Life, Theology & Discipleship with Wes Woodell

Q1: Should new ministers attend Bible College or Seminary?



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A young minister was prompted to ask the following after he read 7 Characteristics of Disciplemaking Leaders: #2 – Disciplemaking Leaders Have Been Practically Trained & Mentored.

Q1: I know that you would recommend a young minister apprentice in a healthy church before assuming leadership themselves. You said Bible college/seminary was helpful, but would you encourage someone to ONLY intern/apprentice in an effective ministry without worrying about Bible College or seminary?

I think it’s very important that every minister be a student of the word of God, but being a student of the word need not be synonymous with getting a Bible degree.

This goes against popular thought, but my short answer is formal education leading to a degree should not be required or expected for every young minister, and those who have degrees should not be viewed as any more competent for service than those without.

There are benefits to formal education. If you attend a good school you will learn to study the scriptures and be instilled with confidence through that, but one can get all that and more if serving under a knowledgeable mentor in the field.

Also, a person can learn to make disciples without academic training while a person with academic training may not know the first thing about making disciples. To me, one is much more important than the other.

Disconnection from ministry is also a concern to me. Most academic programs remove young interns and ministers-in-training from the field because Bible students are required to be in classes in one location for three or four years to earn the credits needed for their degree. Even among academic programs where field work is required, most students are overloaded with assignments that keep them from spending much time with people. Practical ministry training may as well be an afterthought.

What I would love to see are more high quality online options offered for biblical education. I’m aware of a couple of online programs out there, but I’m not sure about the quality of one and the other is overpriced for the average consumer (if readers have recommendations for online Bible programs please leave a comment).

I was asked about this very subject by a young minister just a few weeks ago who was trying to decide if a Bible degree was something he needed to pursue or not. I counseled him not to worry about getting a formal degree, but to seek out biblical education online from a reputable institution so he could learn the scriptures without being removed from the field.

With all the power of the Internet, it shouldn’t be too difficult for us to get information from one person to another. That needs to be leveraged to a greater degree in the realm of biblical studies, and will more and more as time passes.

Now, what if there’s a Bible college located near where I am?

If it’s a good school and enrolling won’t remove an intern from church life, I’d likely encourage them to take some Bible courses, but ONLY if it’s not going to get in the way of their practical training and will leave plenty of time for actual ministry. That’d be beneficial and recommended, but not required.

To me, the practical training with people is much more important to lifelong effectiveness. If you can do both, great, but practical training is more valuable in my opinion.


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3 Replies

  1. Hi Wes, thanks for the article. If you don’t mind, I would like to offer a bit of a pushback. You said, “This goes against popular thought, but my short answer is formal education leading to a degree should not be required or expected for every young minister, and those who have degrees should not be viewed as any more competent for service than those without.” I wonder if you feel that way exclusively, or only with certain prospective ministers?

    To paraphrase a good friend of mine who was speaking specifically of learning Greek, a solid degree does not give you the answer to every problem, but it sure keeps you from making some stupid mistakes. Speaking as someone on the “other” side of 50, I have had more than enough experience with young men who are full of “spit and vinegar” who make horrendous wrecks of their ministries, and sometimes of their lives, when an ounce of education could have prevented the entire disaster. A formal education is not just for book learning – it provides a maturation process that is critical for ministry (the more you know, the more you know you don’t know, and that leads to a greater degree of humility). Obviously, a braggart with a degree is bad news, and is dangerous; but character is formed long before an education is received, and a braggart with a degree was first a braggart without a degree.

    Also, as one who has been involved in a university setting for the past four years, I will unequivocally say that a “high quality on-line program” is an oxymoron. On-line programs exist for one reason – money. Students have to pay less of it (supposedly) and can remain at home; universities have to pay instructors less and do not have to support the infrastructure that on-site students demand. I’ve read articles that extoll on-line programs, but the majority of students that I have talked to that are serious about their learning HATE on-line courses. They are either shell courses that require no work, or to compensate, the instructor assigns unrealistic projects. By far the worst aspect of the on-line setting is that there is virtually (pardon the pun) no interaction with the instructor and/or classmates. Learning is not just top-down – it is also bottom-up and horizontal. Remove the classroom setting and while you may accomplish a quantifiable transfer of facts, you have seriously undercut the entire process of education.

    I respect your position, and in certain circumstances I would agree it could be workable. But for a young person with maybe 50 – 60 years of potential ministry in front of him, I would say invest the 4 years in a residential college/university setting to provide a foundation from which a solid ministry can be built. You can intern in a university setting – I did for all four years of my undergrad program (although, informally). Very, very, few intern settings can provide for (or even believe it worthwhile) the kind of foundation that a university degree will provide.

    Thanks again for listening to a contrary viewpoint.

    1. Hey, thanks for the feedback, Paul.

      I took a dozen online courses at Fuller Seminary, and my experience couldn’t have been more different than that of the students you reference – mine was great.

      Those online courses were some of the best courses overall I had, and a big part of the experience was the interaction at a distance with other students around the world online (that was actually a graded portion of the course). I personally feel I learned more in my online courses than I did in others. Maybe Fuller does a better job in that area than other institutions do currently? That’s my only experience so I honestly don’t know.

      I do believe the technology and methods used in online education will only get better with time, and I think we’re still learning best practices. It’d be a mistake to write the online option off in my opinion. I think there’s great untapped potential there that could offer a solid solution for a lot of people.

      1. Hey Wes, thanks for the reply. I too had an on-line course through Fuller, and my experience was that it was a place holder, an inexpensive way for us to begin the DMin process without having to make a costly trip to Pasadena. I certainly did appreciate that cost saving measure, but I honestly cannot say that I gained that much from the course.

        I want to point out that your experience was at the graduate level (at least I’m pretty sure it was). I teach at the under-graduate level, and there is a significant difference in the student population of a grad program and an under grad program. And, as you pointed out, if the faculty have – as a whole – designed a solid program and curriculum, an on-line component may not be a complete waste of time. I would not trade my DMin experience for anything – but it was a typical distance learning arrangement – several weeks of intensive reading (1,500 – 3,000 pages) and paper writing, followed by either one or two weeks of intensive on-site courses (approx. 7 hours a day). I loved it.

        For an academic appraisal of on-site vs. on-line spiritual formation, please read Paul R. House, Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case for Costly Discipleship and Life Together (Crossway, 2015). House writes as a professor and administrator, and his observations should be heard by all in Christian education. He is sharply critical of the current trends in theological training. It is interesting that as he concludes his book he writes – “If seminaries continue on their current impersonal path, and if online programs fail to deliver what is needed in the way I think they will fail, small local forms of pastoral training will emerge.” Of course, he is writing in view of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s seminary experience at Finkenwalde, and throughout the book he stresses the strict (and intensive) academic work done at Finkenwalde, but his conclusion shares some commonality with yours – closely mentored spiritual guidance in the daily work and ministry of a congregation.



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