What pastors aren’t told in seminary

By Ronald E. Keener

James Emery White has been both a seminary student and a seminary president (Gordon Conwell-Theological Seminary) and pulls few punches in writing What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary. (Baker Books, 2011) He writes, “It was painfully clear how little my seminary education had actually prepared me for the day-in, day-out responsibilities of leading a church.”

What brought him to that conclusion? “The tasks at hand!,” he replies. “I was immediately thrust into doing things I had no training and little preparation for. Everyday things like hospital visits, weddings, funerals, officiating the Lord’s Supper, running a meeting, raising money, relational conflict, instituting appropriate change, church growth — the list goes on and on. I was thrown into being the leader for it all, and no one had ever taught me how to do any of it. I could tell you about the Council of Nicea, but not how to run a council.”

Dr. White leads Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and responded to questions from Church Executive:

Was there anything that might have prepared you for the legal, financial, risk and human resources part of leading a church?

Yes, like a class! Hear my heart, I’m not anti-seminary. My life has been lived, primarily, in two vocational worlds: the church and the academy. I am the founding and senior pastor of a church, and a professor and former seminary president.

So if I wanted to pick a fight with a seminary, I’d only be picking a fight with myself. But there wasn’t a single class in my seminary experience that dealt with any of the dynamics you mention. Not one.

What is it about M.Div. programs that they can’t squeeze in some practical education?

In fairness to the M.Div., most of what you get is invaluable to being able to “rightly divide the Word of Truth” (I Tim. 2:15). But they can do better. Why is it that the average seminary graduate can go to a two-day conference and get more practical training than they did in their entire three-year residential M.Div. program? Seminaries must do better to bring this into the curriculum.

Did you do anything at the seminary to bring in some of these “day-in, day-out” responsibilities to the seminarians?

At Gordon-Conwell we required mentored ministry rotations where students have to be serving in the trenches, under a seasoned leader, throughout their seminary experience. That’s a great way to get practical training in, particularly if the school helps the student know what kind of mentored ministry rotations they need for their calling. Bringing in guest speakers and lecturers on the practice of ministry is also key. One thing we didn’t have, but should have had, is some kind of practical “exit” course at the end that goes over the day-in, day-out responsibilities of leadership: how to baptize, how to lead a meeting, how to raise money, how to structure your time, and so on.

Any war stories to share?

The book is full of them! I think, early on, where I suffered the most was in not knowing how to deal with relational conflict between people and within the church. My first church had been riddled with discord for years (I was their fifth pastor in less than 10 years). I was clueless as to what to do.

What else does the book cover that is important to know?

The book is filled with 25 very specific things that you won’t be taught in seminary, but that only come from being in the trenches: emotional survival, sexual fences, dealing with conflict, identifying safe people, envy toward other churches and so much more.


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