The following article is Part Two in a series written by Rusty McKie and Ryan Williams.
In this series, we’re looking at two different paths to pastoral ministry: seminary and local church training. In the last post, Rusty and Ryan shared their views on why they did or didn’t choose seminary. Like a great chef who either attends culinary school or learns on their own, a pastor may be seminary trained or local church trained. In this post, they’ll cover a few strengths and weaknesses of both routes from their perspectives.
Culinary School/Seminary Trained: Rusty McKie – Mdiv Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY), Lead Pastor Sojourn Chattanooga, TN
Kitchen Trained/Local Church Trained: Ryan Williams – No degree, Lead Pastor North Church, Albuquerque, NM
What was the strength of attending/not attending seminary?
Rusty: I attended a Christian college and seminary and both schools passed on specific values to me. My college imparted an awareness and love for missions to the nations and our nation. My seminary gave me a deep appreciation for the local church. It’s important to acknowledge that whatever emphasis a school has will become part of you to some extent. Pairing yourself with an institution that emphasizes what you lack is wise.
Another strength of attending seminary is locating yourself in a theological context. People are like sponges. If you leave a sponge out on the counter, it will dry and crust. However, put the sponge under the faucet, and it will soak up as much water as it can hold. Seminary is like a faucet for theological growth. Placing yourself in that environment allows you to grow a lot in your understanding of Christ, Christianity, and Christian ministry.
A final strength in seminary is for those called to write because you get a lot of practice. Even if your calling isn’t to write academically, the reps are still helpful.
Ryan: I think the strength of not attending seminary is that no piece of training, experience, or learning is ever divorced from shepherding and discipling people. In a healthy, local church structure all that you learn is in the context of local church ministry and you are forced to reckon with the impacts of your theology, ministry philosophy, and tastes in the present reality of how it affects God’s people.
Under good leadership, local church training makes you aware of the impact you as a leader can have on the sheep. There’s less room for navel-gazing and arguing about secondary theologies, which often happens in a classroom environment, and you are forced to think in very real terms of the way the church can be led toward either life or loss when you train in the context of the local church.
What was the weakness of attending/not attending seminary?
Rusty: The greatest weakness of seminary is it’s not the local church. Many frustrations around seminary, in my opinion, boil down to unrealistic expectations that it will be the church. This misplaced expectation can lead to a culture of pride, not in the seminary per se, but in the seminarian’s heart. Like I mentioned earlier, people are sponges. If you soak up theological reflection day and night in seminary and never wring yourself out in service to the local church, you will sour. And nobody enjoys being around a smelly sponge.
I observed many seminarians neglect participation in a local church during seminary, concluding that their classes, personal study, and chapel services were equivalent. The danger here is you begin to love the idea of the church rather than growing to love the actual messy community. After multiple years of separating oneself from the church to be prepared to serve the church, many seminary grads find themselves disoriented and wondering if they even like the church — let alone love her.
Ryan: By not attending seminary you miss out on an opportunity to learn from some great minds in a more personal and interactive way. You also don’t get the benefit of testing the theory behind an idea and position you hold in a safe peer environment.
You’ll be tested in a greater measure in the first few years of local church pastoring because your network of friends and pastor connections will be less developed than someone coming in from seminary. Working out how to handle challenging situations with less support and ability to pick up the phone to ask for help is the norm.
Also, there are many who look at a non-seminary trained pastor as “less than” a seminary-trained one. It’s not a good or right thing but it is a reality that a local church trained pastor will face and need to find security in Christ in.
The final post of this series will cover lessons learned by the seminary and non-seminary trained pastor.