A young woman suffers multiple setbacks in life. She asks her pastor, "Why is God punishing me all the time?" The pastor responds, "Well, have you confessed all your sins?"
We may not know much about this pastor, but we can be pretty sure he did not take David Clark's "Perspectives on Evil and Suffering" course at Bethel Theological Seminary. One of the goals of Clark's course is to enable future ministers to answer a question such as that young woman's a bit more profoundly, by saying something like, "The Bible says there are many reasons for suffering. Some we'll know and some we'll never know. Can we talk about why it seems to you that God is punishing you?"
This is just one small example of how a seminary education is applied to the issues and challenges of everyday pastoral ministry. There are, of course, many more.
Gone are the days when a seminary education could be considered "academic" in the sense of being irrelevant. Seminaries today are far more conscious of the need to prepare men and women for the challenges and the opportunities they will encounter in pastoral ministry.
At the core of the curriculum at Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary is the development of a biblical and Christian world-view. Beyond the course offerings, says dean and New Testament and Greek professor Gary T. Meadors, "our greater concern is that the discipline of critical thinking be integrated within the curriculum." He adds, "Spiritual formation that is not the result of critical reflection upon text and culture is no more than politically correct pietism."
At George Fox Evangelical Seminary, virtually every course in the seminary curriculum includes assignments aimed at specific ministry situations. Chuck Conniry, who directs the school's doctor of ministry program, says, "Students are routinely challenged to think about how best to engage the subject matter of a given course within his or her ministry context. Beyond that, several of our degree programs include a supervised internship experience as a required component."
Typically, a student's specific area of ministry interest and calling are taken into consideration. At Denver Seminary, soon after students enroll they are given a battery of tests and a personal interview to help determine their specific ministry direction. Each student is aligned with a team of mentors, consisting of a ministry leader, a lay leader, and a faculty member. Those called to pursue urban ministry, for example, are teamed with urban ministry leaders. Each student thus has the opportunity to develop godly character and ministry skills related to his or her specific area of interest.
According to the team from Dallas Theological Seminary surveyed for this article, "We at Dallas are intentional about spiritual formation. All classes keep a major focus on the ideas, values, skills, and character necessary for ministry. Many of our students travel overseas for a cross-cultural experience, which helps them appreciate the diversity and connectedness of the church worldwide."
Northwest Baptist Seminary has had a hand in training some 60 percent of the ministers in the denomination it serves. Says the school's academic dean, Kenton C. Anderson, "I wonder what would happen if we weren't there to continue to offer that training." He adds, "We are currently creating exciting new models of support for churches by means of lay leadership training."
No doubt, more than a few seminary students each year are tempted—while studying for a tough test or writing a paper—to ask whether seminaries are all that necessary. These are the same students who, just a few years later in the throes of the toughest challenges of pastoral ministry, would not trade their seminary experience for anything.
Randy Frame, a freelance writer and editor, also serves as Executive Director of Marketing and Communications at Palmer Seminary.