By Doug Smith
So far in this series, we have considered one-on-one mentoring and internships as avenues for training men for pastoral ministry in the context of the local church. In this article we will contemplate the idea of church-based seminaries.
A church-based seminary differs from what is now known as a more traditional seminary in several ways. A church-based seminary is directly accountable to one local congregation, whereas the seminary’s accountability may be to multiple churches or to a denomination. A church-based seminary will be smaller than most well-known seminaries. This usually means a better student-teacher ratio and more interaction out of the classroom. It may mean less library resources are available to students, but this gap may be overcome in churches with large collections or in churches located close to major traditional seminaries. One can expect cost of tuition at a church-based seminary to be less than most traditional schools.
Church-based seminaries may or may not be accredited by a regional organization (tuition fees will probably reflect this, but not necessarily). Church-based seminaries may or may not exclusively employ their own church staff as instructors; some provide classes with professors from other churches or schools. For example, The Midwest Center for Theological Studies, in addition to faculty from their own church (such as Dr. Sam Waldron and Dr. Richard Barcellos), have utilized professors such as Drs. Tom Nettles, Tedd Tripp, and Don Whitney to teach semester-long or intensive modular courses.
Considerations for Churches and Pastors Hoping to Start a Church-Based Seminary
For a church to begin a church-based seminary, there must be clear agreement. The pastor(s) and the congregation must be in harmony and see this as a legitimate extension of the command to train others in 2 Timothy 2:2. They must agree that this ministry is desirable and helpful.
The pastor(s) and church must also agree on what the church-based seminary should accomplish. This may take some time to pray through, talk through, and hammer out (although it should be the heartbeat of the pastor(s) and then presented to the congregation). Should it only train students for the ministry? Should it be accredited to give their graduates more of a credential than they might otherwise get? If seeking accreditation, what agency should one go with (a regional one that accredits secular schools as well, or an agency that only accredits religious schools)?
Who will lead the school? How will the pastor be involved?
Should it train students from the home church only, or open it up to others? What kind of standards will be required for admission? How will you handle students who fail academically or morally?
What kind of curriculum, resources, and faculty will it utilize? What a church decides about accreditation will factor in to these considerations. Will multiple degrees be offered? Will languages be required? Will all requirements for the degree be met through the program or will students be allowed to transfer credits? Is there a substantive library available on site or nearby (especially if the church is near a large traditional seminary or religious graduate school)? What will be the requirements for those who teach, including doctrinal and ecclesiastical commitments, as well as the amount and quality of pastoral and/or teaching experience and educational credentials?
Will separate facilities be needed for instruction or will it suffice to adapt present classrooms?
How will the school be funded? Does the church have a budget to help subsidize it (particularly in the first few years until it gets “off the ground,” if that is the intention)? Are there businessmen or donors who want to help underwrite such an effort? How will tuition and fees paid by students or their sponsors figure in to the financing of the education? Will any financial aid or scholarships be available for students?
What ministry opportunities will you provide for students?
Question for Prospective Students of a Church-Based Seminary
Are your beliefs substantially the same as the church? Is it somewhere you could recommend to others or a place of the type you would feel comfortable serving in some day? In a church-based seminary you will be more immersed into one particular church and its beliefs more deeply than you would be in a traditional seminary. If there is not a high degree of compatibility and theological affinity, it will be a long, hard road, or you may be bailing out (or kicked out) early.
What are you hoping to do with your degree? Some church-based seminaries will offer more one-on-one time with professors, but if the school is not accredited, one may not be able to use the degree in obtaining future education. If your goal is the Ph.D. program, or if you aspire to teach in an accredited college, graduate school, or seminary, you may want to take accreditation and the rigor of the program into account, as well as the credentials and ministry experience of the teachers.
If you do not believe your ultimate goals would be met by a church-based school and are still interested in having some of your education from such a setting, find out if courses transfer to the school of your choice. I have taken classes from a church-based seminary that I am not pursuing my degree through, because of a goal I have. However, the caliber of professors and courses they offer are just as good as a traditional seminary and they transferred to my school (and the cost of tuition was less).
What is the cost? How does it compare to a traditional school you might also consider? Are there scholarships or financial aid you can use (either from the church seminary or from other sources)?
What is the schedule? How might this work for you in the short term and long term?
Does the school have a good teacher/student ratio?
What ministry opportunities will be available to you through the school?
Have you visited the seminary, spoken to graduates, and received recommendations for this option from leaders you trust?
If you are at a church that has a seminary and are thinking about theological education and have been encouraged by your church to pursue it, are you thinking about the option right in front of you, with people you are already organically connected to?
Examples of Church-Based Seminaries
Thankfully, there are those who have blazed this trail already. Those who are considering starting a church-based seminary would do well to learn from some already in existence – some for decades. The mention of a school or church is not an unqualified endorsement, but those considering such education may want to look at schools such as those below.
What do you think? Do you know of some other churches training pastors through a church-based seminary or academy? What are some other things churches and students should consider when contemplating this type of model?