Ready for Reformation? Southern Baptists and the Seminary Structure

July 9, 2008 at 12:08 am (Church) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

I’m well aware that one could easily get lost in the blog-maze of Southern Baptist Convention reform. It seems everyone with a computer sees themselves as a reformer these days. Well, I am probably much less qualified than most to add a twist or turn to this confusing maze, but maybe you will find this helpful . . .

Having attended one of our great Southern Baptist institutions of higher learning, I have a few thoughts about the seminary structure in the SBC. There are many reasons that I would spend time thinking and writing about the need for SBC Seminary reform. I could discuss the high cost of seminary for the students. Not just the tuition, textbook, and housing costs, but many must leave jobs that provide well in order to relocate away from the support structure of their church, friends, and family. I could even discuss a culture that often births in seminary environments that are filled with pride, one-up-manship, name-dropping, and a striving for accolades. Even worse, seminary often leaves students with a disconnect between their newly acquired head knowledge and practical ministry leaving damaged churches that have been experimented on crippled, dead, or dying. Yes, I would imagine all of these and more problems are too common in any seminary’s life. But, in my opinion, these alone are not worth all the trouble to reform a massive beast like the SBC’s six seminaries.

The greatest problem that exists in today’s seminary structure is that, try as they may, they do not give attention to the priority of the local church. Christ has promised to build His church and though the gates of hell try to prevail against it, they shall never succeed (Mt. 16:18). We too often think that this applies to our particular extra-biblical ministry -a seminary, for example. Christ never promised to build a seminary, a youth ministry, a recovery ministry, a retreat ministry, a printing ministry, or any other extra-biblical ministry. He promised to build His church. I’m crazy enough to think that a way to seek the blessing of God in our ministries is to get in line with His plan to build His church. What are the purposes of a seminary? Are they not the same purposes that the Bible gives to the church? It is through the church, after all, that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (Eph. 3:10). As Paul and Barnabas passed through Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, they did not send the leaders off to Jerusalem to learn from Peter, nor did they order them to accompany them so that they might go to Paul’s traveling missionary seminary. Instead, they appointed elders with prayer and fasting and committed them to the Lord (Acts 14:19-23). Paul and Barnabas did not look on the wall of these men’s homes for seminary degrees. Instead, they probably looked within the walls of their homes to see if they managed their own households well (1 Timothy 3:4-5) and outside of those same walls to see if they were well thought of by outsiders (v. 7). Our seminary degree culture in the SBC has blurred the lines of qualifications for eldership and removed the importance of a pastor being known in the area in which he is shepherding. I have a deep love and appreciation for those who serve faithfully in our denomination’s seminaries. I have profited spiritually from many of them. And most of them, I believe, probably have a deep love for the local church and this comes through in their labors. But I believe that we can do better. What follows are some suggestions.

1. Close 4 of the 6 seminaries. Think of the impact on our churches if the education is going on right in their midst rather than seeing their called and gifted young people leave to obtain their theological education. 2 Seminaries should remain open (SouthWestern or GoldenGate in the West and Southern or SouthEastern in the East) to ease logistics of suggestion #2. These remaining two campuses would be used to house offices, libraries, temporary student housing, host modulars, conferences, etc.

2. Offer only non-traditional classes. I am referring to on-location modular courses ranging from 1-6 wks at a time. I am referring to weekend simulcasts hosted churches, associations, or state conventions. I am referring to professors visiting these same venues once a week for the duration of a semester. I am referring to DVD and internet-based classes that students may take part in as a group at one of these venues or at home. I am referring to mail correspondence courses. Some, and maybe even all of these, are already being used by our seminaries, but there is no need for traditional classes in this day and age of technology and ease of transportation.

That’s pretty much it. Just 2 suggestions. Of course, this raises lots of questions. Questions, such as:

What about the other 4 campuses? There are any number of options. We could sell them and use the money to pay for expansion of the libraries at the remaining two locations, relocation costs, severance packages, purchasing new equipment to make the new class format necessary, or we could just give it all to missions. Another option would be to keep the buildings to use for ministry as another missionary learning center location, another retreat center, a hospital, or college.

What about the staff? Obviously, we would want to offer a healthy severance package for folks whose jobs have been eliminated. The professors would have plenty of options. Some would continue to teach full-time with modulars, internet, correspondence, and satellite locations. Others would opt for teaching part-time while teaching at another school (secular or Christian), writing for Lifeway, ministering vocationally at a local church or as a associational/denominational servant. Others may choose to teach full-time at a secular university.

There are surely other objections, like, “What about the importance of our tradition, heritage, history, etc?” “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” But I believe the benefits to the church far outweigh the difficult truths of these and any other objections.

Some of these benefits would include: Small churches located near the seminaries would be more likely to look for and find a long-term pastor. The minister as “professional” culture full of church-hopping, ladder-climbing pastors could conceivably diminish. Due to the professors’ and students’ involvement in more churches, local churches would have both better access to good teaching and more opportunity to see how God works in a church to raise up and develop leaders. These are just a few of the many benefits.

If Southern Baptists would seek a way forward, we must do it with the church leading the charge, not denominational servants, structures, or ministries. We must recognize that our commitment to voluntary cooperation, though solid must always be producing fluid and changing ministries. I once heard Al Mohler say that his goal was to work himself out of the job and put the job of the seminary back in the hands of the local church -I couldn’t applaud him louder. Now, let’s see some action.

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7 Comments

  1. ndefalco said,

    Great stuff, Clay. Sounds exactly like the things you and I talked about during our church planting days, except you have refined your thoughts. Well written.

    Of course, it will take decades of consistent reform for these ideas to see the light of day. In other words, it will take thousands of local churches to do what local churches are supposed to do. I wonder if we’ll ever see THAT happen. 🙂

  2. Andrew said,

    As a student at Midwestern, I would like to protest (wink)!

    But seriously, I see your point about the extra-biblical nature of seminaries (and denominational entities for that matter!), but I disagree with your conclusion for three reasons:
    1) We have already faced (and may still be facing) the results of people with poor or no seminary training taking control of church life…beyond the CR casualties, think of all the people on TBN/INSP who spout off drivel that doesn’t even correpsond to a surface reading of the text in English, much less in the original language!
    2) Our American sensibilities (for good or more likely naught) prevent us from being able to handle in-church education of new ministers. Part of the shock/testing that comes with seminary is finding out that your life-long pastor MIGHT be wrong about Matthew or the doctrines of grace!
    3) The six seminaries act as more than just a place of training and preparation…they act as cultural lighthouses to the major cities they inhabit. Think of the relationships and salt & light that result from sharing a grocery store with a gay neighborhood or gang turf…and in contrast to your perception, some seminarians GAIN real-worl experience by serving in the local churches near their seminaries…

    just some thoughts…but I like the overall idea of returning to a more bible-centric view of minister education.

  3. semperreformada said,

    Answer to Andrew:
    I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear in my blog. I’ll respond to your 3 points in turn:
    1) I do not promote no seminary training -merely seminary level training within the context of local churches.
    2) I do not promote a person ONLY being educated by the church in which they are called to ministry in. The cooperation of other churches for the education of ministers can keep the positive aspects of the seminary shock/testing that you speak of in addition to required reading, research, etc.
    3) Any group of Christians should act as cultural lighthouses to the cities they inhabit. I just think the most effective lighthouse is the one Jesus ordained should be -the church. And, or course I realize that seminarians gain real world experience in the local churches they serve in while in seminary, but that experience is often fraught with mistakes made outside of the insulating love and care of a church that knows and loves the erring student. These mistakes are often unnecessarily harmful to the student, the church, and the cause of Christ.

    Of course I understand that when you’re speaking merely on the theoretical side of things as I am on this subject, you can look through rose-colored glasses. I’m sure I am to some extent, but I just wanted to clarify that a careful reading of this blog entry will show that your protest is not against my viewpoint, but a caricature of it.

  4. Andrew said,

    Having read your response, I see that we are actually in agreement! Forgive my seeming caricature of your entry…I meant only to point out why we have seminaries and why they (at least in the minds of many) remain necessary. I am presently encouraging more hands-on, church-centered learning as part of Midwestern’s curriculum review process and hope that the joint action of local church and seminary resources will prove effective, efficient and fruitful.

  5. Kevin Milburn said,

    Dude, what were you smoking when you wrote this?… just kidding, I actually applaud your efforts to champion the biblical priority of the local church…also, I thought that I would let you know that it was a pleasure to discover your blog in the maze of Southern Baptist Convention reform. Keep up the great work old buddy !

  6. Greg said,

    Great ideas Clay! Didn’t know your heart on this one, but I agree with much of what you’ve said. In my mind, I see ministers being educated in the fellowship of the Gospel in local churches–was it not originally so? Truly it ought to be the nth generation that has learned yet again from the Scriptures (the Apostles and prophets), the truth which it is teaching the next generation in the church (1 Tim. 4:2). I also happen to agree because I am currently paying off big school debts that I incurred along the way thinking: “I must get a secular BA, then a MDiv, etc. In truth, our churches need an easier, more biblical plan to build leadership than this–in fact, I believe they must! At the same time, this plan must not be trite, which means the local church will have to become the bride of Christ in our generation, truly loving him and waiting on his Word more than our necessary food.

  7. One Mother With Cancer said,

    Congratulations!!

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