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Books for those in ministry organizations who desire to take their leadership, teams, governance, and ministry effectiveness to the next level.

18 Feb '13

What I didn't learn in seminary and why it matters

I very much enjoyed seminary. I went to one of the best and soaked up great theology and learned how to properly 'divide the word of God,' all of which I am deeply thankful for. But the transition from seminary to ministry was a rude one. There were some important lessons that were not taught in seminary that were bottom line reality in the 'real world of ministry.' My observation is that seminaries are still not 'getting it' in addressing these issues.


In seminary 80% of my time was spent exegeting Greek, Hebrew and theology. In ministry, 80% of my time was spent in exegeting people and negotiating relationships.

Aside from understanding God's word, the ability to understand, get along with, work with and lead people is the number one skill needed in ministry. Ministry is about people, before it is about the fine nuances of Greek word tense or Hebrew root words (and I love Hebrew). I wish that those who train God's workers would spend more time helping them exegete and understand people.


Seminary did not tell me leadership was important, or place any emphasis on the leadership component of ministry.

As I work with churches, and church leaders, by far the number one challenge they face is that of how to lead boards, staff and congregations as churches grow. Seminaries today are still teaching a classical ministry model that assumes its pastors are serving the small church where leadership 'takes care of itself.' They are not teaching pastors how to develop vision, strategy and work with their leaders to establish a compelling vision for the future.


Seminary did not teach me how to lead a staff.

Instead, the important issue was knowing how to understand theology and preach. I get that. But as churches grow, pastors are increasingly leaders of others, whether of full time staff or volunteers. Because this is not seen as a value in our training, many pastors view the leadership of staff either as a distraction, or they simply lack the necessary skills.


Seminary did not teach me how to work with church leaders.

Too many pastors come out of seminary thinking they are God's gift to the church and they are the 'experts.' There is a rude awakening that they need to work with elected leaders in the church who have their own ideas as to what church is and how it should be run. Successful pastors are able to appreciate shared leadership and work with elected leaders to develop healthy ministry. Because there is so little emphasis on this in their training, it often takes many years for pastors to figure this out.


Seminary did not train me in healthy governance

The local church suffers from five common dysfunctions: bureaucracy, control, mistrust, professional ministry and ambiguity over direction. All of these are leadership and governance issues. They deeply hinder effective ministry. Yet, these are not topics of concern in most seminaries. All the knowledge of theology will not overcome these kinds of challenges in the local church.


Seminary did not teach me how to deal with conflict

And there is plenty of conflict, or potential conflict in the church. The ability to negotiate through that conflict and seek to find win/win solutions is absolutely critical to healthy ministry. Instead, many pastors find themselves 'demonizing' those who disagree with them when some training in conflict resolution would help avoid those bad habits and help foster a healthy environment.


Seminary did not teach me how to develop a team of specialists as the church grows

Seminaries are good at teaching pastors how to be generalists but as churches grow they increasingly need specialists with a leader at the head. This means that those leaders must have the ability to hire specialists, keep them focused and build a healthy team. Generalists work in small churches, specialists are needed as the church grows.


Seminary did not teach me to "develop, empower and release" people into meaningful ministry

Seminary taught me how to do ministry. Yet the function of church leaders is that of 'raising up, equipping and releasing' others into meaningful ministry in accordance with their gifts (Ephesians 4:12).

Thus we perpetuate the notion that the professionals do the real ministry while the 'lay people,' (I really, really dislike that term) do the lesser ministry. Because we do not release the majority of our people into effective ministry, the church has only a fraction of the influence it could have in its community.

Seminary did not model the kind of humble, servant leaders that are needed in the church today

In my experience, there was a great deal of hubris: theological, spiritual and personal among many of my most proficient professors. They vied for position, engaged in power struggles, put down others who didn't fit their paradigms and engaged in politics that would make Washington today look tame. Yet, these were people who were training those who are to lead like Jesus, cooperate on healthy teams, lead from a posture of service and humility. I found there to be a huge disconnect between the posture of some (fortunately not all) of my professors and the content of what they taught.

If typical seminary politics were to be the norm in the church (and it often is) the church is in deep trouble. Poor modeling among those who teach pastors can be held responsible for much dysfunction in church governance, especially among pastors.  They learned from the best in many instances.

Do I have a prescription for what seminary didn't teach me? I have three suggestions. One, that seminaries pay more attention to what ministry looks like in the real world. Two, that we move seminary education out of the cloister of the residential model and through distance or cohort learning provide theological education in the context of full time ministry where theology and real life ministry can intersect throughout the process. Third, that those who teach the next generation of pastors model the humility of Jesus rather than the arrogance of knowledge.

I personally believe that the schools that will survive and thrive in the future are ones that will modify their age old practices to train practitioners who are working and ministering in the real world. The disconnect between what happens in a full time seminary setting and the actual world of ministry is immense and growing. Unless schools are willing to bridge that divide they will increasingly become irrelevant to the local church which can and will and does train many of its own staff today.

What I do know is that the current model will not do the job in today's world.