I read an interesting, though brief, Q&A where Albert Mohler (president of my seminary alma mater), DA Carson, Richard Pratt, and Jeff Lourie try to answer this question. There was a range of answers, none of which were bad, though some were better than others. I spent seven years in seminary earning a couple degrees, learning a lot, and eventually burning out and realizing that the academic life wasn’t for me. But my experience does leave me with a few thoughts that answer this very question.
Seminaries generally do a good job of training academics, and highly trained academics are very important. These are the scholars who translate the Scriptures from the original languages, provide helpful and insightful commentaries, write helpful books that take us deeper into our understanding of biblical doctrine and worldview, and help equip pastors. So we need seminaries. But I’m not sure that, as presently constructed, they always do a great job of training pastors.
The chief problem is that you spend a lot of time in seminary (in the academically strong ones, anyway) working through a rigorous curriculum that takes up a LOT of time in reading, study, research, and writing. On top of that, you have to work to support yourself and pay for school. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for serious involvement in the life of a local church, which feeds your soul AND provides valuable experience. Besides, if you attend a large seminary, there is often a disproportionate number of seminarians in the good local churches (relative to the opportunities to serve and escape the “seminary bubble.”)
My solution would be for seminaries to more aggressively utilize web-based technologies to provide the academic training in a virtual classroom type model. The technology certainly exists to do that. There would be several distinct advantages to such an approach:
* The seminarian would not have to relocate. This is huge. Presumably a man who believes he is called to the ministry is probably living and serving in some way and with some effectiveness in the life of his local church, in the community where he lives, works, and has significant relationships. He is also more likely to have a fairly deep and invested relationship with a spiritual leader (such as a pastor) in his life. Why do we pull people out of that kind of context to train them for the ministry? It doesn’t make sense.
* The time for training could be spread out. You wouldn’t necessarily have to crunch through an MDiv in 3-4 years. You could get the training you need at your own pace – while there would be some sacrifice involved to be sure, it would allow for one to continue working, leading a family, and being involved in the life of the church. You wouldn’t necessarily have to have a degree completed to begin serving in a paid position in the church if/when it was time to make that transition.
* A seminary could incorporate some kind of weeklong class 2-4 times per year for more intensive training times and classes, perhaps something like the “cohort” model that exists in the DMin programs at many seminaries.
The technology exists for this kind of educational experience – web-based videos, webinars, podcasts, iPad apps, etc. There would be plenty of options to consider. Those who seemed able and called to pursue a more serious academic pursuit could certainly do so in a more traditional manner. I think that this is the direction that theological education can and should go. In fact, I think it probably is heading that way now.