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  • My Seminary Experience | Transformation & Limitation

    Jeremy Irwin

    I have always loved experts. One day I hope to become one. Experts sift through the massive and unending complexity of a particular field (or body of knowledge) and they creatively name and arrange the fundamental pieces in order to arrive (on the other side of rigorous study) at simplicity. All of my favorite teachers and professors have this in common — they worked through complexity to simplicity. Thus, they can serve as reliable guides. They can walk you into complexity with rails (ie paradigms) so that you do not get lost (nor does your foot slip) as you progressively explore and understand new worlds of knowledge. I am quite convinced that no small part of what makes heaven heaven will be the unending discovery of new and beautiful things – about God, one another, various creatures, and creation.

    I’ve worked for churches for the past 12 years – first as a worship leader, now as a pastor. Six years ago, I completed a Masters degree at a denominational seminary and I, quite frankly, loved it. I am forever indebted to the women and men who instructed me in the ways of theology, history, philosophy, homiletics, pedagogy, and linguistics.

    I give you this positive preamble so that you can appreciate the context behind the content of what follows.

    Classrooms, though profoundly important, are utterly inadequate to develop Christian leaders. I know because I love the classroom and it wasn’t enough.

    I needed and (praise Him) God provided more. And I suspect that I am not alone in this.

    Frankly, I needed three “learning communities”. One – rigorous intellectual work in the classroom. Two – committed friends with whom to process thoughts and experiences (in and outside of the classroom). Three – a professional leadership mentor who could oversee my “on-the-job-training” (in the workplace).

    Had God not provided these three learning communities, I would have put too much burden on my seminary and thus been profoundly disappointed. My disappointments would have looked something like this:

    My training was hyper-cognitive and hypo-experiential.

    Put differently, while in seminary, my intellectual development was being addressed and evaluated; but no one oversaw my emotional, physical, moral, or social development. All of which are necessary for human flourishing and pastoral leadership.

    (For example, I never had a professor pray with or for me as an individual. I never had a professor ask to hear my story or share theirs. I never had a professor ask about my young marriage. I never had a professor inquire about my family-of-origin and how the unspoken values and behaviors in that system have profoundly impacted me to this day. I never got to watch my professors “in action” in pastoral-leadership settings – like hospital visits, staff meetings, strategic planning sessions, hiring/firing, marriage-crisis counseling, personal scheduling/boundaries, etc. My spiritual training was “a-relational” and “non-experiential” in that sense.)

    While I could admire and glean from their immense intellect and thus grow as a thinker, my professors did not help me grow as a practitioner through “simulated battlefield training”. Fortunately for me, God provided many other leaders at my church to fill in that gap. That being said, through no fault of their own (and I mean that), my professors were distant intellectual teachers, not present, personal mentors/guides.

    That is one of the few things that I would change.

    Seminary needs to be more personal and personalized.

    For the record, I would advocate a few additional changes, but if that one is put into effect, I think it will “cover over a multitude” of other flaws.

    I still love and need experts, but I also love and need friends and mentors (and others!)