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Seminary Envy – Part I

Maybe it’s just me. Really. I’ve wrestled with it for years, literally for years. Maybe I’m the one who’s insecure about what theological education means and what to do with it…wondering if faith is more like music or if it’s like medicine.

Because if it’s like music, then I can learn by actually playing with other musicians, I can practice way into the night working on particular piece, and learn it by listening to the music of others. I can set up gigs at a local Mexican cantina and play out on Friday nights. If ministry can be learned like music then theological education is as optional as Juliard would’ve been for Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Arethra Franklin, et. al. I can go to school or not, because the measure of a musician is not the education, it is the music.

But if it’s like medicine, then learning it becomes a practice that demands a bit more than intuition or inspiration. It requires a few years of anatomy and physiology before I can get into practicum. Good medicine requires a constant review of journals, research, and methodology. Medicine is measured with outcomes, and consistent outcomes are brought about by evidence and firm conclusions. If a vocation in faith is akin to a vocation in medicine, then the doctor must earn a doctorate, it’s a simple and as certifiable as that.

I’m not sure which it is. I enjoy learning and study. I understand the importance of structure and of history, but when I stand back and look at the growing numbers of Asian Americans in seminary, and who look at seminary as a professional degree or a place to explore, I can’t help but wonder, do we have to go? And with as much emphasis Asians place on authority and degree and education, maybe the question really needs to be asked…

What is the role for seminary in the life of the Asian American Christian? Is it professional school? Are we musicians or clinicians?

Is seminary a potential idol because of what it offers to would-be pastors because it essentially becomes the ticket to a viable career?

Forgive me for the sacreligious tone, but I can’t help but wonder because in AA circles, especially where Christianity is seen in a positive light, to be a pastor can easily be seen as a white-collar profession, a cush job, a socially visible position in a cultural hub, and generally speaking as a highly educated, upstanding, and respected occupation in the community.

Stanley Hauerwas, leading theologian at Duke University, opened up a talk by saying most seminarians have screwed up in other careers before arriving on campus. But among Asians, that’s not necessarily the case, is it?

AAs aren’t known for failure or academic mediocrity…yet it begs the question. How do our seminarians fare? How do our pastors fare? How do our churches fare?

By the way, I’m looking at seminaries now…so if you think I’m being self-righteous, maybe it’s just me. Really, I’ve been wrestling with this years, literally years.

About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come.

8 responses to “Seminary Envy – Part I

  1. tfrank

    Hey David,
    I love your analogy, but I’m not sure that it’s like music or medicine. A child can often times have the greatest faith and yet they’ve often not read the scriptures themselves or even had them introduced into their lives. A child has an innate faith, an innocense that says “All things are possible.” You don’t have to be a prodigy or a pravin for that.
    I agree that in some circles to have a greater impact you must be informed to a greater depth of understanding….but is it really necessary for faith? Those missionaries that have seen the dead brought back to life or who can attest to God’s using of them as a vessel to pour out healing…do they have less faith b/c they weren’t schooled? I don’t think so.
    I am not sure that faith can be measured. Who’s to say one man’s is greater than another? And yet it does grow, increase and strengthen.
    Does having more education and more authority in the world’s eyes really increase your faith? Does knowing the cultural, spiritual, emotional, physical, financial, and original language behind the text really help one BELIEVE more and thereby have faith….or does it help them EXPLAIN it away by human means?

    I don’t know that this helps in your quest for understanding, David. And I don’t even know that I’d die upon a hill for what I just said. More or less, just interested to see what you think.
    Taking a stab at trying to communicate on a deeper level with you. 🙂

  2. Ah T, you more than take a stab. That’s multiple stabs, that’s third degree, pre-meditated mindslaughter. That’s 20 to life, my brother – you have to be careful with thoughts like that.

    If you don’t mind, let me argue out of both sides of my mouth. I’m as equally as torn on this issue as you are, it seems.

    A child’s faith while wide-eyed and mystified, easily wounded, and hardly responds well to the challenge of others. So when we step away from the table of milk, somehow it becomes difficult after that to discern if what we are eating mac n’ cheese or escargot. While one’s faith can’t be measured, it is preciesly the reason that we look for externals, or to put in Christian-ese, fruit (of the Spirit). For many, knowledge of the scriptures is definitive of that very fruit.

    In many ways, it (bible college or seminary)becomes at least some sort of baseline measure. But it’s not the only measure as you point out for good reason, after all, if you were to have a personal mentor and taking resumes, wouldn’t you take that into account?

    Of course, you are right, faith is not quite like music either because I can’t just be like, why don’t we jam? then we’ll see if you fit in the band.

    But to reduce it to a science is repulsive as well. How then do we determine what makes a wonderful servant of the church? especially in a transient, quickly changing world where people move and have different skillsets and gifts? How do we measure faith? Because measurement means so much in terms of qualifying health and growth.

    This is why I gravitate towards seminary and am repelled at the same time – I think that means that I’m in some sort of orbit really. I just circle around it ad nauseum.

  3. tfrank

    Sorry D. I didn’t realize how many times I was stabbing. I plead “insanity.”

    I see your point about milk, and how Paul encourages us to go for the meat instead. And there is a need to excercise our faith so that it does grow, but to gain knowledge doesn’t equate being “faithful.” One can know every verse in the bible backwards and forwards, but it doesn’t mean that their faith is growing. The Pharisees were like that. They knew the law, but didn’t have faith.
    Knowledge is one of those gifts, but only when it’s treated as a gift. When it’s treated as “the authority” (any gift, that is) I don’t believe it is a gift any longer.

    I’m not sure how we determine who is a wonderful servant of the church. I know that I have those that I think might be. And I guess I can see your point here that if they have faith, they will be doing the things that Christ commanded- not out of drudgery, but out of joy and depth of character; they will be excercising their gifts.
    However, why is it important to determine a wonderful servant? How does measuring mean so much in qualifying health and growth. Shouldn’t our measurement be the Lord Christ himself and not our brother who may serve as an arm and have the faith of a great arm when we are a kneecap?

    Bhaiya, this is a challenge. Much more and I shall have to concede. I feel like I am arm-wrestling a guy with size 54″ biceps! Whoa!
    Should I ever decide to go to seminary myself please don’t bring any of this up! Ha!

  4. Ha, bhaiya, you are arm wrestling someone with someone who has a 54″ waistline maybe, certainly not biceps.

    Here’s the catch…pastors are paid. churches require money. this is one of the areas where faith and economics really collide. If you have to pay a pastor, what credentials do you look at? How he preaches? How he disciples? How he counsels? How do you know? How do you measure faith is a very important question for those who put their lives in full-time occupational ministry.

    Ideally speaking, you are absolutely right. Just pursue God, be yourself and strive to be the best that God made you. And yet, God made many of us with different giftings: preaching, teaching, etc. The reality is that in every job, there are high risks and low risks and even though we are all equal as recipients of grace, we are all differently equipped. For instance, that’s why the pastor makes more than the secretary.

    Perhaps a solution would be, hey, just work and pay for yourselves, ministry should be what you do anyway, but there are clear examples in the New Testament and OT that give creedence that ministers should be taken care of by the body.

    All that to say, I’m very confused as to what this means for me personally as well as those whom we invite to lead us and honor for their pastoral role.

  5. Mark


    First of all, I would like to say that I have enjoyed many of the posts on your blog–especially the one on the Teaching the EMs.

    As someone who has, also for years, struggled with this issue, both while in seminary and out, I would like to share a few thoughts.

    1. Seminary is a two-edged sword: Just like money, power or anything else, seminary education and credentials can serve as a useful resource in our service in the kingdom of God or a hindrance to our integrity and humility before the Lord and the Church. I believe much of the outcome is determined by the students personal wrestling, in a spiritual as well as academic sense, the school (faculty), and spiritual mentoring/modeling outside of the school. I believe this can be seen in Church History as well. Paul, Augustine, Luther/Calvin, and many others were preachers/pastors who were able to employ the essential tools of academic training in their service to the Lord. That is not to say that education is what made them useful in God’s hands. Rather, God trained them academically, and redeemed those abilities (communication, logic, rhetoric, philosophy) to serve his purposes in their ministries. But we also have in our history men such as D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Charles Spurgeon. Both never attended seminary but both show evidence in their works a thorough knowledge of theology, biblical studies (even the critical issues of the day), the languages, and church history.

    I have attended three seminaries (currently in my third) from varying theological persuasions. But they are all a product of our times–an educational institution bound by the requirements of the ATS, under financial pressure, and not overseen by a church or denomination but a board. Which means, in its very nature, (most) seminaries do not function as a spiritual organization, or as an arm of the Church, rather they are academic institutions (standalone). A review of the boom of parachurch organizations in America will better illuminate the state of the seminary.

    I think the most important thing about seminary is knowing what it is, and what it can and cannot provide. Being an academic institution, you will have opportunity to gain knowledge, synthesize information, and sharpen both written and oral communication skills. However, unless a seminarian maintains–and progresses for that matter–in their spiritual life (going deeper in prayer, humility, brokenness, and obedience), in their own time, it will not happen in the classroom. That is, I believe the problem in most cases. The student gains much in their head but their hearts become smaller and smaller. They have earned a degree but they struggle to earn the trust and following of the people of God upon graduation. Keeping fervor, focus, and constancy in one’s spiritual progress is key.

    With that in mind, I believe the only other factors are seeking what has been often called the “outward” and the “inward” call from God. I apologize for the long post. Didn’t mean to be long-winded (a deficiency I acquired during my M.Div).

    May the Lord lead you into green pastures and still waters even in the midst of what they call today, “the cemetery.”

    in Christ,


  6. Mark, this was a great comment. Thanks for sharing your experience and giving insight from your personal journey. I’d have to agree with you wholeheartedly that seminary cannot be the full measure of grading someone’s heart for ministry. There seems to be something oversimplistic about assuming that because someone came out of a particular seminary that they are qualified to lead a church as opposed to another seminary. You know, they do this with business schools and professional certifications, but they require a minimum 2-year experience in the field, it would be interesting to see a seminary have that as a requirement as well.

  7. Mark


    Although it often serves as more a formality than a profitable component, most M. Div programs require an internship or something comparable. The problem is however, these 1 to 3 credit hours of commitment are horribly inadequate to expose and equip the student preparing for graduation.

    I can’t tell you how many M.Div students I have met that sought out from me some level of counseling, mentorship, and advice on all types of issues. The truth of the matter is, although I myself am a learning and growing pastor, their is a tremendous void of discipleship and committed mentors who are equipped and “willing” to invest in the lives of soon-to-be pastors in the church today, especially in the Korean American church. To be fare, some are just not equipped themselves for the work while others hide behind a busy schedule and cultural barriers.

    I believe I am able to help these fellow students because I seriously struggled with the same issues myself while in Seminary, as I searched out my calling and gifts. The make matters worse, these brothers are all serving as “jundos” in Korean churches either in youth or college ministries without any type of spiritual feeding, encouragement or direction. Hence, it is no surprise that out of the 10 to 12 that attend our newly started EM Wednesday Night Service, 5 are current M.Div students. Although I would love to take all the credit as a leader for such a following. Realistically, I know it is in part the great need of especially Korean/American pastoral trainees lacking spiritual fathers and big brothers. Like the Korean family, the Korean American charge suffers greatly from a lack of father figures, both natural and spiritual.

    I hope you have or will have, people that will guide you through counsel, prayer and love during your studies! God bless the works of your hands!

  8. Mark, it’s great to hear you echo this notion of mentoring, as I agree completely that we are “walking wounded”.

    Actually, although I know that seminaries require the internship during the pursuit of a degree, I was thinking more along the lines of business schools, where the work in the field has to be completed before applying. The intent is that applicants have “real world” experience of how business works before they get to school. Wouldn’t such a time in ministry prior to entering seminary clarify the goal and utility of seminary, rather than viewing seminary as the qualifications to ministry?

    Certainly people who attend business school to get an MBA know that money can be made without business school. Do we have that same confidence that people can grow in their faith and that churches could be healthy without seminary? I’m not making the comment to disrespect the work of seminaries, but more to bring a focus to the reasons as to how we can better value seminaries for what they are and pay less attention to the things they are not.

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