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Converted at seminary

The top five reasons theological education matters

By Frank Yamada

I have had two conversions in my life. The first happened when I converted from my Buddhist upbringing to Christianity at 19. I quickly joined a 20,000-person megachurch and dropped out of premed to become a religion major at the nearest Christian liberal arts college. This decision was not popular in the Yamada household. I was neither a Christian nor the son of a Christian. I was a dentist’s son.

Columbia Theological Seminary students

Columbia Theological Seminary students walk through a historic arch that connects a cloistered courtyard to the outside perimeter of the seminary’s Vernon S. Broyles Jr. Leadership Center.

My second conversion came during seminary, where I learned that the book of Genesis presents two different creation narratives and that Christianity comprises not one but many traditions. 

Photo of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary chapel

Students and staff gather outside the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary chapel.

I studied Augustine, Barth, Bonhoeffer, and, of course, Calvin. I read Walter Brueggemann, Delores Williams, Kwok Pui Lan, and Phyllis Trible. Seminary was where I found out that there was such a thing as Asian American theology and ministry. Seminary deepened my faith and sense of call and provided a supportive community. It taught me how to care for people in hospitals and in our pews, to translate theology into worship, community service, and education, and to pursue justice.

There is no question: I am a convert to theological education.

Some would argue, of course, that seminaries are in need of their own conversion—a transformation from obsolescence to relevance. As a seminary president, I occasionally hear arguments that contrast the out-of-touch ivory tower of the academy with the practical realities of the church. I hear the criticism that seminaries are not training leaders for the current needs of the congregation.

That criticism takes on new weight in light of the immense educational debt accrued by our students in college and sometimes in seminary—a debt that only grows when they graduate and may not be able to find a congregation to serve or must get part-time jobs to supplement their income.

We in theological education must take seriously these questions. Our response, says one of my presidential colleagues, Ted Wardlaw, of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, must surely point to the entire church ecosystem—families, congregations, pastors, mentors, presbyteries, and seminaries. They are each necessary in preparing our rising pastors and all who seek to minister in a radically different era of Christianity. No longer can theological education be seen as the sole prerogative of our seminaries. New challenges require that we come together to share in this calling to teach and nurture. Knowledge will no longer come solely from the lectern of the classroom; it will come from the homeless shelter, the
worship-committee meeting, the local Bible study, the community protest, the Twitter conversation, the church visitor as well as the member of 50 years.

Surely, theological education and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) face new and significant challenges. The rapidly changing racial-ethnic demographics of the United States, the game-changing influence of digital technologies and the Internet, and the gradual shift of power and influence from baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) to millennials (born between the early 1980s and 2000) will undoubtedly have an impact on the future of the church and society.

We must continually reevaluate the effectiveness of our systems; but I am convinced that the individuals, denominational bodies, congregations, and seminaries that make up this system remain vital to the success of forming the next generation in the church “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14).

Louisville Seminary prayer labyrinth

Just inside the main gate of the campus, on the open lawn, is the Louisville Seminary prayer labyrinth. The brick-lined pattern is a smaller version of the labyrinth found on the floor of the sanctuary of Chartres Cathedral in France. A growing interest in spiritual formation has made it an interfaith attraction.


Does theological education still matter in the 21st century? Yes. And here are five reasons why.

1. Educated, well-trained leadership is synonymous with what it means to be a mature disciple of Jesus in the Reformed traditions. When Jesus commissioned the disciples in Matthew 28:18–20, he instructed them to make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them all that Jesus commanded. The call to grow in wisdom and the knowledge of God echoes across the witness of Scripture. Moreover, the Reformers were not just pastoral leaders; they were scholarly theologians. Without their intimate knowledge of the biblical languages, they would not have been able to translate the Bible into the vernacular, putting Scripture into the hands of the people in a way that was unprecedented in the history of the church. In the early years of our country, Presbyterian schools continued this tradition, providing men and women with education that enabled better citizenship. Education—with a deep commitment to learning—is what we do as Presbyterians. It is one of the pillars of our legacy.

2. Our seminaries prepare pastors for an increasingly ecumenical and diverse church. At most of our seminaries, Presbyterians are no longer in the majority. They study and worship alongside Baptists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, and Methodists—as well as students from around the world and of every race and ethnicity. At McCormick Seminary, for instance, no single racial-ethnic group or denomination holds the majority.

We are headed for a society ever more diverse, and the best way—the only way—to train church leaders for such a society is amid similar diversity. Students of our seminaries are not formed in theological bubbles where everyone believes the same thing in the same way. This culturally and theologically diverse environment not only requires students to learn from difference but pushes them to think critically about and articulate more precisely the reasons they believe what they do. These skills will be prerequisites for leaders headed into the unprecedented cultural and religious diversity that will mark the 21st century. Seminary is a place for preparing Pentecost Christians who bear witness to the mighty works of God in a diversity of different tongues (Acts 2:1–13).

3. Theological education can be the last bastion of the status quo, but it can also be a context for experimentation. In this time of significant change in church and society, innovation is a buzzword. Innovative leadership, however, requires time and space away from the familiar to imagine the unfamiliar. Seminary offers that time away—through small classes, daily chapel, residential living, and field education in hospitals, prisons, nonprofits, new worshiping communities, and existing congregations both here in the United States and around the world.

At seminary, students are trained to think critically and creatively so that they can connect the dots of history and theological traditions in new and vital ways, sometimes in ways that disrupt the status quo. Theological education therefore has the opportunity to be the research and development wing of the church, a laboratory where we can imagine what is next.

4. Theological education continues to provide a place for emerging leadership of those on the margins. While oppression and unequal representation continue in our seminaries, they are also places where women, people of racial-ethnic communities, and LGBT persons find their voice. Every year we graduate students who are the first persons in their family to get a graduate degree. Some of these same students go on to be the first woman ordained in their congregation, or the first Asian American to lead a ministry, or the first African American woman to be addressed “Rev. Dr.”

I recently spoke with a student whom I had mentored. She came to seminary from an evangelical tradition where women were not ordained. While at seminary her life changed, a conversion that she attributes to her experience at McCormick. She recently accepted a call to be the first Japanese American female pastor of a historically Japanese Baptist church.

5. Theological education produces more religiously mature and tolerant Christian leaders. In an age when fundamentalisms threaten to discredit the role of religion in society, educated Christian leaders can be thoughtfully mature embodiments of the gospel for today’s religiously fraught world. Our seminary-trained leaders hold the promise of bringing sanity to a world where many view religion as insane. When students are exposed to the depths of our Christian traditions, apply themselves to the rigorous study of theological disciplines, and engage each other within a community of rich cultural and theological diversity, one of the outcomes is humility. Micah 6:8 reads, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Knowledge breeds humility and leads to the path of mature discipleship.

The future of our denomination, indeed of religion, depends on well-formed, intelligent, and theologically trained leaders to bear witness to the wisdom of God—a wisdom that produces fruits of peace, justice, and thoughtful engagement and presence in the world.

Frank Yamada is the president of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.


What is seminary?
Graduate-level education in theology, Scripture, worship leadership, pastoral care, church history, and ethics that includes field-education opportunities

Who goes to seminary?
Future pastors, chaplains, educators, musicians, mission workers, and community organizers, as well as people in secular careers looking to deepen their faith and understanding

How can I learn more?
For more about PC(USA) seminaries, the Committee on Theological Education, and partnership and giving opportunities:

Is seminary required for pastors?
Except in special circumstances, PC(USA) pastors must go to seminary and earn a master of divinity degree, as well as pass five exams, in order to be ordained.

Do seminaries offer anything for nonstudents?
Yes! Seminaries offer continuing education and mission opportunities, conferences and workshops, digital libraries and journals, media training, interns for congregations, and support for racial-ethnic leaders.

Which seminaries are PC(USA)-related?
The PC(USA) has 10 seminaries and two others related by covenant: Austin, Columbia, University of Dubuque, Louisville, McCormick, Pittsburgh, Princeton, San Francisco, Johnson C. Smith, Union, Auburn, and the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico.

how are our seminaries funded?

  • Tuition covers only a small portion of what it takes for a seminary to offer a quality education. In fact, PC(USA) seminaries try to offer as much financial aid to their students as possible. Most of the funding comes from endowments, individual contributions, grants, and the Theological Education Fund (TEF), the only source of denomination-wide funding for our seminaries.
  • Through the TEF, congregations can voluntarily make annual donations. Through the 1% Plan, congregations can begin with a one-percent commitment of their operating budgets—or less.
  • In addition, individuals can support PC(USA) seminaries through gifts and bequests to the Theological Schools Endowment Fund, managed by the Presbyterian Foundation.
  • These two funds are the only ways for congregations to help support all of our seminaries. Support them for the generations to come! Go to to learn more.

May 2014 cover

order the special issue Guide to Young adult ministry and read more articles like this one






  • I agree that seminary is vital for the Church--perhaps more than ever before. But I have to disagree with the premise of #3--residential seminary is but ONE way for students to be experimental. As a Distance M.Div. student at Dubuque, I am able to take what I learn in both the brick-and-mortar and virtual classrooms and apply it in the real-life settings of the two churches I serve. Sometimes churches that are not in seminary towns like to experiment, too! And then I get to share those experiences with my cohort members, who have become like family to me. There are lots of effective ways to experience the life- and faith-alterations that happen in seminary. So even if distance education is not the direction McCormick has decided to pursue at this time, please know that it can happen without living in the same zip code. by Julie King on 08/22/2014 at 12:55 a.m.

  • I guess for me the greater question is can the church maintain paid positions at all? Are we entering an age where the declining membership will drive us away from the professional leader model to one based not in big buildings but homes and not with professional staff but lay leaders? by tadd on 08/21/2014 at 7:04 p.m.

  • Verse -- Conversion at Seminary Four years Wheaton College tried to make a fundamentalist Christianity the first and last thought on my searching mind. Then a liberal McCormick Dean Filson took a chance on me-- I learned Bible truth could be much wider, deeper, than mere fact: changing this world was our call! From civil rights to stopping war, social justice cried for more of faithful love, that holy force learned by the Apostle Paul when Jesus knocked him off his horse. by Steven shoemaker on 08/07/2014 at 4:13 p.m.

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