3 Advantages of “Non-Traditional” (Formal) Theological Education

Young leaders often ask me questions related to pursuing formal theological education, attending seminary, and the different ways one can do so in our modern age.

I am extremely grateful for how the Lord used seminary in my life. I found the disciplined and systematic approach helpful. I met and studied alongside lifelong friends who continue to sharpen and encourage me. And the last decade of my ministry can be directly traced to relationships formed in seminary (from my time as executive pastor at Christ Fellowship to vice-president at LifeWay).

I think many would say I went through seminary the “non-traditional” way. Though I have a master’s and a doctorate from a seminary, I never lived on campus (never even lived in the same city as the seminary during seminary) and always had a full-time church staff position while taking classes. In other words, seminary was what I did on the side. After I graduated college, I took a full-time staff position at a church. I made Mondays my “day-off” so I could drive two hours to an extension of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. When I moved to Cincinnati to serve a church there, I transferred to Southern Seminary and still drove two hours on my “day off.” My doctoral coursework involved a lot of distance learning and only traveling to Southern’s campus several times a year.

So my perspective about seminary is through that lens, and I know it is becoming more and more the norm. Today, I will offer three advantages of pursuing theological education while serving in a local church ministry and not moving to a seminary campus or town to dive more exclusively into your theological education. And then on Thursday, I will offer three disadvantages, or three things I perhaps missed by not going the more traditional route.

1)    A constant reminder of the “why”

With all the benefits of theological education, a danger exists if ministry training is subtly divorced from the church. If the acquisition of knowledge becomes the chief goal and not the edification of the church, a student’s heart has drifted. Serving at a church while also attending seminary provided me with a constant reminder that I was not just learning to study and to teach the Bible but I was learning to teach it to people—real people with struggles, doubts, questions, and pain. Serving in a church during seminary helped me to avoid the ivory tower syndrome where folks only study for the sake of study, where the end result is a euphoric state of just knowing more.

2)    A practical filter

Serving while studying also provides a practical filter. It forces you immediately to think about how to translate what you are learning into ministry practice. I remember getting in my truck on Monday nights around 9:00 pm for the long drive home, my mind spinning from a class with a genius like Dr. Gentry. I would be wrestling with some profound truth. And then I would check my voicemail on the way home to learn some student’s parents were splitting up, a parent was upset because her kid heard a curse word from another student at church, or a student led another student to the Lord. It could be anything. Some of it was awesome. Some of it was frustrating and disappointing. But in those moments, you start to think critically about how all you are learning applies to a ministry context. It does apply. Theology is very practical. And a community of faith helps you make that connection quickly.

3)    A working lab

Serving while studying gives you great opportunities to practice what you are studying. You have an immediate outlet. I remember several occasions when, through the lectures and the reading, the Lord convicted me about a change I needed to make in a ministry I was responsible for. The deep learning, however, comes when you implement, not just when you write down “what you will one day do.”

The good news is that every seminary student can get plugged into a local church. If you are going to go the route of a more focused seminary experience, with more time dedicated to seminary, then by all means get deeply plugged into a local church. Serve there. Throw yourself into the ministry of that church.