Trouble at Christian Colleges and Seminaries

Just as the American church struggles, another institution gasps to find relevance and survival in these churning times. Christian colleges and seminaries face daunting challenges, some of them self-inflicted.

Questions now arise about how people will be equipped for ministry in the future.

Seminary enrollments across the country continue to decline. Costs continue to climb. Support from denominations and donors continues to erode.

That was certainly the case for Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. This, the largest seminary for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, found itself running multi-million dollar deficits, leading to painful budget cuts, staff layoffs, spending down their endowments, and the resignation of its president.

I talked with former Luther Seminary dean and professor Dr. Roland Martinson for this week’s Holy Soup podcast. Hear his revealing diagnosis of the maladies facing Christian higher education here:


Why are enrollments down in so many theological schools? Martinson attributes some of the descent to generational factors. He says Millennials’ disenchantment with today’s church has reduced the number of applications to Christian schools.

But that’s not the only issue. It seems much of higher education has simply lost its way, has muddled its mission. Anthony Ruger, with the Center for the Study of Theological Education, said: “Sooner or later you do have to ask, what is our mission? What are we trying to do and how can we best accomplish it? There are very deep questions about what our identity is, who we are, what we do.”

Mission confusion has earned many institutions–Christian and secular–a poor grade when it comes to preparing their students for the real world. At a Christian academic symposium a faculty member told me, “We’re not here to provide practical training. Only theory. People will figure out practical application on their own.” But surveys of practicing ministry people show a level of dissatisfaction with how their schools prepared them in certain disciplines, such as leadership and people issues.

Ministry people, in just this past week, confirmed this research to me. One said, “The training for ministry is severely lacking because it does not address critical areas like finances and group dynamics.” Another said, “My theology degree brought me very little knowledge or practical help in the biggest challenge of ministry–people.”

Another pastor said, “I am constantly joking about things that they didn’t teach me in seminary.” He said the academic omissions include team leadership, volunteer relations, community engagement, finances, time management, and dealing with difficult people.

You might wonder, are these institutions soliciting and receiving feedback from their in-the-field graduates? Martinson said some are, but it’s late in coming. He said his seminary heard 20 years ago that “we were creating graduates for a church that no longer existed.”

Some schools have responded positively to feedback, and initiated different educational methods, including hands-on learning experiences, mentorships, internships, and field experiences. Students and alumni have rated these highly for their long-term effectiveness.


Graduates often mention faculty members who genuinely touched their lives and encouraged them in ministry. It’s true, the Christian academic system is blessed with many fine people. But they’re stuck in an apparatus that, in many ways, is hopelessly designed for the preservation of itself.

Prospective students are screened not by how well they may succeed in real life, but by how well they conform to academic mechanisms such multiple-choice tests (ACTs and SATs). Faculty are often not selected or rewarded based on their demonstrated ability to help students actually learn, but on their own old-school academic pedigrees and their abilities to get their manuscripts published somewhere. And the peculiar ordinance of tenure protects and insulates the institution’s employees but does not serve its customers–the students. The system is set up to preserve the system.

As our Christian colleges and seminaries fade, what’s next? Martinson describes in the podcast several possibilities. One of them moves the training process from the old academic institutions to the field–congregations, where people will be apprenticed in the skills and knowledge they need for real ministry.

That sounds sort of like how a certain rabbi taught his 12 recruits many years ago.

44 Responses to “Trouble at Christian Colleges and Seminaries”

  1. The morality based curriculum becomes useless in real life because, truly, one size does not fit all. The 10 commandments, while helpful, no longer reach the far corners where science and technology lead.

    The most successful institutions promote multi-faceted learning experiences, where values are foundational–not morals.

    The beatitudes and works of mercy provide the best textbooks for the church’s and the millennials’ playbook.

  2. This post speaks clearly about realities I have seen in my circles. In my primary academic field (college music), change is also slow in coming. At times, the changes are ill-dvdised and/or indicative of mismatches with current needs. For instance, higher-ed courses in running sound mixing boards are over-done in a few schools, leading students to think they will have careers in “music production” because they have taken a course or two that touches on that. The apprentice model seems more appropriate than the academic one for needs based in society.

    There is place for academia, of course; serious Christians absolutely need serious training in serious-minded biblical studies (and, I might add, it is a crying shame that “religion” and “theology” are considered to be separate disciplines from scripture studies). But there is clearly a growing place for non-academic studies and experiences in communication, small group dynamics, counseling, discipling, and more.

  3. “We’re not here to provide practical training. Only theory.”

    It doesn’t matter whether we are talking Christian or secular academia, this problem is the same. When theory is wholly divorced from practical application the theory gets stuffed in silos and risks becoming self-referential knowledge that loses ANY practical application. And the discipline and the outside world soon become mutually unintelligible.

  4. I attended seminary thirty years ago and I have 5-10 years of active, full-time ministry remaining before retirement. I, too, have felt that the preparation was for a church that was fading at the time, but still, somewhat relevant. However, my best prep came from the church I served while attending seminary. It was a church that hired seminary students going back into the 1950’s and found its role in the seminary process – plus, they benefited from the freshness of a student with wide-eyed eagerness and a lot of energy to practice theory immediately after the classroom setting. This is a proven model and could be maintained if there were enough churches and positions available (a BIG if).

  5. While education is important, our western culture has made it a god. Our churches and seminaries risk the same thing. Sunday school, bible studies, degrees and certifications to be able to even apply for a position within a local church.

    We are seriously at risk of substituting this god for the Holy Spirit.

    “The members of the council were amazed when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, for they could see that they were ordinary men with no special training in the Scriptures. They also recognised them as men who had been with Jesus.” Acts 4:13

  6. I obtained a 4-year degree in Missions at an accredited college in 1971. Been a pastor, missionary, and teacher ever since. My degree did nothing to help me psstor my church. It gave me valuable insight into church history and integrity of the scriptures. But everything we learned from a great school had to do with maintenance not mission. Not a word about church planting, training workers, leading a board or management team, just preaching better sermons. We have revitalized churches, planted churches starting in homes, transitioned churches into life in the Spirit, and been missionary trainers in Africa. Now, I have a burning desire to give ministry candidates practical skills to multiply churches and expand Christ’s kingdom. But since I don’t have an advanced degree (yet), no College or Seminary will put me to work- yet the degree they require is impractical in the real world. So, I’m looking for a way to bypass the academic gatekeepers of the stale status quo. A lot is at stake! If anyone has found an alternative, affordable way to fulfill the Great Commission of Jesus, let me know! By God’s grace, I will find a way!

    • Ron….’Bloom where you’re planted’. Unless you live in a community where there is a seminary, you’ll not find acceptance by them. Instead, I’d encouragte you to reach out to the African-American Pastors. They have walked in your shoes, have risen up to educate, train, and mentor candidates they have idetnified for ministry. Start your own fellowship of those who want to commit to full time on ‘TheJericho Road’. God has a plan for you. He doesn’t call you out to fail. He equips you to be successful in what He invites you to do1

  7. ELCA is not evangelical in any sense of the word.

    • When speaking of Lutherans and related groups such as the United Church of Christ, their use of “evangelical” goes back to the German “Evangelische” which merely means “Protestant”. They are not implying that they are “evangelical” in the American post-WW2 sense of the word.

  8. David tweeted: “A sadly accurate analysis of the present and future of seminary education.”

  9. A university professor tweeted: “Why throw tenure under the bus?”

    My response to the professor: Because tenure is one of the costly, outdated millstones that is killing your enterprise. If tenure were truly a brilliant customer-centric contrivance, today we would see organizations of all kinds rushing to adopt it. That, obviously, is not the case.

  10. The most prominent education model and the church model both come from Greek rhetoric: the focus on a speaker and audience–a monologue approach to education. They’re also grounded in Greek philosophy, which tends to deconstruct the world and break things down into categories. True Christianity is grounded in Hebrew thought–a hands-on, dialogue approach to education. Hebrew thought tends to view things holistically. Greek is intellectual. Hebrew is earthy and relational. Greek tends toward inductive reasoning. Hebrew tends towards deductive reasoning. Greek is theoretical. Hebrew is practical. The list could go on and on, but it boils down to Greek reasoning, philosophy, and society as being the opposite of Hebrew reasoning, philosophy, and society. Both the church model and the education model must change, because they’re both built on the wrong foundation.

  11. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has had quite a bit of success with it’s Licensed Lay Deacon program, a program that teaches primarily through on-line course work coupled with a hands-on mentoring approach. Sadly, the Synod is now trying to do away with this valuable ministry; the contention is being made that “real” ministry can only be achieved through a seminary education. As long as ministry is chained to this educational model, the approach of a certain Rabbi and His 12 disciples will continue to be ignored and overlooked.

  12. I haven’t listened to the interview. but I have read the article.

    I am gonna be just straight to the point.

    What is lacking is the power of the Holy Spirit. This caused by two things.

    The lack of Prayer. How many go into a prayer room everyday as commanded. Matthew 6:6 King James Version (KJV)

    6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
    If we believe this verse, this is surely a key to increase your ministry. You don’t necessarily need seminaries.

    The lack of Bible with assistance from the Holy Spirit.

    John 14:26 But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.

    If we truly believe these two verses the answer is here.

    Bible schools, seminaries and colleges are man’s attempts to do what the Holy Spirit should be doing. For the most part they do not work.

  13. John commented on Facebook: “Thanks, Thom, for the podcast interview with Dr. Martinson. It helped provide some valuable background to the blog post. He is a competent, thoughtful interviewee.”

  14. Jo commented on Facebook: “Just finished an MA in Children and Families’ ministry at Bethel Seminary in MN. It was an in ministry program. My experience was not the one about which you write. Our ministry ‘tool box’ was definitely filled – it was not about simple academics or head knowledge but equipping people in ministry with more skills and understanding of how to be engaged in ‘real ministry’.”

  15. I read with keen interest and listened to Dr. Martinson. I was in the second graduating class of D. Min. program at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. At the time the degree was held in disregard by the faculty. It lacked the scholarly ingredients they felt required for validation. So the degree was a mix of theological and practical requirements. The emphasis of this degree was on the ‘practical’ and was a model for its time.. We were required to do six major projects in the scope of our parish. Each project had a specific target of ministry. Mentoring from the Seminary encouraged us to form a collegial network of support among our community pastors, promoting and ecumenical collegiality that has never left me. It took me six years and three parishes to complete my degree in 1986. Since then and the intensity of that work, I have been an ‘outcast’ of the Church. The Church lagged far behind this new model of ministry that was coming from their Seminaries. I found much more acceptance of my degree in secular models of ‘ministry’. I find myself much more ‘at home’ and at ‘peace’ in models of ministry that are among those of Matthew Ch. 25. For all the review, diagnostics,paradigms, and models of pastoral ministry, the Church & it’s mission, and the ‘millenial’ exodus, what really has happened is that we’ve abandoned Jesus’ call to ministry, in other words, we are not ‘watchful’and have exhausted our spiritual ‘oil’. We’ve ignroed the realities of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, unable to deal with even one ‘talent’, and we just have been blinded by the glitter of our culture and cannot ‘see the hungry’, ‘the lonely’, ‘the imprisoned’, the ‘sick’, the poor. This last teaching of Jesus was the ‘mission statement’ to his disciples prior to the Passion. I simply shake my head wondering why we’ve ignroed this for so long. That’s why the Church is in this ‘wake-up’ call. In the meantime models are emerging that embrace a fellowship in which people come together to learn, to pray, to study, break bread together, and perhaps sing. Now where was that??? Oh, Acts, Ch. 21

  16. David tweeted: “Higher ed is like a big housing bubble with student loans and ordination tracks, the seminary equivalent of MBS’s.”

  17. Bruce commented on Facebook: “No surprise that churches are reverting back to the Biblical model for raising up leaders as mainline denominations lose their grip on them. Christian home school curriculum contains more depth than my two-year Bible college did 30 years ago.”

  18. I did a two year residential Dip. Min. at a Brethren Bible College and loved it. I admit that although I did not know it at the time, I was and am autistic on the high end of the scale and we love the academic and having our thought and learning processes challenged and inspired.

    I saw it as a foundation for anything that I did after College on which I could build, not as the basis for anything. I have been involved in leading a church and two para church ministries all of which were challenging because of my autism, not because of lack of practical knowledge as I am the sort of person who is happy to learn as I go and will change course when needed.

    Having said that, now that I want to break into new fields, I find the church is the problem as I am not denominationally ordained and have no intention of being so. I have a desire to start up a ministry specifically to the fatherless and so far I have been opposed by the church every step of the way. I want to do this because both my wife and I are fatherless and have had ministry to deal with this.

    I can only assume that such a ministry is not in their paradigm of ministry as the reasons they give for saying no is totally unconvincing. The two words that come to mind are bias and prejudice. This ministry needs to be churched based so I will just keep going until I find one that is keen to provide the platform for it.

    One final thought. I checked up on a site that advertised vacancies in the church. There were 263 ads, mainly for pastors. 260 of them wanted someone who could make things happen; had a theological degree and experience. Only three asked for a dynamic prayer life in the candidate. Speaks volumes.

  19. Phillip commented on Facebook: “It takes 44 minutes to hear this discussion but it is well worth the time. Our culture has changed, especially with the presence of the internet and cell phones, and education must be adapted. The discussion is valuable and I would love to be a part of what is happening.”

    • Yes our culture has changed for the worse if you ask me. It has been dumbed down to sound bites and the church has followed suit with sermons that contain no substance.

  20. With the decline in church attendance overall, it’s not surprising that seminary and Christian college attendance is down. How will prospective grads with a ministry degree make a living if they can’t get a job at a church? There are many benefits for leaders of churches (pastors) if they find their income from outside the church. It forces a team approach to ministry (since pastor can’t do it all) and relieves the stress on the budget. It would be amazing if a church gave more to the community than it gave to salaries and expenses to run the church. There is a sort of “street cred” a pastor/leader earns when they are working alongside others who need Christ. It keeps them in touch with the unsaved and gives them empathy for all those volunteers who work tireless hours serving in ministries and never get paid. We live in a different time and a changing culture. It’s time to get our degrees from Christian colleges and seminaries for the purpose of growing in the knowledge of the word, growing closer to Christ, and to put it all into practice in the real world working alongside real people who need Christ. Not just to become “professional ministers” hoping to get a job in one of the few mega churches that are left.

  21. Bradley commented on Facebook: “We need protestant Christian colleges to gain some gravitas and real world credibility– I only know of 2 which have done so if only marginally/regionally: Liberty and CBN University (now Regent University) in Va. Otherwise they are perceived as (marketed as?) mainly places to train future pastors and evangelists. The bulk of their secular offerings are in glutted majors. Can you cite the best protestant college most well known for preMed biochem? for architectural engring? They remain a minority.”

    • We don’t need Bible colleges and seminaries teaching and focusing on secular education and careers. We need need Bible Colleges and seminaries to teach about the Holy Spirit and the Bible. That is what Christianity is all about.

      • haha—teaching about the holy spirit defies the laws of gravity, the rule of the pulpit, and the surety of the podium silly!

      • Can you beat this as a teacher?
        John 14:26 King James Version (KJV)

        26 But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.

        The reason why the churches, Bible colleges and seminaries is because they are ignoring the key in this verse of scripture. The Key is the Holy Ghost.

        These verses warns us about using the secular world’s ways. Man’s wisdom and God’s wisdom does not mix. Pay close attention to verse 17.

        John 14:15-21 King James Version (KJV)

        15 If ye love me, keep my commandments.

        16 And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever;

        17 Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.

        18 I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.

        19 Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also.

        20 At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you.

        21 He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.

      • How about the good old days, when Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert taught us all about the Holy Spirit right on our TV sets.

  22. Great thoughts, Thom, and I agree. As a professor of ministry, here’s my own expanded explanation for WHY Christian colleges are really in trouble.

    • Rick D replied on Facebook: “Although Rick brings up some good points, especially regarding accreditation standards, I’m still left asking why it is that private institutions need financial support from ecclesiastical nonprofits in order to exist? It is yet another indication that American “Christianity” is really a misguided business venture that has departed from the original mission. These institutions are decrying their struggles, looking to others to fund them, and trying to “reimagine” approaches and become “relevant” in order to recapture lost revenue. And that is because we still have overhead from salaries, mortgages, etc.”

      • Also could it be that the mentality of that you owe it me that is evident in secular world has crept into those in charge our higher perse Christian learning? No one owes any Christian, no matter there status, anything except to LOVE. The first thing we are to love Is Jesus Christ and then our neighbor. The ultimate love is to preach and live of the Gospel. We do not minister the Gospel by the letter of the Gospel, we do it through the demonstration and power of the Holy Spirit in the Gospels.
        1 Corinthians 2:1-8King James Version (KJV)

        2 And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God.

        2 For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

        3 And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling.

        4 And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power:

        5 That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.

        6 Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought:

        7 But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory:

        8 Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

  23. CH commented on Facebook: “The one failure of seminary is the lack of classes to deal with financial challenges in the church. I was prepared to do funerals, weddings, spiritual direction, but financial crisis not so much. It seems to me that that was a failure of the training.”

  24. Jeremiah commented on Facebook: “I never much cared for the college model. You raise your pastors up from within the congregation so everyone knows what they are about. Often times these college trained pastors have a lot of book smarts but no leading of the spirit.”

  25. William commented on Facebook: “Denominational authorities no longer hold the seminaries accountable to teach sound doctrine.”

  26. Samuel from India commented on Facebook:
    I write this informed by the experiences both as a student and a theological educator. I quickly recognised that the problem with seminary based education provides

    Expertise without experience
    Teaching without mentoring
    Restatements without reflection
    Content and not communication
    Syllabus and not skill development
    Degree and not discipleship
    Text and not context
    Programs not passion
    Quantity not quality
    Event Mangers and not Leaders
    Theory and not praxis
    Preparation for Priest craft and not for prophetic task
    Finishing requirements vs learning
    Theological formation and not character formation
    Leaders and not readers
    Learning with no spiritual healing
    Personal Success and not service

    I tried to address these issues. What we need is paradigm shift not cosmetic changes.

  27. Thom, as always, good observations. For various other reasons, I predicted this about 15 years ago when I first started teaching at a Bible college . In fact, a few years later, I posted a blog, “Please Don’t Go To A Bible College” explaining why most our young people should NOT attend a Bible college.

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