The Shepherding Seminary

A year ago this month I was inaugurated into my position at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary.  In reflecting on my time teaching here, I looked over recently what I said that evening and thought it might be an encouragement to some of you, especially in light of the podcast we did the other day on distance education and the seminary.  The address follows below.

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I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,” declares the Lord God. 

“I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick;

but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with judgment.”

-Ezekiel 34:15-16

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President O’Neill, Esteemed Board, Distinguished Colleagues, Faithful Predecessor, Wonderful Administrative Staff, Supportive Students, and my Loving Family & Friends:

With a grateful and humbled heart I thank each of you for this evening and for blessing it with your presence.  I would not be here without God using your counsel, guidance, and support as confirmation.  The honor I feel in my heart is only outweighed by the sense of my unworthiness of it all.  Let this evening stand as a testimony that our Lord by His grace delights to use weak and foolish vessels of mercy for His divine purposes.

In the time that this occasion affords for me to speak to you, I want to address the topic of The Shepherding Seminary.  As you can see on the front of your programs, the motto of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary is “Study under pastors.”  The Shepherd’s staff running through the initials of our institution is a reminder that the chief work of a pastor is to be a shepherd.  Indeed, the very word pastor comes out of French and Latin words for shepherd.  At the heart of being a pastor, and at the core of what it would mean for me to be the professor of pastoral theology, is to be a shepherd.  Though the seminary is an academic and theological institution, we hear in its Constitution that “The purpose of this Seminary shall be to provide a succes­sion of godly and able men for the Gospel Ministry, by instruct­ing candidates for this Ministry.”[i]  RPTS is to be a place where shepherds are trained, where shepherding takes place.

As you look at works on pastoral theology through the ages, the metaphor of shepherding is one that is consistent throughout them.  From Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule in the sixth century, Martin Bucer’s Concerning the True Care of Souls in the 16th century, Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor in the seventeenth, or in our own day Jay Adams Shepherding God’s Flock or Timothy Witmer’s The Shepherd Leader, these works have been based upon the very passages of Scripture that were read tonight. These men saw Jesus as the good and great shepherd, and those who were to care for His people as ones who had to be like Him in this regard.   In choosing this thematic metaphor, the seminary follows a great line of thinking regarding pastoral training.

Yet some might wonder if in this age a shepherding emphasis for pastors is not a bit outdated?  After all, we are not the agrarian society we once were.  In the United States we have gone from half of the labor force being farmers in 1900 to only 2 percent working on farms by the end of the last century.[ii] This urbanization has impacted the church.  Churches have gone from being community based to interest driven. “The largest 10% of congregations contain about half of all churchgoers.”[iii] The number of megachurches in America has nearly doubled during every decade over the last half century. In many places, the shepherding structure of the local church has been replaced with having a pastor function as a business leader or CEO, with a board of directors as elders.  Church leaders are being taught these things at seminaries.  Listen to this question from a recent article in Christianity Today on theological education by an influential leader:  “Is the seminary rooting its best practices in methodologies born in another era (perhaps when the professors were pastors)?”[iv]  It as much as assumes seminary professors are not pastors.

Now couple this with the incredibly changing landscape that the Digital Age has brought to theological education.  Men and women have the ability to get a degree without even stepping onto the seminary campus.  Again, this leads us to wonder if we do not need a new paradigm for preparing men for pastoral ministry?  Is a model of training pastors based on shepherding behind the times?

No, rather, these times I believe are a call for the seminary to be about the work of shepherding more than ever.  Let us consider four trends in theological education that RPTS and others are facing, and highlight how these trends, with their unique challenges, can actually be met best by a shepherding seminary.  Rather than being constrictive or outdated, these times are calling for the seminary to grow not just in its ability to train shepherds, but to be shepherds, to provide shepherding.  These changes have not taken the great Shepherd of the sheep, the head of the church, by surprise.  No, he would have us hear him say anew, “Feed my sheep.  Tend my lambs.”   As I bring these to you, understand I speak of them as trends and not universal statements.  As you hear these and think of the seminary, consider them to be urgent pleas for prayer as well.

What are they?

In the former days of brick and mortar theological education was confined to campuses and libraries; in this new age of bytes and pixels it is spread abroad.

Someone asked me what difference I noticed in the students currently at RPTS and when I was there twenty-five years ago.  The first answer that popped out immediately was “they are far more knowledgeable about theology than we were.”  May be more than one reason, but certainly primary is the availability of theological education on the internet.

An institution providing online education is not a question of preference, but survival now. 89% of four-year public colleges and universities offer online classes.[v]  In the academic year 2011–2012, nearly 20,000 of about 74,000 seminarians enrolled at member schools of our accreditation association have completed at least one online course while still on campus.[vi]  We can debate results, but one 2009 meta-study from the Department of Education states: “Students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.”[vii]

How does shepherding help here?  The command is to feed the sheep, and many around the world are looking for instruction on the internet from sources they can trust.  A seminary with the Shepherd’s heart to feed his people can use the internet to a great degree to bring gospel truths to his scattered sheep all over the world.

In former days the church supported the seminary often to its own decay; in this new age the seminary must serve and support the church to its vitality and growth.

Seminary literally means seedbed, and sadly it is no secret that seeds of false teaching have been sown throughout the church by seminaries.  Much of this was caused by a distance between the church and the seminary.  People in the pews were to pray and support the seminary at a distance, yet beyond receiving a graduate as their minister they were not impacted greatly by the daily ministry of the seminary.  Many congregations simply did not know what was happening at the seminary.  With their ability to centralize; with their emphasis on academia; with their essence placing honors on men; with their control over church funds and endowments, seminaries have been raised up to a high place and as such, as Jeremiah Burroughs would say, have become the devil’s special target.[viii]

Our seminary is the fifth oldest in the nation, yet by God’s grace, unlike our older counterparts, we have not fallen to heterodoxy.  Robert Copeland asks in an article on the history of RPTS, “How did this small seminary, serving a tiny denomination, maintain its biblical orthodoxy for two hundred years?” One of the answers he gives is the board’s oversight of the seminary with a key factor being “that the entire Synod elects every full-time professor from among its own ranks.”[ix] Amazingly, in its 203 years of history, RPTS has always remained close to the church it serves and, as a result, been faithful to the word of God when these older institutions have apostatized.

This new age should encourage this link all the more.  The denomination should keep shepherding the seminary, and the new ways of communication make that easier to do as it can create more immediate ties.  Rather than seeing the professors as some special club, this new age allows us to work more closely with local pastors, because, according to our motto, that is what we are.  For example, it is exciting to have a cohort of students working in Colorado with their pastor to take an online course in theology, where they can then discuss and do assignments with him.  The effect then is two-way, for rather than a singular focus on orthodoxy, seminaries are waking up to how this connection to the local church can encourage orthopraxy.

In former days theological education was basically restricted from those on foreign fields; in this new age the nations themselves are seeking to be trained.

Incredibly, theological institutions are becoming more regional in their scope and yet more international in their influence at the same time.  According to Dan Aleshire, the Executive Director of The Association of Theological Schools, thirty-five years ago only 7% of those attending seminary in North America were non-white. Racial/ethnic student enrollment has grown more than fourfold over the past thirty years.[x]  Right now 38% of the students in ATS schools are those of color, and with the projection that the USA will reach the point in 2040 when the white population is a minority, that percentage only looks likely to grow higher.[xi]

Even as America grows more secular, fields are opening up and interest in theological education with it on the continents of Asia, Africa, and South America.  We have more RP students from Asia than America right now; more RP students from India than Indiana.  Does this not call into question old paradigms?

No, it expands them! Ezekiel 34:13-14 speaks of the Lord’s gathering and feeding work among the nations:

I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams, and in all the inhabited places of the land.  I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they will lie down on good grazing ground and feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.

The potentiality of bringing discipleship to the nations was brought home to me one day in my office, which is next to Aaron Sams, Director of Distance Education.  The other day I heard Aaron moan in agony then later shout in triumph.  Why?  He had hit a snag in putting videos on the internet for a student in an Islamic nation very hostile to Christianity.  The country the student is in had a popular video venue blocked, thus the moan.  But later Aaron found another site willing to host it that had access to that nation, and rejoiced greatly.  Hearing gospel battles in cyberspace taking place in the next office is pretty exciting!  Who needs video games?  We are also working at packaging and distributing teaching in digital form on small devices for people who are “beyond the internet” or do not have access to it.

In former days the students came to the professors; in this new age the professors must go to the students.

In our own nation, students are becoming less desirous in leaving their congregational ministry setting.  Seminary students are becoming older; online options for education have increased; more regional campuses of seminaries are starting; and an increased emphasis on mentoring under active pastors is causing many students to stay put.  Just as retailers are not able to rely on their brick and mortar store sales only to stay afloat in this new era, so seminaries are being forced to adapt beyond having a campus and expecting students to journey near and far to attend it.

In foreign lands, though some are coming to us, the vast majority are unable to travel here due to political, religious, and economic pressures.  Recent years have seen our president traveling to many different countries to teach and recruit.  Some are coming here, yes, but what we are seeing is a need to take education to them.  Even this past week we met with a leader in a seminary in Brazil about a cooperative effort, and one of our colleagues could not be here tonight because he is there providing training.  We are seeing training centers and theological halls open up in other lands.  We cannot just go in pixels.  We also have to go in person.

And is this not the mark of a true shepherd, to go to the sheep?  Our Lord did not stay in a heavenly ivory tower, but came here to this earth to “seek the lost, bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak.”   President O’Neill, thank you for providing us with an example of a shepherding president who goes.

So to my new colleagues, I say let us not grow complacent.  On the occasion of an inauguration, Samuel Miller said to his colleagues these words:

O Fathers and Brothers!  Let it never be said of us, on whom this task has fallen ,that we take more pains to make polite scholars, eloquent orators, or men of mere learning, than to form able and faithful ministers…than to promote that honor which consists in being full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and the instruments of adding much people to the Lord.  The eyes of the church are upon us.  The eyes of angels, and, above all the eyes of the King of Zion, are upon us.  May we have grace given us to be faithful! [xii]

In times such as these, may the Great Shepherd give us grace to meet these challenges.

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[i] Constitution of the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, Article II, “Purpose.”

[ii]CHAPTER 8, American Agriculture: Its Changing Significance,  http://usa.usembassy.de/etexts/oecon/chap8.htm

[iii] Mark Chaves, Congregations in America, 18-19.

[iv] http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/october/monday-is-for-missiology-seminaries-and-mission.html.

[v] http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/College-presidents/Summary.aspx.

[vi] http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2013-09/seminaries-expand-online-options.

[vii] http://distancelearn.about.com/od/distancelearning101/tp/Online-Learning-Statistics.htm.

[viii] Jeremiah Burroughs, p. 62.

[ix] Robert Copeland, To God Be the Glory, 17-19.

[x] Spring 2010 |Colloquy, The Association of Theological Schools, p. 27.

[xi] http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Changing-Seminary-Landscape-Robert-Crosby-10-17-2011?offset=2&max=1

[xii] Samuel Miller, “The Duty of the Church”, Princeton and the Work of the Christian Ministry, 110-111

2 Comments

  1. Thomas October 6, 2014 at 7:39 pm #

    Thanks Pastor York for sharing this exciting news about RPTS. It is especially encouraging in light of your post on ‘iDolatry’ to see how technology can serve the Kingdom when stewarded well.

    • Barry York October 7, 2014 at 11:29 pm #

      You are welcome, Thomas. I had not even made that connection!

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