Recently, I was asked if I thought that my seminary training was helpful or a waste of time. It is a good question and I wish there was a simple answer. However, like all things that involve people there is no simple answer. The value of my own seminary experience is an interplay of both positive and negative. At times, it was a waste; and yet over time it remains extremely valuable.
When it comes to the mechanics of emergent (postmodern) ministry, the answer is that my seminary training was definitely lacking. My theological education and prior ministry experience left me feeling like I was being trained to be a CEO of corporation we call church. I'm often reminded of an anonymous quote from a Japanese businessman. "When I meet a Buddhist monk, I meet a Holy Man. When I meet a Christian pastor, I meet a manager." My heart's desire is to be a Holy Man.
In my opinion, all seminaries are not equal. My choice of school was highly beneficial to my social context. I chose Regent, because I could specialize in the interaction of Christianity and culture. Regent College (the self-proclaimed "un-seminary") takes seriously the education, nurturing and equipping of the laity-the whole people of God-to live and work as servant leaders in vocations within the home, the marketplace, and the church. Regent was the closest fit to my experience and ideals as a vocational minister. I probably embodied the Regent ideal long before I ever considered studying there.
When it comes to the historical and exegetical understanding of the Christian mind, my experience at Regent prepared me well. It gave me the necessary foundation to catch a view beyond the modern church and engage our changing culture from a Biblical mindset. Therefore the emphasis on theological, historical, cultural, vocational, and Biblical training is proving to be invaluable.
One of the many criticisms of the emerging church has been its perceived lack of a solid theological engagement and understanding. My theological education has filtered deeply into my life and service to Christ (ministry). It has helped me develop an understanding of the Christian mind as it is expressed throughout western history.
Many people may adopt an "emerging church style" yet reject historical Christian practice in a faddish attempt to be current and socially accepted by their peers. However, a strong foundation in theology allows us to reinterpret the symbolic modes of thought and action for our emerging social context. Those of us who move beyond the thin veneer of style can bring a depth to our practice we would otherwise lack. It is this search for depth that indicates a church that is emerging beyond our cultural trends.
Seminary does not fully prepare you to pastor; even in an institutional, modernist, emerging, house or corporate church. It is not intended to. Rather, theological education supplies you with many of the tools that are necessary to fulfill the mission and calling that God has given you. As someone who has been a pastor in large and small churches before going to seminary, I can guarantee you that experience is the only way to learn how to pastor.
Like the mechanic with a well-equipped shop, pastors must have a full range of tools to draw from. Yet a well-equipped shop is of no value to a mechanic who does not know how and when to use his tools. The real value of his tools is found in knowing what to do with them. That practical knowledge only comes through hands on experience. Pastoring is no different.
In short, I would not be the person I am today without the tools, thought and reflection that my seminary training has afforded me. Yes, I spent a lot of time in the educational system but I also continued to minister in the emerging social context during that time. My education was not an end in itself. It simply provided tools that I use to build upon daily, nothing more and nothing less. Finding the balance between knowledge and experience is the hard part.
If you were to ask me, "Is our current seminary system the best way to gain a solid understanding of historic Christianity, Biblical faith, accurate exegesis, and what it means to live as a Christian in the world?" I would have to say unequivocally, "NO." But that does not diminish the necessity of a strong Biblical foundation nor the value of theological training.
Rather than attend a traditional seminary, I'd prefer the "Apprenticeship" idea. Combine strong practical living with firm teaching, theological training and first hand experience. In essence, becoming someone's disciple for a period of years while living life with him or her. I'm thinking of something like a mini-monastic community but one that engages the world rather than retreats from it.
The question of Seminary comes from how we view the Church. Is Church something we do? If Church is an activity we do, then we can expect seminaries to train the most professional managers of that activity that money can buy. Is the Church who we are? If the Church is who we are, then out our being flows what we do - ministry and service. The only way to be the church is to be rooted deeply in God, to be led by His Holy Spirit, and about His work daily. You cannot fully teach this in a book or learn about it in a seminary, it must be experienced and lived, as we become Holy Men.
Learning how to pastor in an emerging context is difficult because
the path is largely untried and undocumented. There are few rules and
very few guides. There are even fewer mentors available to
us. We must rely completely on the Spirit of God to guide and direct us as we seek to live as Christ-Followers in the world.
I know that this is a long response to a rather complex question but i hope it may prove helpful.