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Statistics show that seminaries are counterproductive

The current Ted Haggard scandal (please note, I am not commenting on that here, though I hope I get more grace than he’s getting if I slip up in a public way) surfaces a broader issue. It breaks my heart that the attacks are so great that many pastors stumble morally or burn out and leave the min…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

The current Ted Haggard scandal (please note, I am not commenting on that here, though I hope I get more grace than he’s getting if I slip up in a public way) surfaces a broader issue. It breaks my heart that the attacks are so great that many pastors stumble morally or burn out and leave the ministry. It begs the question, are we giving pastors what they need to succeed?

I read a paper recently that cited a couple of studies showing that seminaries may actually do more harm than good. This is not to discount the gift of teaching, nor to diminish the ministry of some institutions that have refined their model of teaching to better prepare spiritual leaders. There are a few. But the lion’s share of them pack their students’ heads with more information, inadvertently making them more risk-averse, while doing little to actually form them as disciples of Jesus Christ who walk by faith, daily taking risks.

Dr. Thomas Wolf, founder of Erwin McManus’ Mosaic church, one of the top missionary-sending churches in the country (one missionary for every 16 members) has studied the subject extensively. Dr. Wolf currently lives and teaches in India. I took the following quote from the intro to a paper he wrote in 1998.

“A key factor seemed to be an orientation toward cognitive skills. Students often felt they had been very well equipped in Biblical studies, languages, and related subjects, but they didn’t know how to do ministry. Emphasis was placed on interaction with character formation. This area has been found over time to be the nemesis and the great recurrent theme that brings ministries to a standstill, in the midst of personal disasters, or problems with the ministry them.”

“Dr. Wolf found this fascinating. He was strongly impressed by statistical evidence that shows training in a ministerial school and the ability to do ministry is related in inverse proportions. Which is a little bit disturbing, yet has remained constant. Research was released in early December by Christian Schwartz in Germany, again showing the inverse relationship between ministerial or seminary training and the ability to lead a growing church.”

Dr. Wolf is not only a Cassandra – he puts his money where his mouth is, offering a provocative forecast and educational alternative. He and Schwartz don’t just cast stones, they have seen excellent fruit using innovative models that better equip ministers to be successful. Let’s learn from them.

Comments (11)

  • I don’t personally know Ted Haggard, but I’ve read his story, and he certainly didn’t fit in the category of knowledge without personal experiences of the Lord’s heart and power. He had a huge target on him, and this is a reminder how faithfully we need to pray for one another. I agree fully on counterproductive seminaries, but I’ve seen others fall just as hard who never attended seminary, those who had moved empowered by God’s schooling. SO, are we back to the bottom line again of continuous, up-close relationships that will continuously call us to The Relationship? When we will stop being so nice, polite and careful and ask the hard questions and exhort one another earnestly and boldly ?

  • Ted Haggard got his due

    Most seminaries provide its students with the very important transferable skill set of analytical thinking. For this reason, I believe that it is very important that people attend a heterogeneous learning environment, in order to prevent themselves from developing an unrealistic and nonsensical set of moral precepts that are completely irrelevant to the lives of those they serve. It is because of this reason that people like Ted Haggard have such a “Huge target on their back”. Men like this arrogantly propagate their nonsensical conclusions about faith and morality so unabashedly that every logical person around him develops a huge aversion towards their theology and posture of life. I hope that this incident forces Ted Haggard and his neo-conservative evangelical movement to reappraise the validity of their teaching on a number of issues because such reflection will reveal that “hot topic” issues of contention cannot be solved with simple “yes/no” response (i.e. Homosexuality/gay marriage is bad, heterosexual marriage is good). But rather the ethical value of these issues is derived from greater contextual nuances (i.e. Heterosexual marriage is NOT good when spousal rape is present [which occurs in 17% of marriages]. Conversely, it is hard to argue that homosexual unions are morally bad, when a couple exemplifies Christ-like, sacrificial love.)

    On a side note, I find the language of this blog and its respective responses to be very interesting. I am alarmed by a growing trend of Christians who so freely use vernacular terms such as, “God’s Heart” to describe the actions of ministry of individuals such as Ted Haggard. Just because an individual may agree with his stance on moral issues, it is wrong to label his actions as divinely inspired, falling inline with “God’s Heart” (whatever this phrase means…). The overwhelming majority of the academic community views people like Ted Haggard as theological extremists who are completely out of touch with the reality of modernity. While this mindset may go unchallenged in the homogenous setting of Colorado Springs, it’s viewed as absurd everywhere else.

    Lastly, Seth, I find it interesting that you indirectly imply that Ted Haggard is being too critically reviewed by the public. I hope that the extent and severity of his public humiliation continues to exponentially grow, knowing the incalculable amount of harm he has caused minority groups in society (the GLBT community, people of other faith traditions and most specifically those who have had an abortion, etc.) It is imperative that the Evangelical community extend grace to those outside its circle, rather to only its members.

    In summation, the greatest problem with the current “church movement” is not errant seminaries, but it is the growing xenophobia within Christian communities. Only when Christians are able to view the “other” (Atheists, Muslims, liberals, Gays, etc.) without fear will they be able to develop a coherent theology that truly articulates the values captured within the canonized texts of the Bible. So instead of “praying for one another” (though it is important) I suggest that the Christian community spend more time in the library in order to objectively learn about different cultures, practices and traditions.

  • As someone who is currently in seminary, I have to say I agree with the imbalance in academics over relational/practical ministry skills. I feel fortunate to be attending a seminary that values these skills and (I believe) is making a concerted effort to overcome this imbalance. But what I am noticing is that ministry skills taught as academics doesn’t actually acomplish that much. For example, I’m taking a class called “Small Groups in the Church”. The topics we’re covering are good, but oh so elementary to those of us who have had ANY experience in the church. Conversations are almost patronizing in their simplicity but are noticeably focused toward this “practical ministry training.” What’s actually happening is that these classes become subjective explorations of ministry models and we’re still working toward a grade. Thus this “practical ministry” emphasis is just another academic exercise. I respect my seminary’s focus on this, but don’t see them effectively training people (just educating them more – learning the theories). I believe that this important of a topic should fall under your “coaching” category. Students desiring to grow in their ministry need to do it! They need freedom to make mistakes, to try new, innovative, creative approaches and be guided through the process not for a grade, but for growth. I don’t pretend to have the answers to these dilemmas, but something more toward these lines seems to have more potential for accomplishing these objectives.


  • What a sad day! A house divided cannot stand. How much more can the Body of Christ be divided? I am grieved when “Christians” bash, discriminate, exclude, tear down “people” – Jew, Greek, barbarian, gay, muslim, etc. The Gospel of Jesus is Good News that He came for ALL of us. That Gospel HAS to be communicated with love. The Church desperately needs some deep study on 1 Corinthians 13. However, the Church also has to stand on the Truth of God’s Word. When we begin to “explain away” sin, or condone the behavior we miserably fail. If we find it hard to argue against behavior expressly forbidden by God’s Word then we have left the Truth. Certainly we should love individuals who struggle with sin but love is some times stern. In 1 Corinthians we also find Paul instructing the church to put out the offender (an incestuous relationship). Does that show a lack of love?

    God’s Word tells us to be holy and condoning sin is not holy. God’s Word tells us to love one another even as He loves us. Are the two mutually exclusive? Absolutely not. Only when we fall from the foundation of the truth of God’s Word do we begin to have problems reconciling the two.

    How critical the need for us to pray for one another. How essential it is for us to love one another. How necessary it is for us to forgive one another even as Christ forgives us.

    I pray for unity in the Body. I pray that we hold to the Truth of God’s Word.

  • Brent H. Wrote “If we find it hard to argue against behavior expressly forbidden by God’s Word then we have left the Truth”. WIth this statement i assume that he is infering towards the immorality of homosexual acts. Unfortunately the Bible is not so cut and dry on this issue as some evangelicals would like to believe. Both Leviticus and the Pauline texts used to support an adverse stance towards homosexuality are porous and full of contextual specifities that prevent these passages from being universally applied. MOreover, i am curious to know the reason behind the growing propensity of evangelicals to myopically focus on a peripherial issue of human sexuality. I maintain and rejoice in the fact that in 30 years, homosexuality will not be an issue dicussed in the Church and we will all be able to look back on these days of homophobia with humility, recognizing our error.

  • I certainly don’t speak for evangelicals (nor for anyone besides myself) but want to ensure that the point I was attempting to make is the one that is taken. That point is that the body of Christ (regardless of denomination, affiliation, classification, etc.) needs unity. Jesus prayed that “they (true Christians) be one even as we are.” Maybe some of the division is caused by a myopic view of peripheral issues. I struggle with what I can consider peripheral when it comes to being obedient to God. However, what I consider peripheral has no bearing on any other person. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job through God’s Word to convict or confirm each person’s interpretation of obedience and truth. My point is that to be united, as Jesus desired us to be, we have to love another. I don’t see a lot of love in the Church and that disturbs me. I’m afraid we are too quick to throw darts at brothers and sisters when they stumble instead of forgiving, correcting, and reconciling with them. To me, that behavior smacks of being conformed to the world. If we can live with conformity to the world rather than being transformed by God then we provide a poor representation of the holiness and life-changing power of God.

    Seth’s blog is a wonderful place to read about God working through His people to change hearts and bring the Gospel to Jerusalem, Judaea, Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth. Seth also challenges us to think sometimes. I don’t want to bring anything negative to that. I’m afraid a debate on homosexuality or any other “hot topic” of evangelical focus would bring negativity. I just hope that each person would prayerfully seek God’s wisdom and peace in his/her interpretation of Scripture. The focus of the Church SHOULD be to glorify Christ, love one another sacrificially, and spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. This is what we see in the work of Adventures in Missions. Let’s remember why we are reading this blog. For me, it is the desire to see the work of God through sinners just like me. It reminds me that God will use me where ever I am if I make myself available to Him. I only seek obedience in my own life and unity in the body of Christ.

  • Today, I was in dialog with a professor involved in the creation of the new seminary at IWU. We found it interesting that any critique of seminary education is never about false teaching.

    If it were, those weary of the system of preparation would simply refute the knowledge.

    So, what Seth has pointed out here is that which critique DOES spawn from. Namely, becoming risk-aversive and, I would say, disengaged from the Holy Spirit.

    Within seminary education processes, I and this professor agree, should be 1) ministry engagement and 2) spiritual safeguards … things that allow the assimilation of knowledge to be interactive, tested and keep the vital connection with the spirit alive through ministry and safeguards – prayer, worship, service, etc.

    Knowledge hasn’t a problem. Character and like of discipleship is a problem. Seminary needs to care for both.

  • Interesting. I came across this post in passing. I feel compelled to share a relivjant idea.

    I work for Third Millennium Ministries. We create biblical education and then give it to the world for free, in their languages. It’s high-quality, multimedia and interactive in nature.

    Several reasons we do this: 1) most pastors in the world can’t afford seminary 2) most pastors don’t live anywhere near a seminary 3) pastors who immigrate to the US, Canada, Australia, UK or where seminaries are, leave their ministry and never go back.

    Check out http://www.thirdmill.org

    We sell nothing. We are funded by donors. We’re giving it away. It’s as simple as that. Do ministry! Don’t stop ministry in order to gain wisdom and knowledge!



  • Thanks, Jim. I’m listening to the teaching on Acts now. It’s quality. I’m going to be a big advocate for you guys.

  • I agree. There is no Holy Spirit with these academic types and they bore new believers to death with big words and pompous slogans.

  • Seth, Thanks for posting this very intriguing info. Mosaic, and therefore Dr. Wolf has been a huge influence on my team.
    Cool stuff.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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