Dr. Randy White

In denominational (and many independent) churches, a master’s level seminary education has been the de facto prerequisite for pastoral leadership for decades. Personally, I think it is time to question the assumption.

Fallacies of a Master’s Level Education

A Master of Divinity degree is 90-plus hours of post-collegiate education. On average it costs $14,673 a year.  Surely it equips the best-prepared pastoral candidate, right? Well…not so fast!

Fallacy #1: A Master’s Level Education Confirms Biblical Knowledge

Almost every seminary is accredited by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). If a seminary is ATS accredited, it must meet the ATS criteria. This is problematic in itself (ATS is ecumenical and liberal in its core). The criteria for the Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree minors on Biblical knowledge and majors on psychobabble, faith-community, mystical gobbledygook…and it always has.

What areas of study are required?  According to ATS, an MDiv degree must equip the student in the following (quoted from or adapted from the degree program standards of ATS).

  • Religious heritagelearning the doctrinal and historical development of the denomination/movement. 
  • Cultural context: “The program shall provide for instruction in contemporary cultural and social issues and their significance for diverse linguistic and cultural contexts of ministry. Such instruction should draw on the insights of the arts and humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences” This includes education on “expressions of social justice and respect” within denominational boundaries.
  • Spiritual formation“The program shall provide opportunities to assist students in developing commitment to Christian faith and life (e.g., expressions of justice, leadership development, the devotional life, evangelistic witness) in ways consistent with the overall goal and purpose of the institution’s MDiv program.”  (Note: anyone who knows anything of spiritual formations should be concerned that this is literally forced upon every MDiv student in an accredited program).
  • Ministerial and Public Leadership“The program shall provide theological reflection on and education for the practice of ministry. These activities should cultivate the capacity for leadership in both ecclesial and public contexts.”

Do you notice that Biblical exposition is neither required nor mentioned in ATS requirements for the MDiv? Truthfully, if you want a Pastor with training in Biblical exposition (i.e.: you want a Bible expert), then the seminary is not the place to find him.

It is no mistake that so many pastors cannot pass basic Biblical knowledge exams. MDiv graduates are inept at hermeneutics, Biblical languages, and doctrinal development through Scripture.

Fallacy #2: A Master’s Level Education Confirms Pastoral Skill

Sadly, many churches are more interested in a “shepherd” than a preacher, so they are willing to forgo Biblical knowledge and expertise. Not only do they have an incorrect view of a Biblical shepherd, but they are also likely to get a wolf in the hen house.

The truth is, pastoral skill doesn’t come from the classroom, accredited or otherwise. Pastoral skill (preaching, leading, organizing, motivating, loving, caring, listening, counseling, etc.) comes from on-the-job training. An apprentice program for a young man entering ministry would be far more valuable (and far less expensive) than a seminary education.

Fallacy #3: A Master’s Level Education Confirms Staying Power

Some churches want an MDiv graduate because they “have staying power.” The diligence of three years of (mostly wasteful and irrelevant) study has surely weeded out the lazy, the incompetent, and the thrill-seekers, right?  Actually, MDiv studies are notoriously academically lax, filled with idealistic or opportunistic (and otherwise unemployable) young men and women who have only stayed in seminary because it has been the “ticket” to a pastoral career. Entering this career, they move from job to job every 18-24 months, in part because they don’t have the know-how to teach the Bible year after year or the creativity to make a better dog-and-pony show after 18 months.

What Should be the Prerequisite?

Do they have the tools to study the Bible?

There are really only two areas in which I think a pastoral student needs professional academic training.

  • Hermeneutics: the rules of engagement with the Scripture. The pastoral student needs to know the following:
    • What is a consistent literal, grammatical, historical hermeneutic versus an allegorical, spiritual, topical hermeneutic?
    • What are the inherent limitations in translating from one language to another? (Thus, what words are commonly used in the English Bible that are anacrhonistic and related to the English-world experience and must always be questioned? What words are transliterated and must always be questioned? etc.)
    • Knowledge of basic Biblical chronology so that a historical-cultural analysis of a text can be given.
  • Biblical Languages: a working knowledge of the translation of Hebrew and Greek, using both classic tools (lexicons, cross-references, concordances, etc.) and modern tools (reverse interlinears, computer programs, morphology analysis, etc).

If a student is strongly equipped in these two areas and has the doctrinal foundation of a verbal-plenary inspiration view of the Scripture, then he is well-equipped to begin the task of life-long Bible preaching.

Do they have a consistent connection to and experience in the local church?

You would be shocked and surprised to find out how little most MDiv students are involved in the local church. In generations past, the MDiv student would almost always get in the car on weekends and drive several hours to a little country church, where he would preach to a small handful of faithful, or serve in a ministry capacity with children or youth. Not only is this now almost unheard of, but many MDiv students do not even serve in a volunteer capacity in their local mega-church. Most pastors know that MDiv students (and their professors) are notoriously bad churchmen.

In my view, I wouldn’t want a pastor who didn’t cut his teeth teaching Sunday School, sweeping church floors, mowing church grass, going to church fellowships, and learning church methods.

Some Options

If you want to prepare a young man for pastoral ministry by giving him skills in hermeneutics and experience in the local church, what route can you take?

Small, unaccredited Bible Colleges and Seminaries

Almost certainly some post-high school education is needed and desired. Because of the inherently bad foundation of the accredited model, I would want a pastoral candidate to consider a small, unaccredited Bible college or (for post-collegiate education) seminary. I would want this Bible college to be affiliated with a local church or fellowship of churches (not a denomination). I would want this college/seminary to require approval by and affiliation with a sending church (beyond the signing of a form). I would want this college/seminary to focus on the tools of Biblical exposition. (For high school, I would love to see the student focus on classics, liberal arts, and the knowledge of a well-rounded renaissance man).

Apprenticeships with Partnership

Serving under a local pastor who has skill in preaching and pastoral leadership should be the de facto prerequisite for ministry. A young pastoral candidate should find a local church that will take him as an apprentice. They might pay him a stipend. He might do it for free. He might even pay the church for a well-organized apprenticeship learning experience. This program could be done in partnership with a Bible college or seminary for the academic necessities. The Pastor could provide the candidate reading assignments, teaching assignments, ministry assignments, etc. At the same time, the apprentice can shadow the Pastor for one to three years before that Pastor and church help the young man enter into pastoral ministry at a local church elsewhere. I long for the day when a young man could only get a pastoral job by the recommendation of a Pastor under whom he has served.


Randy White is founder and CEO of Dispensational Publishing House. He teaches the Bible online at www.RandyWhiteMinistries.org and is pastor of the  Taos (NM) First Baptist Church.