How Not To Train Pastors (Part 2)

I wrote this and How Not To Train Pastors (Part 1) 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.


I see there has been clucking as to whether online seminary is like the homeschool vs. traditional school debate, which is interesting because we homeschooled! I recognize that primary education was done at home or at least privately for centuries. The modern idea that primary/secondary (seminary being post-secondary) education must be conducted in a factory is quite novel and has proven to be not entirely successful. There is a rather large difference between homeschooling and distance education: homeschooling is still a face-to-face tutorial whereas distance education is not. There is also a significant difference between the general education that occurs at the primary and secondary levels (trivium) and the more technical education that occurs at the post-secondary levels.

The proposal that we should go back to the 19th century American model of full-time ministers training candidates for ministry seems to ignore several facts. First, it has been tried and abandoned. It was abandoned because it did not work very well. It was an ad hoc way of dealing with circumstances, not a principled rejection of the University (which is where ministers were trained for centuries before the New World). Further, the Old Side was quite critical of the Log College and preferred that candidates for ministry receive a formal theological education.

There are massive practical problems with ad hoc theological/ministerial education. The fact of intellectual specialization has been in evidence since the 13th century—it is not a wholly modern phenomenon. The speed of specialization has increased with the development of communication technology (printing, telephone, computers, etc.). The amount of information that must be learned and processed is considerably greater now than it was in the 19th century.

The movement away from the Log College to Princeton was a natural development that followed a pattern that is evident in the early medieval and high medieval periods. We had catechetical schools in the early church organized around a single teacher (still face-to-face education mind you!). Those schools became associated with cathedrals (sort of an ecclesiastical county seat). Those cathedral schools were larger but not specialized. One “prof” taught both the arts (trivium) and theology. The need for specialization helped create the universities in Oxford and Paris with distinct theology and arts faculties. There was already too much for one person to teach by the 12th century. That process has only continued.

Today, it is not possible for even the most brilliant minister to tend his flock, study for his sermon, and keep up at a professional level (let us assume he has a PhD and is an expert in a given field) with one field let alone four to seven departments, depending on how one divides things. It is not even possible for a full-time scholar who does not have the daily demands of telephone calls, pastoral calls, hospital visits, small groups studies, crises, sermons, catechism lessons, and planning and session/consistory meetings (as a full-time pastor does) to keep up with more than one field. I teach in three distinct fields and I despair of doing a good job in each. Two of them are closely related (church history and historical theology), but just keeping up with developments and literature in the one theological locus I teach (the doctrine of God, not to mention the other loci of theology) is overwhelming!

So, I take it that one would have to argue that it is really not necessary to have specialists/experts teaching in each department (exegesis, systematics, history, and practical), and that a general knowledge of these things is sufficient. In that case, one has embraced an apparently pious but anti-intellectual approach to training ministers. At the end of the day, that anti-intellectualism will show itself to be impious.

We are training ministers of the gospel. We have a spiritual and moral duty to see to it that our ministers have the best education possible. They have the highest calling and the toughest job on the planet. They must be highly trained because they will be pressed on every side (believe me) and pulled in every direction. They will be called to render unexpected judgments in hospital rooms. They must be able to draw on serious (and prayerful) training received at the hands of other ministers with highly specialized training. Ministers call upon that training every day in a hundred ways. Now more than ever, it is evident that we cannot allow the training of our ministers to slip one iota.

Appeals to the apostolic era are nonstarters. Unless you can raise men from the dead, shake off serpents, or heal the lame; unless you were at the feet of the Savior for three years and unless you had a tongue of fire on your head; if you would be a minister, you should go to seminary.

To the claim (in another post) that we should be reading mostly 400-year-old books (which, as a teacher of history it is my calling to read and teach at WSC) I ask, is that what John Owen did? Did he actually spend most of his time reading 400-year-old books, or was he one of the most well-read and intelligent theologians of his time? Was he fluent in contemporary Protestant, Roman, Socinian, Amyraldian, and rationalist theology in Europe? Yes. The point is that we ought to read Owen (and the rest of the British and European classical Reformed theologians) but we ought to do in our age what Owen did in his. Were Owen alive today, I am quite sure he would be thoroughly versed in all the aberrant ideologies and theologies of our day as he was in his own. He certainly would not be telling us that we should be reading mostly or only 400-year-old theology at the expense of a thorough knowledge of the latest scholarship.

Finally, my question is why does the analogy with lawyers and doctors not work? What is there about the vocation to the ministry that demands less training than the vocation to the law or the vocation to medicine? Why should ministers have a less rigorous education (or none at all)?

Are you anti-brick-and-mortar seminary proponents willing to trust your legal and medical well-being to home-grown doctors and lawyers and, if not, why? If we may have ministers who have been trained solely by other ministers then why not lawyers and physicians trained solely by other lawyers and physicians? Because no lawyer who actually knew anything about the law would dare attempt to train other lawyers in place of law school. No sane physician would attempt to replace medical school. There is no way that a single person or even a private co-op could replace the work done in medical school.

A seminary is quite like med and law school. It is an extended internship/apprenticeship, arts education, and technical education in one over the course of several years. This combination cannot be replicated away from school. The alternatives all sacrifice one or more elements.

So, which of the elements are we prepared to sacrifice as we educate our pastors? Knowledge of the Biblical languages? Knowledge of archaeology? Knowledge of church history (please say “no!”), knowledge of systematic theology? Time with experienced pastor-scholars who help to shape future ministers in and out of the classroom?

The good news is that we do not have to sacrifice any of these things.

Part 1.

Part 3.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Dr. Clark: If you believe that the spread of Reformed churches into rural areas is desirable, what is your solution for enticing pastors (and their spouses?) who have trained in cities to go out to the rural communities?

    • Bob,

      I do. For one thing we have to think of the middle of America like a mission field instead of a Bible belt. We need to persuade people in the outer ring (the West Coast, the South Coast, and the East Coast) that there is a real need. That’s why I’m so happy to run Brad’s essay. I’ve been trying to do my part over here for years to call attention to the need. I support church plants in the middle (from the Rockies to the Alleghenies) as I can.

      Those pastors and their spouses need to be prepared to serve in “The Middle.” The Plains is not a place for sissies. It’s hot in the Summer and cold in the Winter. In some places the economies aren’t booming and probably never will. The drug crisis in The Middle is real and getting worse. We need to persuade our denominational missions agencies to think of The Middle as a mission field—I would love to see the PCA establish MTM: Mission to the Middle. It’s going to take education (there are cultures in the Middle). It’s going to take strategy, it’s going to require money, and it’s going to require people.

      First, however, people have to see the need and that’s difficult because the Middle is invisible. Most people don’t drive through the Middle twice every year (we do). Most people don’t see The Middle on TV or in films and if they ever think of The Middle they think of corn when they should be thinking of Meth.

      Finally and important as anything, there’s prayer. Only the Lord can do this work and he works through prayer. In the Heidelberg we confess that God gives to his people when they ask. We should be asking God for The Middle.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    I am a huge fan of WSC (our pastor is a grad, and our church financially supports WSC) and I completely agree with your argument regarding the ways that pastors must be trained.

    However, I think the spirit behind the point in Brad’s article is bringing to light a real issue in seminary education. That being, should seminaries operate in such a way that makes it normative for graduates to leave with between $50,000 – $100,000 in student loan debt (in addition to undergraduate loans) and is that beneficial for the Church. It seems to me that seminaries in America operate more like modern, bloated, Christian colleges rather than 19th Century Princeton. There is blame to go around (local churches don’t fund seminarians like they used to, government accreditation processes, etc.) but seminaries have to take some of the blame.

    • Hi Ross,

      Thanks for the encouragement. I agree entirely that student debt is a problem and it’s one of which schools are acutely aware. For the most part our students are not incurring that sort of debt attending WSC. Most of the debt they’re they carry is from their undergraduate education, the cost of which has exploded far beyond the rate of inflation.

      Our school works hard to provide generous financial aid and now we are offering beautiful on-campus student housing at well beyond market rates. Still, it’s true that students incur debt. The

      answer is not to lower standards. The answer is for churches and individuals to step up and help the students before they graduate. When students go to university their parents help. When they go seminary, that help ends. Some churches help students to go to seminary but too often the attitude is to let someone else do it. As a result, the burden falls on the student and the calling church.

      Either we are committed to an educated ministry or we are not. In America, it can be a challenge to persuade people of the value of an educated ministry. Here we can blame the Baptists, the Methodists, and the other children of the Second Great Awakening who abandoned and ridiculed the idea of an educated clergy in favor of a boot-strap, revival-tent, entrepreneurial approach to ministry.

      This is still an issue. The truth is there are too many people and too many schools who believe in credentials more than actual education. Real education takes time. It’s not easy to learn (really learn) Hebrew and Greek at the same time. Lots of places are replacing learning the languages with learning how to use computer software. The students who learn software and not languages don’t really know Hebrew and Greek. They aren’t doing their own their own translations as they prepare sermons. They are relying on English translations and commentaries and the like. They don’t know for themselves what’s really happening in the text. I’m translating Romans and I’ve been surprised, at times, how different the text is from what we sometimes read in translations. It makes a difference.

      All of that costs. It’s expensive to have a real library. I’ve watched ours grow for nearly 30 years. It’s been a real challenge to put together a respectable library. Academic volumes are often very expensive. They’re not available electronically (or if they are, the access is very expensive). What we’re really facing here is anti-intellectualism. Either we believe that our students should get a real education, that they should really learn their systematics, that they should be given the time to spend with experienced scholar-pastors, in order to lay a solid foundation for a life of ministry, or we don’t and if we don’t we will reap a sorry reward.

      The Renaissance really rescued education. Before the Renaissance, students were learning out of textbooks and not sources. They couldn’t read Greek and Hebrew. They might have been orthodox but they didn’t know for themselves the Christian tradition and Scriptures. They only knew them as they were pre-packaged. We’e headed back to that. It was by reading Greek and Hebrew that Luther began to recover the gospel. In the Wartburg he was able to translate the entire Greek Testament over the summer. That took work. He was able to read Augustine for himself–that was revolutionary.

      We’re in real danger of going backwards.

      I don’t know which schools are bloated. I don’t think my school is. We have operate in the world that exists. Americans voted for a department of education and we have to live with that. If y’all don’t want students to take out loans then, well, start writing checks. Books cost what they cost. We’re not in charge of that. We operate with a relatively low overhead. A lot of the year we don’t have to use either heat or A/C so we save a fair bit there. Further, we can’t be wasteful because we’re accountable to our donors and our board, who are on campus twice a year to make sure that we’re not wasting money. We defer maintenance. The faculty isn’t getting raises and we’re not overpaid. Indeed, our salaries don’t compare very well to most PCA pastors.

    • I want to continue to reiterate that WSC is an outstanding seminary, and this is not necessarily a critique of WSC. I am currently a RE in a rustbelt PCA church now, but if I was ever to pursue vocational ministry, I would go to WSC. Our church has been deeply blessed by the training our pastor received, particularly in the Biblical languages (and Medieval Church & Reformation 😊). WSC fully prepared our pastor to be an expert in the special revelation of God.

      There is no question that Christian colleges are much worse than seminaries. I worked in Student Life at a Christian college for several years and I am not convinced that Christian colleges are as concerned about student debt. There are some exceptions, like my former employer Grove City College, but on the whole, as long as students are paying, the price will keep going up.

      To me there seems to be something systematically wrong with the way that we do Christian higher education in America and Reformed seminaries have more or less tried to be better stewards but still operate within the existing system. Again, there is blame to go around (an example I should have mentioned before was the higher expectations from students with nice things and fun experiences). But it doesn’t seem like seminaries are doing everything they can to keep costs low, especially if everyone else is doing it.

      For the Reformed Church to flourish in America, we need as many well trained, residential seminary graduates as we can muster. The answer is not online education. But the cost is a major problem and the time has come for seminaries to think more outside of the box about its mission. Some simple examples being: Does a seminary need to be regionally accredited by the Dept of Education to prepare pastors for ministry? Should seminaries have fulltime admission counselors and spend resources on recruiting? Brad’s comment seemed to be more geared towards seeing if there are ways to get more face-to-face seminary graduates by thinking outside of the box. His specific suggestion may have been tried and abandoned but these are conversations that need to be wrestled through.

      • Ross,

        Regional accreditation is necessary for our graduates to:

        1) to enter the military chaplaincy (and perhaps other chaplaincies)
        2) to go the graduate school
        3) take out student loans

        As frustrating as it can be (I was our Accreditation Liaison Officer for 3.5 years), there is value in being held accountable by other scholars. We will see what the future brings. Secretary DeVos gave us all a respite from the the previous regime and time will tell what the accreditors will demand. They have learned, I think, that they cannot kill the chickens laying the eggs they eat. If the drive us all away from the regional bodies, the regional bodies will die.

        So, yes, regional accreditation is necessary.

  3. If you want to see what RSC is talking about for yourself drive through the Midwest, but don’t take the expressways. Instead take the secondary highways that go through the small-to-medium size towns that were doing quite well until about 50 years ago when manufacturing began to move offshore. If you want to see what that looks like statistically, surf for census data since 1950 – you’ll see a gradual upward curve until the mid-to-late 60’s and then a decline at about the same rate ever since. You don’t see what this has done to these areas, the economy of which frequently revolved around one or two major industries, from the Interstate highways. But you’ll see it when you drive through them. And, yes, one of the unfortunate side effects is the rampant use of drugs, especially Meth with opioids like Fentanyl a close second. In fact, meth has pretty much replaced moonshine throughout the Appalachians. A church plant in these areas would be quite challenging. It’s not that the need is not there, it’s the indifference and despair that has to be overcome.

  4. Thank you Dr. Clark. At seminary languages were the hardest part, not because of the teachers but my own abilities. Yet I appreciate it to this day (graduated in 2004), though I struggle on with them!
    May God use you all to help keep the gospel true!

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