Recently, an old college friend got in touch with me. He is considering attending a different seminary but wanted to hear about my experience. While replying to him, I thought other prospective students out there might benefit from a glimpse of what life is like at Asbury Theological Seminary.
As far as my own experience: From a purely pragmatic point of view, seminaries exist first and foremost to perpetuate their own existence. After all, they are institutions of higher learning. I went off to seminary expecting it to be like a tight-knit local church, but at times Asbury felt more like a high school popularity contest, in the regard that students were sort of vying for attention from influential people in their respective denominations.
Seminary can be a positive experience if you don't mistakenly assume that as a school it will feel like a church. I saw so many would-be leaders clamoring for pulpit ministry (who didn't really have a knack for it) that I now feel contented to be an Aaron, playing more of a support role from the periphery. One need not bear the title of pastor to be effective for the kingdom…
As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses' hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up - one on one side, one on the other - so that his hands remained steady till sunset. — Exodus 17:11-12
While at Asbury, I was active in student government, and was president of my class the last year there. As such, I saw some of how the school was run, and we jokingly referred to the seminary as the Emerald City because of the "man behind the curtain" (reference to Wizard of Oz). We did our best to push for change and make sure that student voices were heard, not marginalized.
While an accreditation audit team from the Association of Theological Schools was visiting our campus, we on the student body council were called into a meeting and told by one professor: "This isn't a time to air dirty laundry." I assured him that I would answer any questions asked of me honestly, but didn't feel right promising to gloss over any rough spots.
To future incoming classes of seminarians, my quote as an outgoing student officer was: "We need to speak the truth in love, even when it's a hard truth, otherwise all we have are candy-coated problems." As far as advocating change, I described it like this: "You cannot overhaul the foundations of an institution without unsettling a few fossils."
Since my time at Asbury, two professors and the school president have been dismissed, so the place is definitely going through some growing pains. This has caused quite a shake-down in the faculty and staff. Many people (including myself) feel that the president was good for the school. More on the drama of the presidential dismissal can be read at Christianity Today.
So, all this to say that while I still think seminaries can be effective, they are definitely going to need to change to a more relational style of teaching and governance, as opposed to a "because I said so" authoritarian stance. In my opinion, the top-down model is no longer a viable one. One of my professors would often skip town to speak at various events, leaving a video taped lecture in lieu of his presence. He actually missed double the number of classes he afforded to students before failing his course.
While my wife was finishing her 60 credit-hour Master of Arts in Counseling degree, we started applying for jobs elsewhere. Since the Master of Divinity program is 96 credits, I'm still finishing up my MDiv online, but actually prefer it this way. While I had several professors that really impacted me, I'd say for the most part I now view seminary in terms of goods and services. I just want to learn the material and graduate, without too much pontification.
Anyway, I don't want to deter anyone from pursuing a seminary education. I just wanted to clarify that it is not necessarily as peachy as any promotional materials or admissions department might make it seem. Christians are all just fallen people trying to serve God as best we can. Seminary is good for what it's worth, but I think local churches that train up their own leadership will become the paradigm for ministry in the future.