Since 1998, Daniel O. Aleshire has served as executive director of the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Association of Theological schools in the United States and Canada (ATS). The ATS consists of more than 250 graduate schools that provide post-baccalaureate professional and academic degree programs to educate persons for the practice of ministry and for teaching and research in the theological disciplines. The organization's Commission on Accrediting accredits member schools and approves the degree programs they offer.
In an interview with freelance writer Randall L. Frame, Dr. Aleshire, an ordained minister, discussed the relevance of graduate theological education and the challenges confronting seminaries and graduate schools. Aleshire addresses similar topics in his book Earthen Vessels: Hopeful Reflections on the Work and Future of Theological Schools (Eerdmans, 2008).
In Earthen Vessels, you discuss your experiences growing up in three different churches. You said you recognized differences between the pastor who was seminary trained and those who were not. What are some of the signs that a pastor has not been to seminary? And, conversely, what kinds of attitudes or behaviors on the part of the pastor indicate that he or she has been seminary trained?
Maybe the most important thing to remember about that comment is that I was growing up in these churches. They are recollections of childhood and teenage years and need to be taken as such. Nevertheless, here is what I remember. The first congregation had perhaps forty or fifty people on a good Sunday and had never had leadership other than local lay pastorsnone of whom was college- or seminary-educated.
One pastor, I remember, was a used car salesman. The church became deeply divided. The presenting issue was whether it should supplement its income with bake sales or with other fundraising events. (My family was on the non-bake sale side, by the way.) This small congregation needed thoughtful pastoral guidance, and the only thing I remember my family talking about was his proposal that the church have two Sunday services with one group attending one service and the other group attending the other. I was young, but still perceived that this did not seem to be a particularly wise course of action for a church of forty people.
My family left that church and became very active in another. It had a full-time pastor who was committed to his ministry and very faithful. He had attended college but not seminary. When I was fourteen, my father, who was a deacon in the church and the adult Sunday School teacher, was killed in an accident. Our family was understandably torn, and the church was affected as well.
I remember trying to talk with that pastor about what I was feeling. While he was attentive and he listenedhe even found things for me to do around the church office from time to timeI don't think he knew how to be present with my immature grief or how to hear my questions in the middle of what I was saying. At least that is the way it seems to me now. He was a good person and an engaged pastor, but this family tragedy, which continued to unfold in many directions both in our family and in the church, seemed beyond his ability to address in any helpful or meaningful way.
I struck out on my own and, in high school, went to a third congregation. This one had a pastor who had gone to college and seminary. It was a church that seemed to know exactly what its business was and how to go about doing it. I think it reflected the pastor's leadership. Maybe it was because I was older, but the preaching seemed different to me. This pastor used the Bible more engagingly, and his preaching exposed me to much more of Scripture than I remembered being exposed to in the preaching of others. None of these pastors were bad, but still I decided as a teenager that seminary most likely contributed a perspective and quality that does not occur as readily without it.