Is Seminary for Slackers?

Columbia Theological Seminary

In a recent private forum someone whom I respect greatly said something like this: “Graduate theological education should be reserved for the very best. Seminaries, on the other hand, should have room for everyone.” It was a passing comment and I didn’t get to discuss it at the time, but it’s stuck with me.

Is that true? Considering the state of the humanities today should we claim a stark distinction between university-related graduate programs and M.Div. programs at church-related seminaries? Are seminaries—functionally, whether they mean to or not—havens for those who couldn’t make the grade elsewhere?

First, it must be noted that church-related seminaries are struggling these days. It’s difficult to recruit students and keep class sizes up which also means it’s difficult to keep costs down. Students leave (and matriculate) with too much debt. Seminary budgets are increasingly difficult to balance.

Seminaries have responded to these challenging times in a variety of ways. In the ELCA, North Carolina’s Lenoir-Rhyne University recently merged with Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. Luther Seminary (a.k.a. “the mothership”) in St. Paul, Minn. lost $4 million last year and now is in a significant time of transition. Many PCUSA seminaries have faced (or will face) financial turmoil of their own.  I won’t post any rumors here, but suffice it to say: the numbers don’t add up.

Some say that the M.Div. itself, traditionally a degree requiring at least three years of coursework plus an internship, is the problem. Others point out questions about distance learning programs or the fact that mainline denominations simply don’t need as many pastors as they used to.

These complexities deserve much more than a blog post, but before I sign-off, allow me to jump up on my digital soapbox:

  • The church desperately needs visionary, faithful, new (often young) leaders.
  • The church desperately needs these new leaders to interpret the culture to many in our congregations and empower all members to follow Jesus beyond the church walls.
  • The church desperately needs seminaries that are seedbeds for creativity, cultures of experimentation, and leaders of a new vision of life together.

Sure, slackers can get through most seminaries just fine. But slackers won’t be enough.


  1. There also is the theoretical/applied dimension, which exists in every discipline. What is better? a pure, academic degree, or a degree which is less based on traditional ideas of what “education” consists, and focuses more on preparation for a designated area, with the skill set to match? Every discipline faces its quandary. However, there does always seem to be a value attached. It is amusing (not really) to hear someone speak about “seminaries for everyone” 1) dismissively and 2) knowing all the hoops/prep/discernment/denominational requirements related to going to seminary.

  2. Ms. Kwame Pitts, M.Div'er. says:

    Not to be snarky; I had to put the “Ms” in front of my name because it technically is a traditional African male name…and I’m a woman.

    Alright, pleasantries aside: what do non-seminary types think we are doing in Seminary? Praising God? Well, duh but also clearly running away screaming from the call that The Creator has placed before us. A seasoned pastor told me years ago when i first began Seminary that it would challenge my faith-and for many of my fellow sems, it did. For me it only enriched my faith but also allowed me to kick open the doors of the wider Church and push back on archaic issues/ways of reaching out/etc. It allowed me to find my voice on eco/social/evangelizing issues and truly get into the trenches and work as God has called me to do so. Seminary for slackers? We are some of the hardest working grad students I know. We don’t receive a lot of financial aid (but thank God for our particular Seminary, and the wonderful Saint in our FA office) so we have to take out loans; we are put under a microscope in everything we do and I could go on and on. But I would not change this journey for nothing :)

  3. I’ve taken a few seminary classes online and am struggling with the cost ($1800/class) as well as having issues with the Politically Correct attitude of the school. I’m currently debating what to do, since I see the likelihood that the school will kick me out for having too strong a conservative belief and that the Ministerial Fellowship Committee with turn me down once I’m finished with $60K in education and years of my life. Add to that the fact that only one minister out of a dozen or so I have spoken with about seminary has been even vaguely supportive, and I’m really questioning what I’m doing.

    The flip side of this is that I’m not doing this just for fun, I do feel strongly called to minister to several groups that are being, at best, overlooked and more often deliberately ostracized.

    Yeah, I’m having trouble and I don’t know that I’m strong enough to fight through the upcoming issues.

  4. Christoph Schmidt says:

    Hello Adam,

    I’m pretty unimpressed with the assumptions and judgment that are seemingly inherent in your source’s comments. What does he/she mean by the “very best?” The best book smarts? The best paper writers? Or, vocationally speaking, the best future hands-in-the-mud ministers? And who gets to decide who the “very best” are, and by what criteria? Does it simply come down to an Admissions Director’s review of a candidates’ transcripts and academic recommendations? If so, that seems like a pretty narrow set of guidelines – criteria that screens for academic success while totally ignoring a candidate’s capacity and competence for ministry.

    But the bigger issue here, one that you have left untouched, is the question of call. Speaking from personal experience, while my 3.98 gpa and stellar recommendations would have gotten me into any number of top-tier divinity schools, my inner sense of call was to ordained ministry. I simply felt that an ELCA seminary, in my case, would prepare me better for this call. Conversely, had I sensed a calling to teach systematics or church history or biblical languages, etc., divinty school probably would have been a better option.

    So, you might have guessed that the rhetorical presupposition that church-related seminaries are for those who “couldn’t make the grade elsewhere” really rubs me the wrong way. One could easily turn the tables and ask: “Are university-based divinity programs for those who couldn’t make the cut as pastors – those who were rejected (or would be rejected) by their denomination’s candidacy approval committee?” But that kind of question would be equally full of false assumptions. I know, as I’m sure you do as well, brainy pastors that probably would have been better served by enrolling at Princeton or Harvard rather than Luther or Wartburg. Likewise, I know more than a few ELCA pastors who attended divinity schools (followed by a “Lutheran Year” at an ELCA seminary) who, in my semi-informed opinion, should have spared their congregations by staying in academia.

    Given the rigors of candidacy, contextual education requirements, and stringent character evaluations, I could make the argument that church-related seminaries are in actuality, for the “best of the best”, while divinity school programs are for those who couldn’t cut it in ministry.

    Just a few thoughts…

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