Seminaries: Pitting Experience vs. Knowledge

There has been a struggle I have faced ever since I felt called to preach and teach. I do not know if it is a struggle every pastor-in-training has, but I know it is the one staring me in the face at this stage of life.

The question is: what seminary are you going to?

Whenever I have the opportunity to share the dream and vision God has given me for my life, the inevitable follow question is some sort of the previous question, without fail. When I was younger, I did not think of it as much of a big deal because that was something I could think about later or decide on when it got closer.

Well, that time is rapidly approaching as I near the end of my undergraduate degree. In all reality, I am no more equipped to answer the question now as I was two or three years ago. Even when people ask me today, I still do not have an answer.

The tension I stand with is this: I am an academic at heart, but I understand studying does not translate directly into effectiveness when it comes to ministry. In other words, you can spend eight years of your life pursuing a PhD or ThD in any religious discipline, graduate, land a job at a church, and preach, but that does not mean you are going to be effective in what you do. This happens way too often with pastors today; they settle down at a church for a handful of years and they see no growth. Things are not going like they read in textbooks. Things are not going like the case studies showed. People are not as generous as your altruistic, philanthropic mind believes Christians are. Death hits a lot harder and faster, and weddings are few and far between. Because of the weight of so many of these issues and the strain pastors take year after year, many are quick to throw in the towel and move on to a new location because of this reason or another. Yet, when they set down roots in their new local church, the same issues and problems tend to surface. Before long, the pastor gets up and leaves again. This cycle just repeats itself over and over again.

The reason? What you learn in textbooks does not accurately prepare you for what happens in real life. This is not just applicable in the Christian discipline but in every discipline in the world. Just because it works in the classroom does not mean it will work outside of it.

This is one of the problems with the church today. Pastors are getting taught the basics–which they should, otherwise we have another whole problem on our hands dealing with heresy–and the advanced basics but have very little experience until they get thrown into the jaws of the beast that is the church. So when situations arise that do not fit nicely and neatly into the prepackaged theology they were taught in seminary, panic hits. They do not know how to handle life when life happens. That is when a burnout becomes inevitable and opens their personal life up for destruction.

The best example of this is a conversation I had with a pastor who I was introduced to through school. We met at a coffeehouse to talk about publishing but ended up talking more about church philosophy. He was talking about his book he is in the middle of publishing that is a sort of handbook to dealing with grief and suffering as a pastor. I asked him why did he write the book in the first place, and his answer surprised me. He told me that his dissertation had dealt with a similar topic and while he was researching for it he discovered that pastors were embarrassingly unequipped for dealing with grief and suffering in the local church and that the average seminary that he looked at offered one hour course over the three or four years of study that dealt with grief and suffering. This completely baffled him yet made perfect sense why pastors were burned out in this area. Seminaries were not preparing future pastors to deal with other peoples hurts, wounds, grieving processes, and suffering. They were churning out ill-equipped graduates.

Before you write me off and say that I am anti-seminary, let me clarify: I am not anti-seminary. In fact, I am very much for the idea of institutions that correctly train our leaders in correct doctrine and application. I think it is a healthy thing. My issue is not with the seminary as an institution–or even their curriculum; my issue is with head knowledge outweighing experiential knowledge.

In conversations I have had with different people I have come to the conclusion that experience is better than any degree you can hang on a wall. A piece of paper does not mean that you are any more superior at a given discipline than anyone else; it just means you paid more money than the other person for another piece of paper. Yes, more education and learning does have its benefits, but the world needs the hands and feet of Jesus Christ not the brain and pen.

I hear the people gathering behind the rally cry of “Right Doctrine. Right Theology.” And most of the time I find myself in that group, but this struggle with the tension of seminary versus something else has really changed my perspective. Look at the Bible. The Disciples were unlearned men. They did not have any formal schooling–in fact, they were rejects from school. They lived their theology on a day-to-day basis that showed in the way the loved people. They knew how real life worked and figured out how to theology to the realities of life.

So, I would love to go to seminary. I love learning, debating, philosophizing, and theorizing, but I understand that, without a ground-level knowledge of how the world works, knowledge without the proper understanding of its application is foolishness. For me, I still do not know what the future holds, and I am okay with that. I know my God is big enough to already have those plans taken care of. But as I look, think, and pray more and more, I am becoming more and more okay with the idea of not going to seminary right off the bat and getting real experience so that I can better apply the truths seminary has to offer.

Because, experience trumps knowledge when knowledge has no practical application.

  1. jay said:


    If I can make a plug for Candler, they use real world work as part of your curriculum. For the first year, you are placed in ministry in a non-church setting, while your second year puts you in a church. It’s part of your class. You apply what you learn. Lots of other schools do this, I think, but I know it is so beneficial for me to have that at Candler.

  2. Garrison said:

    Jay, I have no doubt most seminaries do pair you up with some kind of ministry to actually get experience. I think that is a great thing to do, don’t get me wrong. I just think there is something to be said to actually get experience that you can apply the knowledge later, almost like getting a background in it. So you have a foundation to build off of rather than getting a romantic view of what “should happen.” For example, you interned with Wesley, which I think is a great opportunity of putting that “experience first” mentality into practice.

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