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FIRST-PERSON: How churches and seminaries partner to train students 

Southern Baptist seminaries were raised up, I believe, by the Lord — not to take the place of local churches — but to come alongside and help local churches. 

That is why I am convinced that the ideal context to train men and women for ministry is a seminary that is in partnership with good, healthy local churches — churches that take seriously their responsibility to disciple the students we train together.

The seminary’s strategic role 

As an SBC seminary alum, an SBC seminary president and a father of four sons who were blessed by SBC seminary education, I deeply love our convention’s six seminaries. Through these seminaries, Southern Baptists equip thousands of students each year to serve local churches, to steward their vocations for ministry, and to reach the nations with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

In my role, I have the joy of seeing firsthand how integral our six seminaries are to our ministry efforts as a convention and to the health and longevity of our churches and mission boards. Nevertheless, I believe the Church — not the seminaries — is God’s primary instrument for kingdom growth. 

Now, I’ve already said that I think partnerships between churches and seminaries are ideal training environments. However, there is nothing that a seminary does that a local church could not do. Churches can and should teach students doctrine. Churches can and should disciple students for ministry in every vocation. Churches can and should train their students to go to the nations.  

Yet, even very large churches have a hard time replicating all that the seminary does to equip students for ministry. Few churches are equipped to teach Greek and Hebrew, philosophy, systematic and biblical theology, ethics, biblical counseling and many other subjects at a consistently high level.  

That is why seminaries are structured and equipped to do some things more easily than the local church, and seminaries offer more comprehensive training for students who are preparing for ministry. 

When I talk to students who are answering God’s call to preach, to counsel, or to serve overseas, I want them to receive the best, most thorough training possible to serve Jesus to their fullest and to finish well. In other words, I believe our students and future leaders need more training, not less.

With the pressures and complexities of our cultural moment, students would be well served to know their history, to understand how to engage critically with competing philosophies, to learn how to counsel with care, to have competence in the biblical languages, and to be able to articulate the great doctrines of our faith in the context of Church history. Seminary is uniquely designed to offer this kind of invaluable training, which is why I am convinced more students should pursue seminary training. 

The church’s essential role 

Although I believe more students should consider seminary, the seminary can never be a substitute for the local church. Why? Because the local church is Christ’s Body and the Christian’s family. Because the local church is God’s plan for discipleship and kingdom advancement. Because the local church is essential to life and worship as a Christian.  

Students can biblically flourish in ministry without seminary, but they cannot without the local church. In fact, there are many things that can only be learned in what I often call the refining fires of the local church.  

Sometimes people blame seminaries for not teaching them something about ministry, but seminaries are not equipped to teach students what only a church can and should teach them. Students need to be taught how to worship God in community, how to love one another sacrificially and serve with humility, and how to make disciples and do the work of ministry. These are lessons to be primarily learned in the context of the local church. 

My hope is that students who come to seminary are already being discipled and equipped through their local churches. Seminary, then, can come alongside what the local church is already doing to supplement and reinforce many of the valuable lessons and habits they are learning in their church family. When churches and seminaries partner well, the students who graduate are often far more mature and better equipped to serve the Church. 

Holistic formation in the church and the seminary 

At Southeastern Seminary, we want our students to grow in the areas of their head, heart and hands. We as a seminary can certainly help students worship God well with their minds, and we also encourage them to develop godly affections and apply what they learn. In the end, though, it is difficult for students to mature in service and ministry solely inside the walls of the classroom. You have to be on the field, involved in ministry and actively engaging in your local church to experience the kind of holistic formation that future leaders so desperately need.  

During his time in seminary, my son Nathan participated in Southeastern Seminary’s Equip Network, which allowed him to receive credit for at least five or six courses through his local church. He will tell you that his church-based seminary training was of inestimable value. Why? Because through his church’s partnership with Southeastern, he not only read books and wrote papers but also did ministry in his local church alongside his church family and under the supervision of his pastors. 

Although in other fields, students may learn their trade before they practice it, God’s intention is that disciples would be doers from the very moment they become disciples. That means seminary students should be actively applying their training in the context of their local church and learning through discipleship and ministry in their local church context. Without this life-giving partnership between seminaries and local churches, seminary students will be inadequately trained for the mission God has called them to. 

Partnership for the mission of the Church

Our six seminaries really have no purpose if we are not serving local churches. Seminaries are not ordained of God in the same way the local church is. So why do we exist? Well, at Southeastern Seminary, we say it this way: We exist to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ by equipping students to serve the Church and fulfill the Great Commission. That is our mission. 

How do we fulfill that mission? By training godly, biblically rooted students to lead and serve local churches here in North America and around the world. None of our six seminaries — including Southeastern Seminary — can or should do this task alone. The seminaries may provide the classroom, but the church provides the laboratory. The seminaries provide instruction, guided research, mentoring and academic training, but local churches provide discipleship, one-anothering community, and field ministry training.  

Seminaries exist to serve the Church and its mission. Nothing matters more or is a better indicator of a seminary’s health. By partnering in this important task, churches and seminaries are expanding their Great Commission impact as students receive holistic training to serve the Church and make disciples. 

    About the Author

  • Danny Akin