I’ve been watching the trend escalate for the past decade. For centuries, it has been the practice of non-mainline groups. But for the last couple of decades its has been a rising factor in thriving churches.
I’m talking about the rise and effectiveness of non-seminary trained pastors. It used to be that pastors like enormously successful American megachurch pastors like Bill Hybels, T.D. Jakes and Brian McLaren appeared to be the exceptions. But no more. All one has to do is enquire into the fastest growing trend in the U.S. Church, church planting, and you’ll find that the majority of church planters today are non-seminary trained pastors, partly because it is cheaper but mostly because it is more effective by allowing churches to multiply faster. Couple this trend with the fact that mainline denominations are declining and conservative groups are growing and the reality is magnified because most non-seminary trained pastors are in conservative camps.
In the interest of winning the U.S. back, we all of us need to do away with the requirement of seminary for ordination.
Why? Let me count the ways.
- Because the cost of seminary training requires that young pastors give up some of the most productive and passionate years of their life. It takes as long to get a seminary degree as it does a degree in medicine.
- Many of these pastors have some business experience which could equip them with some understand of economics, strategize, work with people, and understand a black bottom line.
- They aren’t steeped in the kind of theological hair splitting that is found in many seminaries.
- These pastors tend to be more in touch with the rank and file of their congregation and can speak the language of the unchurched person.
- There a many second career pastors coming on the scene who don’t have the time to go to seminary but bring with them tons of experience that aid in pastoring a growing church.
A good example that is breaking the mold in the mainline camp and highlights the above reasons for non-seminary trained pastors is pastor Arlene Jackson. She began pastoring one of Grace UMC’s multiple sites with about 30 in worship. Over five years, her flock has grown to more than 400. She’s a full-time licensed local pastor who answered her call to ministry in middle age. Her training has included a two-week licensing school and the part-time Course of Study required of such pastors after they enter. Local pastors like Jackson are on the rise numerically in The United Methodist Church in the United States. 
Several times I’ve been asked what I would do if I were starting over. My response as always been the same. If I were a young man today, I would avoid seminary training. Instead, I would do like most of these young pastors are doing. I would hitch a ride on a thriving congregation with a vibrant pastor (even if I didn’t get paid and had to take a second job) and learn as much as I could. If they offered theological training, I would take it. If not, I would dissect every sermon; attend an effective small group; spend as much time as I could soaking up the culture and DNA of the staff. And hopefully, be selected to plant a church or be the campus pastor of one of their multiple sites.
Is it time to drop the requirement?
P.S. Almost the same time my denomination (UMC) began requiring seminary training the denomination began to decline. Coincidence?
 For an interesting article of the rise of the local pastor see http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/6589/are-local-pastors-the-future-of-the-united-methodist-church
20 years pastor experience…..4 congrations that God grew from 10 to 100. I offered to fill in for any empty church for free, as I have a work from home………no Mdv, no church. The DS said….”you may as well been a plumber, but we would like you to help teach the license to preach class, you have the Spirit strong!” Your point is right on. Rneuman@new.rr.com
I was appointed and licensed 2 years ago when I turned 67. I received the renewed call to preach at the age of 63. I was asked, “Bob are you seeking ordination?” My answer was, “No, I am too old and to worn to incur $20,000 in education debt, and cannot possibly stop everything I do just to be ordained. My license as a Local Pastor makes it possible to serve the Lord, take the COS classes, and preach the gospel. Plus, I am able to serve the sacraments, bury the dead, marry those in love, and love the sinner. Seminary degrees, as you say, take a lifetime that I want to spend doing the will of the Father. I am not sure what you suggest will ever happen in our lifetime. If the wheels turn as slow as they have for my licensing and appointment, we might all be in for the ;long haul.
The example in the article isn’t a good argument. The United Methodist Church considers the Course of Study a a way for Local pastors to obtain theological eduction without doing it in the same timeframe as seminary. But some Course of Study programs are offered by seminaries, and are taught by seminary professors. Pastors still need “seminary type” training or theological eduction regardless of the format. Otherwise we are leaning on our own understanding, instead of the wisdom of others and the vast ways that God can teach us.
I’m amazed that there IS a “requirement” that the approval of men is necessary for Preaching the Gospel. I understand being a pastor of a congregation requires a modicum of business knowledge, however I’m convinced the decline of attendance is directly related to the lack of power that moving away from the anointing of God in HIS authority has caused this “falling away”. Men have taken authority over God’s authority in too many aspects. I Pray for a Revival growing into a second REFORMATION!!!!
I believe in pastoral/theological training. But that does not have to be Seminary. I have seen pastors with a simple Bible College education become marvelous pastors, Bible teachers and able to grow churches. There is a prepared place for a prepared person. That preparation may not be Seminary.
Mid-life professional. Lifelong member of a mainline congregation. Talked to the Synod staff for call. Answer: move to a seminary town, go back to school full-time for four years. Sure. Uproot my family now, and then probably again in four years. And should I incur massive debt now or keep working full-time and try to go to school full-time. It will likely be too late for me when they are running out of pastors and are forced to change.
I am wondering if the real problem is not the lack of seminary development, which I had done for myself as a soon to be retired military member in 2004 and still can not find any repeat any churches or denominations that are open to accepting applications from men and women like myself. I have the necessary elements of classes and credentials for qualification , yet openings in a vast majority of churches are filled with Interim appointments, so that the casual fees and expenses of pensions are not wasted or making new appointees welcome of able to fill the very roles and assignments this article mentions. We know the systemic problems of the past were hidden in clergy enclaves of privacy and confidences, and now the Bishops or equal levels are taking a close door reason, to this view.
I am a trained and educated theologian with a strong er sense of pioneer mission ministry focus where the parish and people of a region or community might find a blend of knowledge or both liturgy and humanity that would create and inspire not only one factor of any age group, but enable the growth of attraction, along with the support of attrition reduction in location both rural or urban with accents of programs for a wider range of cultural demographics. You can find out more on my web page CELTIC CENTURION, or http://www.rweeks.ca
Is it time to drop the requirement to be a seminary trained pastor?
I am a lay person. I am a parish lay minister who has been trained by the Parish Lay Academy we have in the North Texas- North Louisiana synod of the ELCA. I am currently filling in as a SAWL (Synodically Authorized Worship Leader) in my church as we wait for our interim pastor to come and be our pastor until we call a full time pastor. If I did not fill in here and in other churches where we need someone to fill the gap until a pastor can be found, we would be severely hurting. I have some friends who serve as a permanent SAWL because their churches are too small to afford a pastor and cannot find a church with whom to yoke to have a dual parish. Good, well-trained, faithful lay people are very valuable to the ministry in West Texas for us ELCA Lutherans. But we have our limitations. We have not been formed in a seminary environment. We have not had CPE. We have not had the in-depth studies which help us formulate clear theological responses which are faithful to the bible. I do read theologically astute books and articles. I love it when there is a good text study group to attend. We lay people come with a varied set of backgrounds. Some of us are more advanced in our theology than others. Some of us are good at what we do. Some of us are not as talented as others. For the most part, if we are not in it for our egos, we can love a lot. Love helps us be fruitful in our ministries. It covers a lot of our mistakes up.
I serve on our synod candidacy committee. I see people come into the initial interview and sometimes wonder how in the world this person can ever be a fruitful pastor!?!? Sometimes we tell them to go for a semester of seminary and come back. Many times that semester or year has formed them so well that we have to do a double take to see if this is the same person. The amount of spiritual growth and maturity that can happen in a seminary environment is amazing! They find the words, the tools, the maturity to express and think through the things they were trying to tell us in the initial interview! By the time they have finished seminary and are doing their final interview, many times it is like they were taken apart, shined up, fixed up and are ready to step into the role of being the resident theologian and love bearer that churches need to help them equip their lay people to do ministry. Seminary has done its job for these people who have decided to pursue the calling of being a pastor. Of course, there are some who do not blossom. Some will burn out. Some will do an ok job at this. Some will slip past the committee who should have alerted the candidates that their calling is not to be in the pulpit but that they should seek to do discern what other ministry God wants them to do. Just like med school will produce some great doctors, some decent ones and some that should not have become MDs, seminaries will have similar results.
We have another path in our denomination called the TEEM route. This is for those people who are in a church who find it difficult to call a pastor for whatever reason. Maybe it is a rural church, a small church who cannot pay a full salary, maybe an ethnic church who needs a vocabulary from another language and there are no pastors who speak their language. From within the midst of these settings, they may have someone who is a lay person who is functioning as a pastor without the training. This training would help equip this person to be a more effective pastor. These people cannot leave their church for four years to do seminary and then come back to be the pastor. The church needs this person to continue being their pastor. This program, the TEEM route, allows people to do seminary training by going to seminary for a week at a time for extended days several times a year, then take home assignments to be done and which apply to their situation and church they currently serve. They will not have an M Div. but when ordained will be no different than any other pastor in our denomination. The church agrees to call them for at least 3 years.
In all of these situations there are positives and minuses. None of these can be certain to provide the church with great leaders. We are all human. Many times, lay people may mean well but the theology they have is harmful to those who come under their teaching. The same thing happens with some seminary trained pastors as well. If a person is going to proclaim the Good News as their profession, they should seek to be trained as much as they can be trained. Churches should seek ways to make this training affordable. All leaders need to be held accountable… It may mean being accountable to a bishop, to other pastors, or to whatever adjudicatory body the denomination has. The question about using a person as a pastor should always be about seeing if this person will be beneficial to the church as a pastor. If not then that person should be steered to some other form of ministry.
So is it time to drop the requirement? No… yes… it depends. Never look down on the effective formation which can occur in a seminary environment. Never discount those who are not seminary trained. Find ways to use all of us. We should always find ways to be molded and formed into that which God is calling us to be.
Rodney Stark, now at Baylor and co-author of The Churching of America, highlights another reason why non-seminary trained pastors are effective: they are desiring to work without the social status of those who are seminary trained. That may explain the forth point you made, that non-seminary trained pastors “tend to be more in touch with the rank and file.” It may be that what we need to forego is not seminary, but the social status of ordination.
We’very been doing this since 1973.
Pastors are trained within the local church. The train starts as disciples begin making disciples. It includes lots of reading and some writing. Everything is highly relational
The result is nearly 2,400 churches in a “leader less” network stemming from three Hope Chapels that I planted and around 80 pastors I personally discipled.
It’s time for change across the board.