Can the seminary produce visionary leaders?

Recently, I was teaching a class on missional church when, in a moment of unguarded clarity, one of my students said, “I like hearing about all these new ways of doing church, but I don’t know if I could do them because I’ve grown up in church and I love it.” The unspoken end of that sentence was, “the way it is.

Don’t you love the honesty of some young people? Without knowing it, he had just spoken a mouthful.

Can we expect people who have grown up in church and have enjoyed their experience (hence they’re still in the church) to renegotiate the church contract, to rethink how church could be done in a new era?


When I was doing my diploma of teaching (many years ago) one of our professors was introducing some new educational methodology when he broke off in the middle of his presentation, and with obvious frustration in his voice, said, “I’m not even sure why I’m teaching you this stuff. You’re the success stories of the education system as it is. You made it through. Better than that, you want to go back into it to teach others. You’re the last people who would ever try to change the way we do education.”

That stayed with me. He was right. If you loved school so much you want to become a teacher what are the chances you’re going to change much about the way it’s done?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying teachers or ministers never change anything. They read a lot and are always looking for new ideas and practices. But they’re not going for root-and-branch change of the system. They’re generally tinkering with it so it runs better.

But when my young student naively confessed his love of the church as it is, I had an epiphany.

I’m like that professor from my teachers’ college days.

For 20 years, I’ve been teaching in a college that equips the church’s “success stories,” the young people who have thrived in church and want to go back and serve in its leadership. Can I expect them to bring radical change to the church? Or any significant change for that matter?

When my students graduate and are ordained to clerical roles in their churches what’s to stop them from being shaped into what Aiden Kavanaugh called “the hegemony of the presbyterate”? They will join the power system that rules the church today, a hegemony comprising people who have thrived in the system they’re now leading, making change very difficult to effect.

Let me give you an example – the sermon. No one I know thinks a 25 minute monologue is the best way to teach people the Bible. If teaching the Bible is the intention, why haven’t churches incorporated clearly stated learning outcomes, tutorials, online support materials, assessment devices, etc? Why does the 25 minute monologue persist? Is it because congregations are calling for it? Multiple studies show that congregations don’t get a great deal from them. Why then does the sermon persist?

Because the hegemony of the presbyterate love it!

Preachers loved listening to preaching even before they became preachers. They are the sermon’s “success stories.” Why would they reconsider it as a teaching device?

Why would those who flourished in church rethink the way we make disciples, or whether to incorporate a fivefold leadership structure, or new approaches to liturgy or missional spirituality or, you name it? And since seminaries are full of such “success stories” is that where we’ll find visionary leaders?

You might ask me then why I’ve persisted in educating leaders for the church if I’m so pessimistic about the results, but I’d say I’ve persisted precisely because I’m so optimistic and hopeful.


I’ve had enough students come through my classrooms over the years who are true visionaries, capable of exerting meaningful God-honoring change in our churches. Not a flood, mind you. A trickle. But a trickle might be enough. At least it’s enough for me to keep at it.

Not every business school graduate will become Steve Jobs. Not every tech entrepreneur can be Mark Zuckerberg. Not every film school graduate turns into Christopher Nolan.

That being said, I have noticed that those students most likely to become visionary leaders are the ones who turn up to my classes with a sense of holy discontent about church-as-it-is. What keeps people like me teaching new leaders is the hope of finding those few visionaries who can find new opportunities for the church to impact its world.

We need to find those leaders who are daring and imaginative, who can return to the source and imagine future possibilities for being God’s people in our current age.

We need brave leaders who can see the big picture, not just the next small step.

We need leaders who enjoy the process of change, and who are patient and steadfast in effecting it.

We need emerging leaders to be focused and present, who empower others, who create non-anxious environments for innovation and experimentation.

We need open minded leaders who aren’t fearful of new ideas, who don’t agree with everything they hear, but can entertain the possibilities while sifting ideas to find what God wants for us.

We need leaders who aren’t terrified of failure.

I think many in our churches are yearning for visionary leaders that give us the big picture of God’s intended mission of the church, and then inspire us to be creative and explore new approaches to achieving that vision.


Where do we find such leaders? I’ve been banking on the theological education system to yield them. As I’ve said, I’m not naive about the limitations of that system. I just hope I chose correctly.



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24 thoughts on “Can the seminary produce visionary leaders?

  1. Having this evening just taught on Romans 11 to a small fellowship then coming home to see a PBS presentation on Martin Luther and his prophetic call to the church of his day, I think the words of Paul regarding Israel in Romans 11 may be germane to your question as a pattern of God’s methods. One can hope that seminarians and other clingers on to the more traditional forms of the church can learn, but perhaps like the Jews in Romans, their hearts have been hardened so they must wait to see the salvation of the “Gentiles” — the unchurched — and jealously desire the same experience. This is the pattern of church adaptation to changes in the culture you and many other missional theologians make to those who will listen is it not?
    Personally, I think that the modern institutional church is as much a human-centered construct as the cultic Judaism of late old testament period (Amos, Hosea, Daniel) nation of Judah and the contemporary Samaritan cultic practices of Israel.
    I think your hope to see new leaders come from seminaries could be a frustrating endeavour. Perhaps a few will emerge but they will be the exceptions as long as the modern church remains. The more important role you and other teachers & leaders of the missional movent must take on is to find and mentor those with the right spark of insight.
    Thanks for the opportunity for dialog.

  2. “A sense of holy discontent with the church as-it-is.

    “See the big picture, not just the next small step.”

    “to be focused and present, who empower others, who create non-anxious environments for innovation and experimentation.”

    “We need open minded leaders who aren’t fearful of new ideas, who don’t agree with everything they hear, but can entertain the possibilities while sifting ideas to find what God wants for us.
    We need leaders who aren’t terrified of failure.”

    That’s exactly who I seem to be. The President of my college spent 7 years discipline me because he saw those things in me daily. When I asked home why he spends so much time with me and chases me down he said this:

    ” Jim, I see you as the next spiritual leader of the NW. God told me to spend time with you.” — (I feel like Joseph telling his brothers about his dream).

    I’m 54 now. That was 27 years ago. I’m still a Builder (Homebuilder). I’m a minister at large. 27 years go by and I just continue until God opens the way. I’m not discouraged by the years, but rather encouraged by the interesting timeline. I’m getting old. I was a pastoral student. 7 years a youth minister and youth intern. 240 young people in my ministry. I don’t believe in forcing my ministry into happening. God is just adding things into my story. Jesus didn’t seem to be in a hurry. Working in the wood shop as people were dying and needing a Savior. He knew that in the woodshop. Kept working with wood — year after year after year.

    Maybe I only get 3 years as a Pastor. I just want to be tuned to those 3 years. Ready for those 3 years, and like my Savior, maybe I get to shake the world boldly and beautifully for God, Jesus, and The Holy Spirit.

    How many others are thinking about their 3 years of bringing the Kingdom to others?

  3. This is an article I think about a lot in light of the lifecycle of the church –

    THese are the questions I’m interested in asking and finding answers to – and I’ve never really been to ‘seminary’. Maybe you’re saying these aren’t the questions that our existing formal entities and those present in them really want to ask though?

  4. Why and how have our churches continued through the ages? I think we are inclined to forget the ” enormity and mind blowing truth of who and what Our God is”. One mistake we make is to bring God down to our level, to forget the awesome power and overwhelming love He Is. To move with the times we have to do, BUT, To thro out all signs and ways of praise is , to my mind a mistake, for after all much of it IS Biblical, and has stood the test of time. I also believe, prayer and reliance on the Holy Spirit, has taken a back seat in many of our Places of Worship, to the detriment of knowing Our Lord and Saviour.

    1. How and why have our churches continued through the ages? By continually being renewed in order to answer the questions and respond to the needs of different eras.

  5. Great personal reflections, Mike. Thanks for sharing.

    I look forward to hearing where your epiphany leads you…

  6. “If teaching the Bible is the intention (of the sermon)”
    I’ve been teaching the Bible in college and seminary for 20 years, and I don’t think that’s the primary purpose of the sermon. I’m surprised that someone who teaches in a seminary actually thinks that. Sermons are good for many things and teaching is one of them, but only a small one.
    Which leads to the larger question of what we see as the purpose of the church. This question has many possible correct answers and thousands of wrong answers. I continue to believe that the answer lies within the struggle itself.

    1. Do enlighten me, Wes. Historically, what is the purpose of the sermon in Protestant churches? And what is its purpose today if not to teach the Bible?

      1. The four-fold purpose of gathering as a body is, according to Act 2, teaching (I see that can be done through a sermon), breaking of bread (coming together as one), fellowship (bearing the one anithers), and prayer. Prayer, of course, demands waiting, listening and Doing(serving those outside the fellowship).
        I will not argue the push back that would say that the church does the true worshipping outside the walls away from Sunday. But there is a time to gather and be taught.

      2. I don’t know the answer to the historical question.
        I suppose I’d need to know first what you mean by “teach the Bible”. I really should have started with that question. Sorry.
        To clarify, do you mean “teach about the Bible” or “teach from the Bible” or “proclaim the message of the Bible” or “proclaim the importance of the Bible” or “respond to the Bible as it relates to the life of the people in the pews” or something else?

        1. No, I don’t feel inclined to explain myself. You’re the one who made the (rather patronising) claim that it was so surprising that a seminary lecturer would possibly think that the sermon was designed as a tool for teaching the Bible. I asked you what you think the sermon’s purpose is if it’s not that.

          1. Possible purposes of a sermon: comfort people who are sorrowing; tell people that God loves them; remind people of the importance of community; build up people in their walk of faith; bring hope or joy or peace; encourage people in the midst of despair; teach the Bible.
            What separates this list from “just teach the Bible” is that most of these goals are not pedagogical. You are correct (imho), monologue is not a good pedagogical technique. But monologues are good for other things, and a well-prepared and well-delivered sermon can accomplish some of these other things. If our major purpose is pedagogy, then yes we should stop preaching. But every week I get up there and, using the Bible in a variety of ways, I try to help people make sense of their lives and the world around them. And I know that monologues are one way to do this.
            Having said this, i also need to say that I agree with most of your initial argument. Seminaries are not doing a good job of preparing people for the various tasks of being a pastor, and furthermore we need to rethink this whole concept of church from within our local context.

  7. Part of the problem Mike is that not only is the seminary unlikely to be able to produce what is not already in some ways latent in the student, but that most seminaries will have a problem with attracting people with the skills that you listed. Seminaries are self-selecting.

    1. It seems like Mike is facing a similar problem to what you often talk about Alan. You essentially said the same thing for our members. “How do we help them live missionally now when all their lives they really liked their church experience as it was?” We have to show our seminarians the problem and how if they don’t change they and their members will miss out on much of the intimacy and purpose God intended for their lives.

  8. We are good at pumping out maintenance chaplains who don’t know how to be visionary leaders.

  9. What you say makes sense Mike.
    More recently, I have become less convinced that visionary leadership is the critical missing element when it comes to the healthy future of the followers of Jesus.
    I consider healthy examples of faithful discipleship to be a more strategic element.

    This may simply be a reflection of my personal learning style, but I have found spending time with others who are actively seeking to be faithful to the call of Christ and exploring together what that might mean for each of us, to be the most helpful.
    Of course this can take a variety of forms and one might rightly call this activity ‘church’.

    For me it comes down to the direction and intent of the getting together. Our motives become more apparent as we go along and we need ongoing ‘reformation’ and re-callibrating… of our values and desires (perhaps more than visionary stuff).

    As I write this, I am aware that I resist the notion of a visionary leader partly because they often create more passive followers. I suspect Jesus would not have passed as a visionary leader. His PR strategies were clumsy and inconsistent.

    I wonder what we are hoping for in leaders in this day.

    I am helped by others who empower me with skills/understanding/permission/support/modelling.
    That is the kind of leadership I’m most interested to see.

  10. One of the pillars of this argument is that the “25 minute monologue” is ineffective and needs to change. This recent Gallup poll substantially refutes that (at least in the USA):
    With that being said, there must be passion, truth, and imaginative communication-all based strongly on scripture.

    BTW-I came to the pulpit after a US Coast Guard 29 year career and after owning my own business, which I mention because I try to bring this background to bear when leading the flock.

  11. I will contend that the primary purpose of the sermon is to invite the hearer to engage the heart and mind with the scripture. While that can be didactic, if that becomes the primary purpose, then your are correct in saying there are better methodologies to accomplish this. However, I contend that the sermon ought to invite us, through the appropriate use of questions calling upon our common experiences, to engage the message and meaning of the scriptures with our own wills. Engagement is the key. Simply conveying information or memorable outlines is inadequate and not really helpful. The sermons I remember are those I experienced with my heart, not those I took notes on or those with an alliterative outline.

    To your original premise, I am in full agreement with that leaning, but I am convinced that the failure of the church to transform as needed is due to its primary control of the church “system” by those who fit best with the “system” as it has become, those who fulfill the pastor and teacher gifted roles, not necessarily offices, and the expulsion or exit of the evangelistic, and apostolic roles that are calling for something new. See Curt Watke’s APEPT profile. Of course, I am operating out of my prophetic role here (how to make thing better). I am grateful to you for your role in calling for change. And, as we all know, change is usually slow if it comes at all.

  12. […] Frost, posed a question on his blog: He also questions the necessity of potential relics like preaching (I asked the same question in […]

  13. Out of curiosity, how many of the commenters here benefit from the ‘current’ system? Isn’t one of the points of Mike’s blog that most of those who benefit from a particular system will have a natural resistance to act in a way that would radically change that system…? From my perspective, while well-intentioned and no doubt sincere, some of the comments here through trying to dispute Mike’s point have simply confirmed it.

    1. I am not and have never been a paid pastor. My day job is a non-church professional role in IT working for a large multi-national company.
      My ministry work is motivated by my passion for the Gospel and the people I serve.

  14. It’s odd to hear people trying to tell me they don’t think teaching is a primary purpose of the sermon. Tell that to the myriad preachers who advertise their upcoming “teaching series”, post their sermons online and try to turn them into books, and insist their midweek groups discuss them.

  15. My journey has been through reformed Baptist Churches, Presbyterian Church in America groups, and now the Anglican Church in North America. Scripture has guided my life through ALL OF THEM. This thread is making things Tooooooooooo complicated.

    You are so proud of your scholarship ? You want to do what Christ himself told you to do ? Then go back to Mathew 28 and its surrounding context and do some exegesis in the Greek (which scholars are so proud of) Does it say to build church buildings, and million dollar satellite churches, actually NO ! It doesn’t. Does Jesus the Saviour ask you to build 6 million dollar churches ? No it doesn’t ! Does it ask you to provide a church meeting more “consumer friendly” or a homogeneous (white like us !, or perhaps black like us !, or perhaps Chinese like us !) fresh “church plant” ? No it doesn’t. Where is the emphasis in the New Testament ? Answer: Preaching the gospel “to the sick”, taking care of widows and orphans, using your own money (and/or possessions) to help those who have nothing, and visiting those in prison and giving them food and Jesus’s hope (because in ancient times there was no obligation to even feed a prisoner. The food kept them from dying, invisible) For those of you who are slow “getting it” Jesus says in Matthew 28, “teaching them ALL THE THINGS I TAUGHT YOU, (implied, over the last three years AS I LIVED WITH YOU) (Read the gospels to find out what that was !) and teaching other faithful men (and women, implied) NOT ONLY THAT ! but teach them how to teach THAT to others, MAKING DISCIPLES. It is NOT about wanting to get more people into YOUR Church “to raise weekly numbers !” WHO told you it is It is Jesus’s CHURCH, fool ! That is addition. With that strategy Islam will eventually overwhelm the church. Jesus talked about multiplication! NOW, I am not going to finish the “book or lecture ” here; but HERE IS THE CHALLENGE: Paul LOVES military analogies. Are you going to OBEY your superior, or are you going to “wing it” as the ancient Frank Sinatra suggested ?

  16. Found this post after reading one of your newer posts. I suspect there’s much we may disagree on but I really appreciate the question and your candidness. To avoid unnecessary hair-triggers, let it be said it’s a question of institution vs. non-institution, a tension just as applicable to conservative institutions as well as self-consciously missional, liberal, mystical, etc. institutions. Those who have excelled in a given setting are the winners who in some way are part of its elite (whether good or ill). So given the institutional setting, a big part of the call is to teach, correct, rebuke, train those not so much perpetuate the institutional trappings but to ever more radical allegiance and faithfulness and marvel of the One and the means of grace He has chosen to bring about His kingdom. In a sense, faithfulness in an institutional setting is to patiently exhort the Nicodemuses, to recognize, come alongside, build up, and welcome into fellowship weirdos like Saul/Paul, to be bilingual toward working toward the proper mutually-edifying order of parts of the body the Spirit so designates. In the vein of your post’s concern, I was convicted by Mika Edmondson’s question why was it that MLK Jr. had to go to institutions like Boston University for resources and support for seminary? ( At any rate, the goal is not to always ever be cutting edge but ever radically closer to the taproot of the Vine. Institutions have a role in that, as do pioneers; let’s not overexalt one over the other. I appreciate the post in pointing out institutions’ tendency to overexalt itself, but pioneers are equally vulnerable to the tendency. Only by the Spirit, can they joined in a mutually-edifying body to His Glory. This may not be the most provocative sexy rallying cry, but I do think it the most constructive, faithful approach.

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