Why Go to Seminary?
"Why go to seminary when I can order the books from Amazon?"
This question from a twentysomething church leader caught me off guard. But it’s an appropriate question, especially in this age in which good information is available at any time to anyone.
As a leader juggling ministry and family, I value information that is accessible on my terms as much as anyone. But with 20 years of experience behind me since seminary, I look in the rear view mirror and appreciate how the path that I have taken has been formed in large part by my seminary studies. And I’m grateful the road ahead will be also.
After all, seminary offers a unique community meant to stretch and challenge under the attentive leadership of trained experts with the goal of Kingdom transformation.
First, seminary offers us a unique community. God intends that we live in relationship with others who understand us and our calling. One of my most influential friendships was formed in seminary. In the midst of sharing classes together, Dena and I realized we also shared a love for ice cream. One of the highlights of our class break every week was our quest to make it to and from the ice cream store before our professor resumed class.
Given our ice cream bond, it was natural that Dena and I would become roommates. From there, we became close friends.
Years later, Dena moved away, but she was still the friend I trusted the most. When I had a personal struggle that required authentic accountability, I turned to Dena.
Seminary also invites us to cross paths with those different from us. In an era in which cross-cultural skills and communication are essential, seminary classrooms allow Southern Baptists from Kentucky to ask honest questions of African-American Pentecostals from Seattle, questions which are then reflected upon by Kenyans who have made great personal sacrifices to study in seminary. Seminary gives leaders a foretaste of the diverse Kingdom God intends, a foretaste we can turn around and share with others.
Second, seminary offers us a unique community that stretches us. In my first seminary class, I felt like a theological neophyte. My fellow students were asking questions and rattling off names of theologians and theological movements that I couldn’t spell, let alone define. I literally took out a piece of paper and started writing down the names and philosophies my peers were mentioning so I could study them later at home.
While I loved some of the books I read in seminary, what was more impactful was being in a community with sharp fellow learners who pushed themselves—and me—to wrestle with what we were learning until we pinned down answers. Both through their insights and questions, seminary was “seminal” (the root word of seminary) in my life and ministry formation.
Third, seminary offers us a unique community that stretches us under the attentive leadership of trained experts. If I have a minor medical problem, I might check out WebMD. If I have a major problem, I’m making an appointment to see a trusted doctor.
Churches today have major problems that require the expertise of ministry leaders and thought leaders who have devoted their lives to studying systematic theology, church history and ministry. I recently referenced a seminary textbook in preparation for a presentation at a conference forum. More important than the notes I had scribbled during my reading of it were the sentences that had come from the professor.
Finally, seminary offers us a unique community that stretches us under the attentive leadership of trained experts with the goal of Kingdom transformation.
The best seminaries today gear their assignments toward the purpose of transformation, both for the student and for those the student will impact. The papers and presentations I completed in seminary helped me escape the shallow end of life and plunge into deeper waters. Those assignments invited me to re-interpret my experiences and ministry goals in light of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.
Leaders moving toward Kingdom transformation tend to embody the view of leadership well described by C.S. Lewis: “Think of me as a fellow patient in the same hospital who, having been admitted a little earlier, could give some advice.” More than any other non-biblical text about leadership, that phrase has shaped me and the communities I have led.
I learned that quote at seminary.
Kara Powell is the executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary.