These pastors felt the chief lack in their education was practical application.

A survey of Protestant ministers from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North and South Dakota posed this question: Did seminary prepare you adequately for your first parish? Could it have been more helpful or relevant? In what ways?

One pastor responded: “I doubt that any amount of learning could have prepared me for my first parish. I received a very good education in seminary, but there is a difference between reading a case study and dealing with a real-life situation. Even the limited experience of internship doesn’t place a new pastor in the position of being totally confident in what he does.”

Most who answered this question agreed that no seminary taught them all they needed to know in order to become a successful pastor. Its walls are too limiting. “Seminaries can build the principles and help in the growth of the faith; but only after encountering the challenges, problems, and loneliness of being responsible for a parish could I really know what being a minister means.”

Pastors critical of their preparation for the ministry agreed that much of the gap between training and practical application could only be bridged by experience. A seminary is set up well for teaching theology, but insight into the ministry can be learned best only by experience. Growing up as a “preacher’s kid” can’t be beat as a school for absorbing what it really means to be a minister.

Others were sharply critical of their seminary training:

“Theologically, I was more than prepared; administratively, I was short-changed.”

“When I left seminary, I didn’t know the church structure; I didn’t know how to christen, marry, or bury. And I needed a course in church finances.”

“I needed the nuts and bolts.”

“Seminary prepared me for graduate work, not for life in a small church.”

“Seminary prepares one best to teach theology, to duplicate the seminary experience. It makes you a scholar, not a pastor.”

Some pastors blamed their seminary because it hadn’t taught them how to fill out a letter of transfer or a certificate of baptism, or provided them with information about clergy discounts, pension plans, social security, and the Internal Revenue Service.

A pastor whose first parish involved four missions on an Indian reservation wished he had had more training and practice in crisis-centered counseling. He also needed help in coping with loneliness—and could have used courses in plumbing, wiring, and furnace repair!

One pastor said, “I needed a greater understanding of the psychology of personality and a stronger foundation of practical theology—that is, the theology of our form of worship, our form of government, and personal and professional ethics.”

Another needed help in dealing with people who didn’t like or agree with him. “We go into a parish expecting everyone to like us and to support our every idea and project. When trouble erupts, we are unprepared.”

Ministering to the terminally ill and the grieving is another field that needs more emphasis in seminary. Someone else said she should have been told what to do about apathy: “Many Christians have no idea of the Great Commission.” And another minister wasn’t ready to teach Bible studies. “I wasn’t aware that lay people are so biblically illiterate,” he commented.

One man thought the seminary’s biggest failure was not giving enough practical instructions in soul winning and parish administration. While one said seminary was not demanding enough academically, another thought it was too strict, considering only grades instead of the other qualifications of the “pre-minister.” More preaching practice was suggested; also, there was a request for help on how to handle the church hierarchy.

One pastor needed more guidance in teaching and relating to youth. Another was sorry his own devotional and prayer life had not been nourished more during seminary. Still another blamed seminary for stressing the ideal too strongly: “There are no ideal situations in any parish. The congregation will probably be upset by what is happening to the budget and to the building, not to their spiritual lives.”

In spite of shortcomings, most pastors who participated in the survey, even those most critical, were grateful for their seminary training. Several acknowledged that it gave good academic and biblical training and supplied a good climate for growth. “Seminary provided a useful faith and a wonderful experience of living in a Christian-concerned community. It was an important part of my spiritual growth.”

A minister who entered seminary at age 35 felt that he was adequately prepared. “The main function of the seminary is to challenge the student to think intelligently and broadly about his faith. This was accomplished.”

A woman who enrolled at age 32 said, “I had excellent preparation in seminary. Common sense and life experience did the rest.”

Another wrote, “The seminary didn’t try to be a business or a finishing school. I had good biblical and theological preparation.” One minister considered it good education “doctrinally, scripturally, and academically.”

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The older pastors who attended seminary before internships were part of the program felt that lack severely. Those who attended seminaries that required student internships and field experience in churches, hospitals, and prisons considered those experiences invaluable and were duly grateful.

Many pastors strongly advocated some sort of continuing education throughout their ministry. Combining this with the experience of serving a congregation is bound to enrich the quality of the work of the pastor.

“I had a good education in seminary,” said one pastor, who summed it all up, “but I learned to be a pastor in the field and I am still learning. It probably takes a lifetime to become adequately prepared.”

Clearly, a good seminary education is an indispensable part of the preparation for pastoral ministry. Equally clear is the fact that seminary alone is not enough.


Mrs. Swanson is a free-lance writer living in Hallock, Minnesota; Mrs. Ward is a former teacher of English and Latin, who lives in International Falls, Minnesota.

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