Is there a better way to do seminary? (pt. 2)


I’ve been a bit slow getting back to part 2 of Jerry Bowyer’s article on better ways to do seminary. You can find his second installment here and my first post here.

To be honest, I had high hopes from Bowyer, but after reading this piece, I left disappointed. It isn’t that he has nothing important to say, but that he appears to be naive on what his solutions can accomplish. What does he propose? After defending himself too much (and unnecessarily, in my opinion) against some critics who accuse him of gender bias,  he goes on to propose two ways to burst the seminary bubble: return to a model of apprenticeship and make use of online sources for learning.

On apprenticeship, he says:

I would say that time spent in tow to an actual working pastor is vastly more valuable than time spent at school. Leading a grieving family through the 23rd Psalm while at the death bed of their loved one is worth more than a hundred hours of class time.

I agree that apprenticeship ought to be a vital part of pastoral formation. I, too, would hope that all aspiring pastors would have the opportunity to work under the tutelage of a more seasoned individual. However, what I have a problem with is how Bowyers sets apprenticeship into opposition with the classroom. Indeed, he fails to consider that even Jesus sat his disciples down to teach them, even while they participated and learned with him in his day-to-day ministry.

Now imagine if we took this scenario into another field–medicine. Would we really be willing to say that an hour spent in the clinic underneath the supervision of an experienced physician is worth more than 100 hours learning anatomy? Indeed, the ability to learn well under the doctor presumes a whole host of theoretical proficiencies which simply can’t be gained by observing. The intern doctor certainly needs to learn how to do a medical examination and how properly to interact with a patient (though it seems many still are failing here–but I digress). But what is invisible to that hour of experience is that the intern has already spent hundreds of hours in classroom instruction long before he or she engages in “practice.”

Back to the pastor/apprentice. Bowyer’s example is simply naive: Watching someone walk a grieving family through the 23rd Psalm is important for pastoral formation, but do we really want a pastor who has never studied what the Psalms are or what their theology is or even how to interpret a Psalm? Learning good bedside manners cannot compensate for a lack of a whole different skills which include understanding what a Psalm is, how the 23rd Psalm was meant to function in the Hebrew Psalter, let alone the Hebrew language in which the Psalm was written. On that matter, learning Hebrew may seem like an unnecessary pastoral skill to many. But let me ask: Would you be happy if you found out that your doctor attended a medical school that only taught “practical skills” over against things those theoretical subjects like anatomy and pharmacology?

Sorry–no hour of observing a pastor at the bedside will teach the prerequisite knowledge of someone who is supposedly supposed to be a minister of the Word of God. Sure, I wish there were such shortcuts, but frankly, I don’t know that there is. Learning Hebrew–for better or for worse–takes hundreds of hours and frankly, even if it is done online instead of a classroom (which I’m actually fine with), it cannot be done quickly and it cannot be done simply “observing” another person. In short, Bowyer fails to acknowledge that there are simply some things that cannot be learned in “practical” situations.

Bower’s second solution is to make use of online resources for theological learning. Again, I have no problem with making use of the many, many good online resources we have at our fingertips. By all means, download that Church History course to your Smartphone and listen while commuting or jogging. But please: don’t tell me that listening to a course while doing something else is the same thing as actually having actually to engage professors and peers face-to-face or even in a formal online course where written interaction is required. Please don’t tell me that listening to a course at the end of your “day job” when the majority of your energy is already consumed for the day is the same thing as setting time aside and being compelled to put your research and thoughts into writing that will be evaluated by someone else! Listening to your IPod and actually doing a class are not the same thing!

Bower is right, though, to ask the financial question and it is one I, too, have struggled to answer. At least if one is working one’s way through a law, medical, business, or engineering degree, there is some hope that the resultant career will eventually suffice to pay off one’s student debt. Entrance into ministry with tens of thousands of student loans, well, seems less of a promising venture.

It is precisely here that I wish I knew a way forward: How should the funding of seminary education take place such that students who are genuinely called to ministry can prepare without taking on the unhealthy burden of financial debt? You would think that an author writing for a magazine devoted to financial matters ( could have at least came up with some suggestions for that. Now that’s something I’d certainly be willing to listen to Bowyer’s on.


4 thoughts on “Is there a better way to do seminary? (pt. 2)

  1. RougueMonk

    I agree with your critique.

    That being said, I stand my my initial thoughts.

    An apprenticeship model–training in ministry under the guidance of a mentor, supplemented by twice annual meeting in cohort groups for training seminars over a two-three year span.

  2. Bob Pond

    Hey David, I have met with a guy who studied with you in your seminary days or perhaps he was few years ahead. his name is Gord Pike and is part of an online seminary recognized by TEDS. I think there may be something to learn from the way they do seminary. He was at our church this week to make a presentation, our church as been supporting him for 25 years so there is a long term relationship. He says he remembers you and would be willing to talk with you about the school and how they function. The school is called ProMETA (Spanish speaking education) and serves about 150 students in the Spanish speaking world. They are based in Costa Rica.

  3. Hi David.

    It was fun to read your response to Bower as I’m a father of a recent medical grad of the Northern Ontario School of Medicine that takes a far less academic approach and pushes most of the medical education to outside of the classroom. Okay, I’m proud father who is impressed that my daughter managed through this approach to gain far higher scores on her Ontario medical exam than the average student from the more academic schools. That could be because of who she is, but it seemed typical of her class. We’ll see how she does in a 4 year paediatrics residency that starts in July.

    It was also fun to read your post in light of my own role as a director of a pastoral apprenticeship program that often uses Briercrest Distance learning as a part of our process. We just had 6 folk in our program gain ministry credentials with the Christian & Missionary Alliance. Those conducting the thorough credential exam/interview probing theology, bible knowledge, personal spirituality and leadership skills commended our group as not just simply being competitive with those from bible college and seminary, but actually as being far better prepared for pastoral ministry and stronger in their understanding of the Scriptures as a whole and how they integrate theology with ministry. There even appears to be a bit of a competitive advantage in finding a placement in coming out of a program like ours over coming out of Seminary or Bible College. (I know it’s a bit unCanadian to toot your own horn, but there is a story here that maybe needs to get out a bit.)

    Moving back to the medical model. The Northern Ontario School of Medicine was the only school in Canada to have all of their students placed in residency programs within the first round of placements. The ease of NOSM students finding their residency placements and placements of choice appears to be because of the style of hands on education they received. Despite or more likely because of the comparative lack of classroom academics, they clearly managed to convince those who interviewed them for the residency positions. Time will tell. The NOSM program, like what we do at Redwood, is still very much in its infancy.

    As one who has also participated in many pastoral credential interviews of seminary and Bible college grads, while they may have studied the Psalms in a classroom and passed a written exam, very very few after graduation can actually articulate much about what a Psalm is, where is fit s in the flow of biblical literature, let alone what the theological significance of a particular psalm is. I say that gently with all due respect, but check with any denominational adjudicatory that licenses or ordains for pastoral ministry, and I suspect they’ll tell you the same story. I don’t get the sense that the current crop of grads really are retaining much of what they learn in the same way or to the same extent an earlier generation did.

    Another thing I’m observing is that a lot of Lead or Senior Pastors such as myself are tending to avoid seminary graduates when we look to hire staff for churches with more than a solo pastor. The qualities we are looking for in a staff member versus a typical seminary product appear to be becoming increasingly distant, despite seminaries attempt to address those issues. While’s that’s anecdotal, it’s not hard to see that as you survey the staff of any church with more than a solo pastor. And in these churches with more than one staff, increasingly the lead pastor is not a seminary graduate either.

    On the other hand, I anecdotally get the sense that smaller rural churches are still willing to go the the bible college or seminary in search of a pastor. At least that would be the observation in my part of the country.

    I agree that it is all quite complex. What we do in our own Apprenticeship and Internship program has it’s flaws and limits. It might not be “the” answer, but it is certain “an” answer. It might point the way forward a little bit. In many ways it’s a school/church partnership with a strong emphasis on learning “on the job” so to speak, including mentorship in personal and leadership formation, while studying Bible and theology along side of that.

    I’m certainly not anti bible college or seminary. I’m a seminary grad myself. I suspect that there will always be a future for bible colleges and seminaries, although they will likely emerge into something substantially than where they are today. My hope and vision is to see far more of our pastoral leaders trained primarily onsite in the local church with a strong support mechanism from the bible college and seminaries. But there are huge hurdles to that idea as well.

    Hey I am thankful for tools like Briercrest Distance Learning and other schools that do that and online education. I have particularly appreciated the time and interest Briercrest profs have put into marking and giving feedback to the assignments of those in distance ed and the real interest they take in these students. I’ve seen several situations where our distance ed students were getting more support and encouragement than I received in my onsite university and seminary classes. Kudos to Briercrest!

    And so we dialogue together. Pray. And see where God is leading His church and how He intends to raise up leaders for His church.

    Hey, I really appreciate you folk at Briercrest and your willingness to wrestles with these significant questions.

    Doug Doyle
    Lead Pastor
    Redwood Park Church
    Thunder Bay, Ontario

  4. I’m thankful for the responses. I should clarify one thing. If I appeared to be moving against cooperative models in my last past, it was more in response to the oversimplification of Bowyer’s article than against the concept. I think both Doug and RogueMonk are right that apprenticeship models are an important way forward and a keener cooperation between church and seminary is going to be critical. What I was opposed to in Bowyer’s article was the assumption that someone just going online and reading an article does the same kind of theological work that someone who is actually doing work for review by a professor or peer. It is one thing to read a book about theology; it is another to be forced to research and write something up for oneself.

    Doug, the story of your daughter’s experience in a non-traditional format med school is fascinating. I have no doubt that these kinds of students will incorporate themselves more readily in practice than the traditional student. The key here, it seems, is as you say: Figuring out how the school (seminary/College) can serve as an important (even primary?) support system to those in apprenticeship contexts. Whatever the case, thanks for the extensive input, Doug. We DO need to find a way to get together. Maybe this year!

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