My old friend/colleague/mentor/thorn in my side Dan Bouchelle recently wrote a blog post titled “The Danger of an Educated Preacher” in which he says:
I was deeply disturbed when I first saw the studies that indicated that having a preacher/pastor with seminar training (M.Div. or more) was correlated negatively with church growth. Since I had finished my M.Div. nearly a decade before and was finishing up my D.Min. this was not good news. Of course, that was based on large trends that did not predict the outcome for any individual or church. Still, it was not encouraging.
I asked myself why advanced training in ministry would not be correlated with church growth. It seemed counter-intuitive. Wouldn’t the most educated be the most skilled? Wouldn’t the most skilled be the most successful?
Dan’s going to offer up his own hypotheses in future posts, but I’m going to offer a few of my own here (and then have fun seeing how similar or different they are from what Dan comes up with.)
Here’s why churches that want to grow are better off with a less-well-trained pastor:
1) Educated pastors will be less comfortable delivering popular messages that depend on simplistic readings of scripture.
At the last church we visited, we received a welcome letter from the pastor in which he told us that his favorite verse is Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” He went on to say that he believed that God had brought us to that church for a reason, and that it was all part of the wonderful plan that God had for our life. At no point did he bother to mention that his favorite verse is from a letter that Jeremiah wrote to exiles in Babylon who had seen their county overrun by the enemy army, their leaders killed or shackled, their temple ransacked, their palace burned and their friends and loved one die from starvation or sword. They are now going to live the rest of their lives in a ghetto in enemy territory. When God says he has plans for them that include hope and a future: (a) that’s a message specifically for the Babylonian exiles, not for any random person who reads the letter in the future, (b) it basically means that things won’t get worse than they already are, that they’ll continue to eat and live, and someday their descendants will be able to go home to the ruins, (c) it was sent to them by a prophet who was repeatedly abused and left for dead, and was eventually carted off to Egypt against his will.
Now, I happen to really like Jeremiah 29 and think it is a passage with deep significance, but when I preach it, I preach it in context and talk about what it means for people of faith who find themselves in a society hostile to their values. At one point, pre-seminary maybe I could have said that “God has a wonderful plan for your life!” but that just isn’t the case (and even if it is the case, Jeremiah is certainly not the book that you would lean on to support that message.) But the truth is, a lot of people want to hear the happy-clappy God-just-wants-to-bless-you stuff and Pastor Prooftexter is going to have an easier time getting an audience for his pronouncements than Pastor Professor. That goes for a lot of super-popular stuff that depends on a willingness to ignore context: the immediate literary context, the greater canonical context, and the lived context of our actual messy lives. Like, say, “The Prayer of Jabez.” (A little part of my soul still dies whenever a friend of mine who would never dream of reciting the Lord’s Prayer–too Catholic!–goes on a month-long Jabez kick.)
People want to be told that it’s all simple, and the their life will be good (in the way that they understand goodness). A real theological education won’t let a pastor say those things anymore.
2) For a lot of educated pastors, church growth just isn’t that big of a priority.
Part of what a good seminary will do is help you to understand how different faith traditions developed, and why they do things they way they do. If you entered seminary thinking that your denomination was the One True Church with all the answers, and that all real Christians would join it, hopefully you’ll be well on your way to getting over than in second semester Church History. (Obviously, some seminaries just reinforce the party line, but I’ll set that aside for now.) When you come to think that folks are going to be in pretty decent shape whether they come to your church or the church across the street, or just worship at home, growing your particular congregation looks like a pretty narrow and maybe selfish goal. I used to chat with visitors and give them a list of other healthy churches they might want to visit that could be a better fit for them than we were. That probably didn’t always make my elders happy, but it seemed like the really Christian thing to do.
Dan points out that the denominations that require an M.Div. tend to be those that have been in decline for a long time, but there’s a chicken-egg problem there. Is the reason that educated pastors don’t grow churches because most of the educated pastors are in declining denominations, or is the reason those denomination are declining because they require their leaders to be theologically literate?