Letters of Recommendation: The Role of Seminary


Mid-life Forks in the Road:
Just the other day, i ran into an acquiantance, a pastor friend of mine in his late 40s. He was looking for a new ministry job and shared with me that he had gone back to seminary because his professor told him that a seminary degree and a subsequent ordination can open up ministry job opportunities for him.
Though somewhat true on a pragmatic level, I shuddered when I heard that advise given to my friend, perhaps because I’ve seen too many examples of students who graduate from seminary programs, but unprepared and unequipped to serve amidst the unique pressures and temptations that come with ministry.  Sometimes those pressures are compounded with churches that tend to put too much stock in “paper credentials.”
What qualifies someone for ministry? 
I shudder when I hear that kind of thinking because it flies in the face of a value I’ve long held dear, that what qualifies someone for ministry is not what comes from a piece of paper, but what is proven through changed lives of people. There’s not a bible verse more poignant to illustrate this than these from St. Paul:
  • “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? We don’t need letters of recommendation to you or from you as some other people do, do we? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone, revealing that you are a letter of Christ, delivered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on stone tablets but on tablets of human hearts.” 1 Cor 3:1-3
The credentials that matter are ultimately written on human hearts and not what is printed on pieces of paper. For that to happen, there ought to be a growing number of discipled souls who are following Jesus more closely as evidence, so that what qualifies one for ministry has more to do with proven relational influence for the Kingdom and less to do with what seminary you went to, degrees you’ve earned, or skills you have. The ability to influence others for Christ comes from inner-life qualifications clearly spelled out in Scripture, but these are too often overlooked in the procedure to prepare someone for ministry leadership.
I’ve got nothing against seminary degrees per se. For me, my education provided the backbone and tools  I needed to address the truckload of questions I ammassed regarding the discipleship and evangelism of Asians. I needed that academic backbone, that historical theology, that Greek and Hebrew to build a foundation for my ministry. Without that foundation, an out-of-the-box thinker and minister like me would have petered out long ago. But to depend on the seminary degree as the main credential for ministry, I have serious problems with that because it feeds the fantasy that classroom academic training is sufficient to handle the demands of ministry. In other words, it takes a special seminary student to get A’s in Greek and Hebrew, to get the preaching awards, and to not let all those accolades distract from the real work of preparation as outlined in the biblical qualifications for ministry.
When we “ignore” biblical qualifications for ministry…
Per the pastoral epistles, most of the qualifications for leadership are not skills per se, but “inner-life” qualifications; the nerve, self-awareness, and emotional maturity needed are too often underestimated. Yet in my experience, too many churches don’t give enough focus to these biblical qualificaitons, and inadvertantly place more emphasis on skills and academic knowledge. I’ve been tracking church splits for 15 years now, mostly in Asian churches, and I’ve seen the same story play out again and again. Having an inaccurate view of qualifications from the church has  played a major role in each of the splits or situations where a pastor resigns.  In churches with 1st and 2nd generation congregations, Senior pastors have often lamented to me about the “promising” pastor who just left the church, and how things did not work out. Typically, this lamenting includes sentiments of confusion. “I don’t understand it. The pastor who left was from an Ivy League school, has preaching awards, and pursuing his doctorate.” As I listen, this is what I hear, “His qualifications shows he has the skills and the smarts, and he certainly has the degrees and education to back that up. I don’t know why things did not turn out.”
Moving church leadership towards inner-life qualifications:
It’s easier to accomplish this “from scratch” but to lead an existing church towards this is not for the faint of heart. Just last week, I was talking with the lead English pastor of one of the largest Asian churches in the Bay Area; we both share the view that most biblical leadership qualifications are emotionally-based, and he is leading his church in that direction. He shared with me that he took his elder board by surprise when one time he had them share just one question rooted in a biblical qualification…”how are you doing in your marriage?” He asked. That pastor friend is working on a long-term plan so that these these inner-life qualificaitons are becoming part of the DNA of his elders. As with many “older” Asian churches, the bar needs to be reset, and the pastor has to be ready to face any “heat” that comes from this retooling of ministry qualifications.
To lead a church towards this more biblical paradigm of ministry is distinctively more difficult in  Asian churches where pragmatism is part of our cultural and religious background. Furthermore, Asian churches are less likely to sort out the good and bad of ones cultural background because that paradigm of discipleship (discovering past “Masters”) is rarely a part of Asian churches.  This is a huge issue and I can’t expand here.
Seminary programs have tried to address this lack of inner-life qualificaitons:
To be fair, by the mid 1990’s some main-line seminaries recognized this eroding problem among graduates and sought to do something about it. So some seminaries in the US started incorporating required “spiritual life” tracks in the mid to late 1990’s. One of my side projects then included befriending and interviewing either the leaders or the program directors of such programs across different seminaries in the U.S. Effectiveness was mixed with the greatest pushback coming from students of minority culture, both Americans and foreigners. Looking back, the pushback came from two major causes. 1) The tools were Western-based so effectiveness was always lost in the “cultural-translation.” 2) The student typically does not come from a culture where the inner-life was valued. Overall, seminaries recognized the need, but in my opinion, were addressing it too academically, artificially, and too late. The question remains: how much can we expect seminaries to prepare students emotionally for the rigors of ministry? If it were up to me, I’d have the student pursue one’s own authentic community and for that community to be overseen by a local pastors who embodies these inner life qualities and whose credentials include the testimonies of changed lives.
My views on this issue cost me my degree:
For me, this was a huge deal because as much as I loved my academic training, I also had to enroll in a required track that required a combination of intership work and classes on emotional health. The problem was that I felt these tracks forced me to adopt Western modes of ministry that I just spent the last four years of my life in Campus Crusade fighting against (The 90s were a dark time for Campus Crusade as a majority of their minority staff left because there was not enough room to reach and disciple people outside of the Western model). I personally went to seminary to get equipped, and not to sumbit myself to Western modes of ministry that would not  help me in my future ministry. This required track would have cost me several thousands more and would have reintroduced the pain of 4 years of non-contextual ministry. That was a great cost.  After reverse enginnering my degree, talking to professors who advocated for me, and after talking with my Dean, they told me I could not opt out of this track that troubled me so. So I made the very difficult decision to walk away from the degree program I was pursuing. Many older pastors thought I had just made a very poor choice, saying “no one will ever hire you.” Looking back, it was a decision of integrity that actually opened up more opportunities in ministry than I have time for.  Many seminaries in those years recognized the lack of inner-life training. Unfortunately, its execution did not favor my path. Seminaries have come a long way. Fast-forward at least a decade, I have now been invited to teach and influence multiple seminary classes of pastors, counselors, and therapists in training on this very topic.
The Second Half of Life
It’s a sobering thought that I and my fellowship of ministers are ALL in our second half of life. My hope for any friend in their late 40’s (and especially for those in ministry) is that one’s vision and calling come to greater focus. And by God’s grace, that one’s vocation be able to submit to this calling. If that calling needs seminary tranining, than seminary is part of that calling. With that calling or ministry context, the “intellectual goods” of seminary will goto greater waste. Whenever I’ve seen one’s vocation submit to this calling among my friends (or even in Bono’s life from U2), I rejoice. That is, by one’s “second half of life,” I feel most of the preparation, where you cut your chops, where one’s integrity is tested, where the chaff is burned off, most of that ought to be behind you. Ideally, by the “second half” of life, one would know not only their calling, but how to steward all God’s given toward that end. Though I’ve articulated this for years, I feel like my journey here is just beginning, where I’m taking stock of how I can best “empty” myself for God’s Kingdom, how I can best prepare to leave a legacy, starting with my family and those closest to me.  For some ministry-gifted people, it may mean stepping out of ministry, perhaps to start a business. For others, it could mean the opposite. I’ve seen this play out both ways vocationally, friends who have become missionaries in their 50’s, and friends who have left vocational ministry to start a business. The credentials, the lives of transformed souls, ought to give testimony to this mission and calling. These friends who have so faithfully submitted their vocation to their calling, they are my mentors. And the ministers to whom I’ve submitted myself for 3 years now, they all have these qualificaitons written on human hearts. I’ve met many of these “changed hearts” and are humbled at God’s great work through these men. Together, we are pursuing through prayer and fellowship what God would want for the “second halves” of our lives.


  1. Zach on September 10, 2015 at 5:48 pm

    Hey Steve,

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