"What can a ruined soul, like mine, effect towards the redemption of other souls?—or a polluted soul, towards their purification?"

This blog has been moved to www.fallenpastor.com.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Seminary, Being Judgmental, Self-Righteousness, and Other Thoughts, Part I

My new friend from the Work In Progress blog who comments here frequently asked me an honest question recently, which reminded me of something I've been wanting to blog about for a while.

I think I've mentioned before that I was somewhat judgmental as a pastor before my fall. I also discovered that I was self-righteous. I think those two things go hand in hand. After talking to several other fallen pastors from across the country, I've discovered that these qualities are very common. Let me give you some back story before I explain that.

When I got the call to ministry, the logical step for me was to attend seminary. I attended a very conservative Southern Baptist seminary. I didn't have a strong religious educational background except for what I had learned in Sunday School and a few undergraduate religious classes.

I went to seminary with the expectation it would prepare me for a pastoral career. I hoped it would get me ready to minister as I learned practically how to care for people. That a Master of Divinity would transform me into the man of God who magically knew how to pastor a congregation.

Uh huh.

Let me give you a quick disclaimer. I don't have a problem with seminary. I loved my seminary and I'd do it all over again. I'll get to what went wrong in a minute.

I got a seminary education bereft of spiritual formation. Now, listen to what I'm saying first. It was ultimately my fault that I didn't get the spiritual benefit. There were about four to six practical classes in the whole mix. They urged us on several occasions to make sure we were part of a good church where we were getting fed. They told us that seminary education was no replacement for spiritual growth. They told us that sermon preparation was not the same as edification for our soul.

Got that part.

But during an 18 hour class schedule, most students don't take the time to do the spiritual work.

There were professors who made you do the spiritual work. I had several professors who forced us to do written quiet times and reflect on certain passages and hand them in on a daily basis. I'm still not sure what to think of that, but their hearts were in the right place.

Here was where I failed. And this is tough for me to write, but I write it hoping it will help someone else out there, because I know there are some out there who will benefit from it. So here goes.

The first day of seminary, they herded us into a room to do some preliminary testing to see if we needed some extra classes. One of the PhD students addressed all of us newbies: "50% of you will not graduate. Of those of you who do, 50% of you will not make it past the first two years of ministry."


I pondered why 50% of seminary students didn't make it through. I found out in a hurry. Most of them said they couldn't afford it anymore. That wasn't the truth, though. I found out for myself.

Seminary is made up of a lot of factual information. Theology. History. Ecclesiology. Hermeneutics. So forth. A lot of stuff that I had never heard. It was stuff that challenged my own beliefs. My own system of thought. It challenged my faith.

Can you believe that? That in seminary they would challenge your beliefs? (That was sarcasm.)

In my early second year, it got so bad for me that I was questioning the existence of God. Honestly. We were learning so much, so fast that our heads were swimming. It was more than a lot of people could take. More than I could almost take.

When I talked to students who were leaving, I'd ask them, "Why are you really leaving?" When I got past the first five minutes of, "I can't afford this anymore," they'd finally say, "I just miss the old time religion. When things were simple."

Their faith had been challenged too severely.

I'd encourage them to stay and work it out. But they'd leave. It was tough. It was tough for me.

Obviously, I finally worked it out. But my faith had been shaken to the core. But I probably didn't work it out the way I should have. From the moment I "worked it out," I began to "study" God. No longer did I have the same reverence for God, but I looked at God like a thing to be studied and not a God to be worshipped.

It was an easy thing to do, too. Especially in an environment when all you do is study. When all you do is break down the atonement, theories of the fall, whether you're a trichotomist or dichotomist, argue over open membership vs. closed membership, study the history of church thought, examine document sources, read the Puritans, study and debate ethics, and fade away to sleep every night with a 20 pound book on your chest due for discussion the next day.

What's even worse is that hardly anyone at seminary is immune from "studying" God. There were super seminary students who kept it all together. They did. They kept their spiritual level high while grinding out the papers. I don't know how.

You know what happens when you study God like that? Even if you don't mean to? A horrible thing begins to happen to your soul. You begin to think you're a little better than people who aren't seminary trained. That's called self-righteousness.

Some of you who read this who went to seminary may disagree. That's fine. You may not have had the same experience. God love you. I'm glad you didn't. Seminary doesn't have the same effect on everyone. But it has this effect on a lot of people. And again, seminary doesn't necessarily do this to people. But if self-discipline isn't enacted, it'll happen.

Case in point, seminary students had a reputation at local churches. Especially in Sunday School classes. People from the town had the feeling and generalization that seminary students were arrogant know-it-alls. Now where would they get that idea?

From the handful of students who felt that a seminary education made them better than the general public. They showed up at these churches, sat in their Sunday School classes, told the layman teacher why they were wrong every Sunday and got cocky about it. A rotten apple spoils the whole bunch. That's why a lot of the churches had "Seminary Classes." Not to cater to the seminary students, but to get them out of general population.

Heck, I was the same way. I had a first-class Southern Baptist education and I let it be known. I wasn't flaunting it, but sometimes, I had the need to be arrogant about it.

But I should have exercised humility. Especially in public. Especially in my ministry later. Especially in life.

Next time I'll talk about the long-term effects of the self-righteous behavior I learned and really where it all started for me.


  1. I was a staff member at a northern evangelical seminary, and saw this sad, sad story played out again and again. We are called to love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength - but seminary really only focuses on one of the four.

    A few students find healthy ways to integrate their learning into their heart, soul and strength, but many more find it necessary to silence those three in order to parse a Greek verb properly.

  2. Thank you for commenting, Michelle. It means a lot.

    The seminary professors kept telling us that there was a need for spiritual renewal in our lives. But with all the overload on mind (as you said so well), one would almost have to overcompensate tenfold with the spiritual and heart aspect to make up for it.

    I grieve that a lot of students enter seminary hoping for spiritual renewal and walk out theologically smug. I know I did. And it hurt me.

    Great looking blog, by the way.


  3. As a person who has gone to seminary later in life but also had a number of Bible classes on the undergraduate level, I can agree with a good deal of what you are saying.

    Many seminaries are trying to move toward more spiritual formation classes but, in all honesty, this becomes another chore for the student instead of an actual exercise in spirituality. Many students are so worried about their GPA and graduating as soon as possible that formation is often ignored.

    I'm very thankful that I've made good friends at seminary whom I turn to for support. We try and pray for each other and bounce our frustrations and questions off one another. This is helpful but, honestly, I have to say this can be rare.

    My biggest problem with seminary is the amount of hours they require for a student. Seminaries also don't seem to understand that more and more people are coming in with better informed backgrounds than in the past. There needs to be some type of balance.

    There is no easy answer to the situation but, ultimately, what it all boils down to is having a group of like-minded friends to whom we can have fellowship and be accountable. This is what is very difficult because ministry often turns into a very competitive "job" so we often wonder who we can or cannot trust. Somehow, someway Christians are going to have to find a way for those called to full-time ministry to place themselves in a relationship with other ministers that allows the freedom to openly share.

    If you'd like to see a "rant" I posted last year about this topic stop by:


  4. Geekpreacher,

    Nice video. Some good looking commentaries behind you there.

    I might have benefited from seminary if I had gone later in life. As it was, I was in my early 20s. Probably a somewhat dangerous mix - young and immature in age and young and immature in attitude.

    Good point you make about more experienced ministers being able to test out. I had never considered that. But you're right. A ton of the classes I had were simply the regurgitation of facts to satisfy a quantitative test at the end of the semester.

    I agree with you - the answer to the problem I posted is mentoring and accountability relationships. The only problem I had was that the friends I had were all struggling with the same thing. I would have loved to have had a relationship with a professor, but a lot of them seemed inaccessible - and to be honest, there were too many students demanding their time.

    Again, thanks for your thoughts.


  5. Arthur (which is, btw, a very good name....we named our son Arthur) I appreciate the comments about the commentaries and if you look close enough you may even see a Dungeon Master's Guide on that shelf as well!

    One of the big issues that you've pointed out is one of maturity and I see quite a number of students that enter seminary who need more maturity to handle the issues that will arise.

    I'm fortunate, in some ways, because I was an A/G minister in my 20s and attended a variety of undergrad schools to meet the requirements needed for my license. Because of this, I was able to get a fairly well rounded education while also getting some life experience. However, I only had one good mentoring relationship during that period in my life and when that mentor passed away I experienced burnout.

    So, at the age of 29 I burnt out on ministry and my return in my 30s has been one of more maturity and stability. I'm fortunate that the United Methodist Church has provided a number of friendships because of its system and it's been a great help. With maturity has come a much more focused and balanced time of ministry and I believe, my friend, you are finding this out as well.

  6. I did notice the Dungeon Master's Guide. Got a kick out of that. Gygax would be proud.

    I actually grew up a few years in the Methodist church. I've always envied their structure for ministers. Like you said in the video, I think there's built in accountability there.

    You are right. Despite all the book learning, theological education, and facts I can cram into my head, there is no substitute for experience, maturity, and wisdom.


  7. I think that often religion messes up what supposed to be simple. When Jesus send out his disciples he didn't send them to seminary. I don't want to say that education is bad, but it can be really bad.
    When Godly knowledge replaces God that can be dangerous.
    I often felt what you talk about here that some Pastors and bible collage diplomats were arrogant and looking down on people without bible school.
    I don't think people need theology: people need to see grace in action, love in action and leaders who don't pretend that they all have it together and figured out. God searching people want to see the real thing. Even if its not perfect.

    That's why I read your blog and follow you. I think that you are coming to your senses to realize that above sin and falling only true honesty in front of God is all it matters. That you share openly even if some don't agree with what and how you work it out, but if your not fake then God will be able to correct you and get you back on the right path.

    You will never be able to be humble in public if your not humble in your private life. You have to humble yourself before God to be able to humble with people.

  8. WIP,

    Thank you for your gracious comment. You are right on all counts.

    Thank you for following. I have been humbled by this whole thing and was in great need of it. However, I still have a long way to go.

    God bless,

  9. Hey AD, still reading and following along. It's been suggested to me many times in the last few years that I should go to seminary and enter the ministry. Funny, but I dont seem to remember reading anything in my Bible about Jesus's educational experience. I think that may be the reason the church has become so stagnant-too many people think the path to ministry has to consist of an MDiv and then a "call" to lead a congregation in a building somewhere. I've been getting more and more calls, emails, and texts from friends and acquaintances over the past year seeking me out to talk about the problems they are facing. My wife often calls me a "pastor without a church." I'm part of a ministry-one I never expected, and one never really planned. It wasn't because I went to seminary, or because some elders in a building somewhere thought I was "right" for the job-it was because God dropped it in my lap and said, "Here. These people need you." I'm beginning to think it's supposed to be that way. Instead of education and the structure and heirarchy of religion, Jesus just comes walking past and says, "Come, follow me..."

  10. Hey Russ,

    Good thoughts. I know of a pastor who is building a seminary alternative. It's a network of pastors to mentor younger men. It's really a great idea. It's more about practical experience than formal education. They still get education, which I think is important, but not the ivory tower type.

    I think education has to be side by side with mentoring. In fact it is vital. It has to be side by side with practical experience.

    I guess what I'm talking about is what Jesus called discipleship. Strange, huh?