important because, since the formation of the Reformed Church in the 16th century, we have always believed in pastor-scholars. This belief distinguishes us from much of the rest of American and Modern Christianity. Some might say, “That’s the problem.” I respectfully disagree and for one reason primarily—preaching is the minister’s primary calling. He is called to preach from the Bible. The Bible is, to quote J. I. Packer, a “very big book.” More than that, it was written in three languages in several cultures over quite a long time. It takes a certain amount of learning to get to grips with the history, theology, background, and proper application of God’s Word. Nor is the Bible read in a vacuum. The Church has been thinking about and interpreting the Bible for a long time. So we need pastors who are not only trained to read God’s Word as it was written, but who are trained in the Christian tradition. This is not something done quickly, easily, or cheaply. It is not something which is done well by distance (electronic) education to large groups without access to a seminary library or faculty. Thus, such distance education is not adequate, at least not presently, for servants of God’s Word and his people.

It Takes One to Know One

Quite understandably, most pastors (like most physicians, lawyers, and accountants) are far too busy to be able to keep up with the latest literature in any one field (e.g., New Testament studies) let alone all the fields required for seminary preparation. Staying abreast of academic developments is a full-time calling. Only recently, one of our New Testament professors presented to the rest of WSC faculty a highly technical, but most interesting paper on recent developments in the study of the grammar of the New Testament. Most of the faculty, even though they are full-time scholars, were unaware of these changes. If full-time scholars struggle to keep up with the changes in the various fields, how could even the most skilled and industrious pastor fulfill all his parish responsibilities and do the sort of reading which would prepare him to train men for ministry full-time? Clearly, this is highly unlikely.

Why Seminary, Indeed?

One might say, “Who cares if seminary professors know the latest scholarship, is it not all a waste of time anyway?” The answer is no, it is not a waste of time. To use the medical analogy again, do you care if your physician reads the New England Journal of Medicine or are you prepared to do without antibiotics? Certainly there is much foolishness in Modern scholarship. Yet it will make its way into the Church and our pastors and elders must be ready to address it. More than that, there are benefits to recent scholarship. For example, one of our professors has made use of some newer educational techniques to make his Greek instruction even more effective. It is still hard work, but the students will leave seminary with the ability to continue improving their Greek skills, instead of putting the Greek New Testament on the shelf. In my field (theology), there is some very good scholarship being done which has brought much of our 16th and 17th-century tradition back to life again through essays and translations. The church will reap many rewards from these sorts of studies.

Seminary and the Church

“But,” some object, “doesn’t sending men away to seminary take them out of the local church?” The answer to that question is yes and no. Yes, sending men to seminary does take them out of one local church, but, of course, sending them to WSC, for example, means that they will find themselves them right back in another local church. It does not take men from “the” local church. Rather, sending men to seminary shifts them temporarily from one local congregation to another.

“But,” someone says, “isn’t the local church the primary place for the training of ministers?” Of course, the church has the central role in the calling and forming of ministers. The question is not whether, but how? Remember, seminary is a three and sometimes four-year commitment. The local church, if she is raising up future pastors, has young men for twenty years or more.

If our local churches are really concerned about the welfare of their seminarian sons, they can do many things to help. First, they can pray for them. Seminary is a challenge. The academic demands are high. Think of those whom you know who have gone away to medical school. The demands of a WSC education are comparable to those of the best professional schools (law, dental, medical) in the nation. The local congregation can also support the student financially. It is a simple equation: the less time the student must spend working, the more time the student can spend studying. The more time the student spends studying, the better prepared he will be for ministry.

It is wrong to assume that a local congregation or even a Classis can replace a seminary. Which of our local congregations, or any combination of them, has the necessary time, money, human and capital resources to train men for ministry? The WSC library holds tens of thousands of books and dozens of journals and thousands of back copies of magazines and journals. Few local congregations could support such an endeavor. This list does not even mention the computer hardware and software (which needs upgrading almost constantly) and the valuable resources constituted by a learned faculty, all gathered in one place.

Seminary: A Place for Reflection

The home-grown-do-it-yourself-learn-as-you-go model neglects another very important fact of education: time. Seminary is a time to come away from the typical schedule of ministry demands to think, learn, reflect on the Scriptures, and pray. Any pastor will tell you that if there is one thing he misses from his days at seminary it is the luxury of time away from the telephone (or email), and access to the latest journals and books, or even access to some of the very oldest books and time to read and meditate on them.

Follow the Money

In the discussion over “whether seminary,” it is frequently objected that seminary is “too expensive.” The assumption here seems to be that professional training for our ministers could be done less expensively by frugal folk who know what they are doing. Those who say this have probably not tried to offer outstanding graduate level education in the USA. The administrative overhead at WSC is quite low. We employ a very talented staff, some of whom have given up lucrative careers in order to advance God’s kingdom serving at the seminary. The cost of seminary at WSC is ranked almost exactly in the middle of seminaries in the USA. Given the quality of the education at WSC, we think that the tuition is quite reasonable. Costs do rise, but some of them are uncontrollable, such as the cost of books which have risen considerably over the years. What should the seminarian-pastor do? Go without books? Would you visit a mechanic who had no tools?

One should not assume that the proposed electronic alternative is cheaper. Distance education does not promise to be any less expensive in the long-run. Daryl Hart, in the October 1997 issue of New Horizons, noted that there are hidden costs to distance education. For example, some complain that they do not want to move to where the seminaries are. In that case, one wonders, in reply, if they will want to move where the churches are? Some complain that they will have to meet the cost of living while at seminary. Is there no cost of living where the prospective student now lives? If not, let us all move there. Of course, that would raise the cost of living would it not?

Then there are the seminary facilities. Each distance-learning student must have a suitable PC (let us say about $1500.00) and the associated software, which will need nearly constant upgrading. More than that, the long-distance seminarian will need his own seminary library, since the equivalent does not yet exist online. A decent library for such an enterprise could easily cost $10,000.00.

In this scheme, one has made a substantial investment toward becoming self-taught, but there are less tangible costs as well. When, in this scenario, will the stay-at-home seminarian study his Greek and Hebrew? Who will mark his papers? Evaluate his sermons? With whom will he compare notes? Will he really memorize his Greek and Hebrew vocabulary or will that also be too much bother? Will he really spend the late hours necessary to do the reading and writing for class? A computer terminal or video screen is wonderful, but its not human fellowship.

No Easy Way

All this is to point out that there is no easy route to the ministry and we delude ourselves if we say that there is. It is the Church’s obligation to make certain that the seminaries to which she sends her young (and older) men is worthy. What constitutes a worthy place? One which continues to confess the historic Reformed faith, which not only keeps up with the questions and criticisms offered by the culture, but which offers biblical and intelligent answers to those criticisms. That is, a worthy seminary is one which understands the times in which we minister and which equips her students to face those times, which equips her students to stand in the pulpit week after week and tell the truth, all of it, regardless of the consequences. WSC, was, is, and shall, by God’s grace, remain such a worthy place.

The Old Fashioned Way: They Earn It

WSC is old-fashioned in other ways as well. Unlike many seminaries, we still require students to learn to read God’s Word in the original languages. This was the vision of our founder, J. Gresham Machen, that Westminster would produce experts in the Bible. For this reason, students spend much of their first year learning Greek and Hebrew. They are expected to attend their other classes in Systematic, Practical, and Historical Theology with their Bible open as well. They also attend more advanced courses in exegesis, i.e., the explanation of the biblical text. More than just biblical study, they learn what to do with the Bible in the Church. They learn the biblical theology of the Church, her offices, and the theology and practice of pastoral ministry.

The Proper Role of Distance Learning

The new technologies cannot and should not replace face-to-face seminary education. What they can do, however, is to extend our ability to help pastors continue their education. Having laid the foundation of life-long learning in the classroom, we can help pastors keep up with theological, intellectual, and academic trends with advances in technology.

Concluding Thoughts

Our seminary has been entrusted with a tremendous responsibility. At WSC, the faculty takes this responsibility with the greatest seriousness. No seminary, or any human institution, is perfect and we are profoundly aware of this fact. Nevertheless, the Lord has given us this ministry of training men for ministry. Our slogan (in the Greek text on our seal) says, “The whole counsel of God.” That is the mark we aim to hit: to train men to preach all of God’s Word. It is no easy task, but it is a joyous one. I hope that you will pray for us as we pray for you and the prosperity of Christ’s Church.


Part 2.

Part 3.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Several thoughts come to mind, but I’ll just share a couple.

    I work for a highly respected federal regulator, and our training model for field staff is an apprenticeship-type model. Throughout the pandemic, one of the biggest concerns and gripes was the quality of new employee training. In every area of life, there are somethings best learned in person, be it classroom or one-on-one with another person.

    Second, what are your thoughts on the remote programs with periodic intensive sessions that some seminaries, such as Dubuque and I believe Reformed offer? I ask because the church that we attended in South Florida is part of the Mainline. It had two ordination candidates – one was definitely called to the ministry and is actually slated to become the church’s next senior pastor, while the other has proven to be more of a hireling. The former is currently co-pastor with the senior pastor, who is mentoring him to eventually take on that roll within the next few years. (It is the right move. The church had 10-12 years of instability, and he grew up in that church and has faithfully served it. So he will see to it that it is nurtured.) Anyway, he went to Dubuque because he was already married and onstaff at the church, and Dubuque tailored its program for those in such circumstances. Being in Iowa, I think it is also in recognition of the challenges rural congregations face. Since it is an official denominational seminary, the presbytery offered no pushback as long as the standard ordination protocols were followed.

    The other guy, I would rather leave it at he has proven to be a hireling in more ways than one, starting with his insistence on using an online only program, not of the Reformed tradition, catering to members of the military (he’s a reservist), when he didn’t need to. I think the presbytery would have stopped his candidacy at that point, but the optics of military component prevented them from courageously saying, “No.”. (And this is not to slight that program.)

    • Hi David,

      There is certainly a place for apprenticeship in the preparation of pastors but that cannot replace the classroom or residential experience. We have a wonderful essay coming tomorrow AM by Brad Isbell but, at his insistence, I’ve added this editorial note as a dissent from one point he made:

      Publisher’s note: Cards on the table: I love this essay. This topic is near and dear to my heart and I agree with 99% of what Brad writes here but on this point I respectfully dissent. In the 18th and 19th centuries the American P&R churches (Dutch, German, and American) tried the very thing that Brad recommends, substituting pastors and presbyteries for residential pastoral education. It did not work. The various P&R churches recognized that it did not work and thus they returned to the residential educational model. That was the Reformed practice in the wake of the Reformation. One of Calvin’s strongest desires was to build a seminary. That is what the Genevan Academy was. In the Netherlands our students were educated in theology faculty in the University of Leiden and in seminaries elsewhere. In Heidelberg the pastors studied in the theology faculty and in the seminary with pastor-scholars.

      We once had decentralized medical education, where physicians learned medicine from other physicians and lawyers once learned the law from other lawyers but no one would go back to the 18th- and 19th-century American frontier model for those disciplines today and pastoral ministry is more important than medicine and the law.

      We do need to find a way to educate men for ministry on the Plains and in the hollers (amen!) but as someone who has been preparing men for pastoral ministry for 25 years I can say with confidence that most of those who have only a seminary education are not prepared to teach seminary and most know it. Pastors typically only get one shot at preparation for a life of ministry and we need to do it as well as we can. Students need face-to-face access to pastor-scholars, to a real, physical library, and to life in a community of students.

      I don’t think remote programs with block in-person programming will do it. Again, would we prepare physicians that way? We wouldn’t. We only get three or four years to prepare pastors. Most never go to school again. We really need to get this right and not to cut corners.

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