Thinking outside the seminary

Seminary on $3 per day?

I had a great seminary experience in the 1970s. I matriculated for nine years, and earned three degrees. The total cost I paid for my seminary education was under $10,000, which was just less than $3 per day. I finished with zero debt because of a hefty denominational funding system.

All nine years I was involved in ministry. I volunteered in a congregation for a year. Out of that experience I became a staff person in a congregation, and by the time I finished my M.Div. degree I had been called as pastor of that congregation. While there I completed a Th.M. and all the class work for a D.Min. Before my 30th birthday I moved into full-time denominational ministry and completed my professional doctorate.

During those nine years, I made life-long friends among both students and faculty. Some of my best friends are still people with whom I connected during those years. I cherish those relationships. I cherish those nine years as deeply meaningful and significant.

Retro Seminary?

But that was four decades ago. The 1970s are gone. The music and the clothes that were popular during those days are now seen as retro. I would even suggest many ideas about seminary in the 1970s are also retro. Those days allowed for a neat, guilt-free, and debt-free concept of seminary. No more.

On the Outside Looking In?

It is now time to think outside the seminary.

Many graduates of seminaries, divinity schools, and schools of theology now leave seminary with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. The Lilly Endowment recognized this around six years ago and put millions of dollars into a project to help persons in ministry eliminate their seminary debt so they could freely serve without this burden.

Fewer students go straight from college into their seminary years. More are waiting or just entering in mid-career than was the case in the 1970s. Twentysomethings are still going to seminary. There is some evidence their numbers may even be increasing as a percentage of seminary students. It depends on who you ask, and what seminaries you study.

While in my seminary days ministry in congregations was a high priority for post-seminary days, today the percentage of seminary students planning to go into congregational ministry seems down in many seminaries. Yes, Christian ministry is on students’ minds, but the congregation often seems like a scary place rather than an exciting place to do Christian ministry.

I moved 10 hours from home to attend seminary. Many students now want to stay in place to obtain their seminary education. This seems to work for them because attending a seminary of their denominational tradition is not near as important as it was in the 1970s. At times they are already in ministry and want to continue this place of service during their seminary years.

The Future From Outside the Seminary?

With this retrospective, what do I mean when I suggest we need to think outside the seminary?

  • First, when we think inside the seminary we think about theological education with some form of ministry reflection. If instead we think outside the seminary then we position it as ministry preparation with appropriate theological reflection. Thus, the philosophy of a seminary journey is turned inside out. We begin with a vision of doing more than being.
  • Second, we must change our understanding as to who is the client for the seminary journey. Too often I read statements about the renewed discovery of the burdening cost of seminary degrees for people primarily entering an underpaid Christian ministry. The solution offered increases funding for seminaries or the students attending them, thus seeing them as the client for a seminary education. I believe the client is not the seminary as an institution, or the faculty who enjoy the entitlement benefits of tenure, and perhaps not even the students themselves. So, who is the client? The true client is the congregations and other Christian ministries they will serve, and the people whose lives they will interrupt with the unconditional love of Jesus Christ, and the high cost of discipleship.
  • Third, residential seminaries with tens to hundreds of thousands of volumes in their library, and tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in buildings and grounds speak to an overkill and perhaps misappropriation of space and funds for essential ministry preparation. For graduate studies in theology they may still have a place. Seminary education is fast becoming digital and virtual, with supporting systems of coaching and peer learning communities. The endurance of a slow changing accreditation system keeps many seminaries from moving faster in this direction.
  • Fourth, congregation-based ministry preparation with appropriate theological reflection will likely be the dominant model for seminary within a few decades. It is truly about thinking outside the seminary. It will restore hope in the vitality and vibrancy of congregational ministry. It will produce a more excellent and effective clergy and other ministry leaders. It will make the practice of ministry the highest priority.

Beyond these four, what are your ideas for thinking outside the seminary?

George Bullard

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About the Author
George is President of The Columbia Partnership at, This is a Christian ministry organization that seeks to transform the North American Church for vital and vibrant ministry. It primarily does this through the FaithSoaring Churches Learning Community. See George is the author of three books: Pursuing the Full Kingdom Potential of Your Congregation, Every Congregation Needs a Little Conflict, and FaithSoaring Churches. George is also General Secretary [executive coordinator] of the North American Baptist Fellowship at This is one of the six regions of the Baptist World Alliance. George holds is Senior Editor of TCP Books at More than 30 books have been published on congregational leadership issues.

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  • Creig

    And affordable high quality theological education is still available in Europe (on the Continent besides in England) and in English both in evangelical and non-evangelical contexts, e.g. ETF in Leuven Belgium ( for ThM and non-residential PhD) and the CERT program at the Free University of Amsterdam.