What is a Seminary President?

One retired, well-respected seminary president once told me, soon after I was called to be president of RTS Charlotte, “Mike, here are my two words to you about being a seminary president: first, stay humble. Second, you know all of those great, grand visions you have to build this or do that or start this? Mostly, they are not that great just grandiose.” I hung my head and thought about that. I looked up and asked him, “Aren’t they both sort of the same thing?” He smiled, “Yes. But you need to hear it more than once to really get it.” He was right. So I want to approach this subject with humility, not grandiosity. But the question is one that is pressing on my own soul and if we get it right it can be of inestimable value to the Body of Christ. If we get it wrong, in my opinion, we have missed the Gospel.

I have completed a fine time of training and reflection with the Association of Theological Schools for new presidents (and one new chancellor elect). The event allowed me to think with others about the nitty gritty work we do in this unique arena of ministry. My time here also caused me to seek to think Biblically (whether I have or not I leave to God) about the identity of a one who serves that singular community (there are only 260 or so ATS accredited seminaries in North America) called seminary.

Hearing too much about “senior leaders of schools of graduate theological education” makes me uncomfortable. But I thank God for the irritation in my soul because it has allowed me to propose a most fundamental question to myself: “What is a seminary president?” The answer to that question is, no doubt, worthy of three years of doctoral study and a one hundred thousand-word dissertations. Some, in fact, have been written and more probably should be. But if the answer means anything related to the work of the Gospel it should also have clarity and brevity. I doubt I can provide that as well as others, but I need to answer it as best I can at least for myself. Indeed, in my mind, it is absolutely critical for me to do so. My very calling as a minister of the Gospel is dependent upon that answer. If I am entrusted with this calling and accountable to God for the work of it, then I better get it right. That kind of soul-searching is the genesis of this reflection. I need to lay out the answer for myself. So this is not a critique of another, but a search for divine meaning for self. If it teaches along the way then God will have accomplished that by His Spirit.

As one committed to the inerrancy, infallibility and sufficiency of the Scriptures as the very breathed-out Word of Almighty God I must find my answer there. As one who views his work through what ATS president himself referred to as a “call of God”[1] I must define my answer in that call. As one who believes that the Great Commission of Jesus Christ is an urgent imperative, I must craft my answer in light of that imperative. The answer to the question. “What is a seminary president,” then, must be derived from the sacred Scriptures. There are, in fact, several places in the word of God, to go to find this answer, but I have thought about two: A cluster of passages in the Old Testament that points to a “school of the prophets” led by prophets, and a direct charge concerning the work of training preachers from St. Paul. In these two places, I find my answer.

The Old Testament Answer

God chose His prophets.[2] God called Samuel as a boy[3] to preach His Word and lead His people with that Word. Samuel would go on to found a “seminary” (literally a “seed bed” for other called-out prophets) in Ramah (1 Samuel 19.18, 20).[4] Elijah led a “company of prophets” in Bethel (2 Kings 2.3), Jericho (2 Kings 2.3, 5, 7) and Gilgal (2 Kings 4.38), where Elisha also succeeded him (2 Kings 4.38; 5.22; 6.1; 9.1).[5] If we were to take these passages as case studies that help provide answers for my question, we would have to introduce several very clear descriptions of a seminary president:

The seminary president is called of God, first, to be a preacher by God Himself. That is so in the life of Samuel as well as Elijah and Elisha. I cannot imagine serving a seminary, as I understand it from Scripture, unless one is called of God to preach Christ Jesus to the world. Unless one has stood among the pagans at Mars Hill or ministered among the saints at Philippi, or felt the arrows and darts of Satan coming against him in the field of spiritual warfare, I am not sure one can adequately lead a company of others who must go and do likewise. We can have administrators who have not done that to come and bring expertise to administration. We can have educators in certain fields come and bring expertise in that area to help the fledgling pastor, preacher, or missionary or counselor, or teacher of the Word, but I do not see in the Word of God where we can have leaders of a “company of prophets” who have not been called to be “prophets” themselves.

The seminary president is called of God, second, to continue his ministry of preaching, but to add to it the work of leading a community of others who have been set apart by God for His sacred work of preaching. Samuel may lead a “company of prophets” at Ramah, or Elijah a “company of prophets” at Bethel, Jericho and Elisha at Gilgal, but they do not cease from the prophetic work themselves. In this, then, the job of a seminary president may be more difficult, as was suggested to me recently, than that of a pastor. I have done both and I can tell you that no job is as difficult or challenging as that of a pastor. I have swung hammers on oil wells, led branches of Fortune 50 organizations, and served in the United States military, and all of those are difficult, but none of those hard jobs truly compares with the week in and week out work of a shepherd of Christ in a local flock. Yet, also, having done both I can tell you that no job I have had is more fatiguing than that of seminary president. And why? Because of this very truth that we find here: the prophet continues in his work of prophetic ministry that God called him to, but in addition, he travels from “campus to campus,” from Bethel to Jericho to Gilgal, to invest his life in the next generation of prophets there. A seminary president asked me today, “Tell me, does the traveling get you like it does me? I am exhausted from it all,” he confessed. My answer was both “yes” and “no.” “Yes,” I admitted, the schedule and the travel do most certainly fatigue me. One can get trapped by it, squeezed by it, and depleted by it. It takes away from my family. I miss times with my wife and with my son. I told this new seminary president, fresh out of the pastorate, that one must manage it and not the other way around (which I have not done as well as I should). But there is also a “No,” to the question. The travel, as the prophets of old who led schools of the prophets at various places in Israel, in the end, is necessary. The shepherding of a “school of the prophets” involves travel. It involves development for the support of those schools. It involves counseling student and prospective students and ministering to and through the faculty and staff to accomplish the mission that is bigger than any one man. It is taxing. Our families sacrifice more than we do. It is, like all ministry, hard, because of the devil, the flesh, and the world. There is no doubt about that! Yet, for us as them, the call is strong enough, the Gospel is compelling enough, the Great Commission is urgent enough, and the need of our nation and our world is sufficient enough to call for me to spend and be spent in laboring both to preach Christ Jesus as Lord to as many people as I can, and to invest my life in others who will do so as well. This is a high calling that demands our all. But it is a calling that when one is withered and spent in the wilderness of ministry, like Christ in the desert, we also, with our families, receive succor from angels. Christ Himself comes to us and brings His resurrected presence and power to touch us and raise us up again to preach and live among the “company of preachers” like the prophets of old.

The New Testament Answer

I turn to just one verse, though I could easily turn to many. I turn to 2 Timothy 2.1-2:

“You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”

Paul gave his life to ministry and to ministers. In his final days at Rome, before his end would come by the Roman executioner, he charged the pastor at Ephesus, which he had planted, to be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and to gather the glorious fragments of sermons and treaties and writings and admonitions in public and private, and to place these sacred thoughts in a treasure chest and then give this repository of a minister of grace to others. These others should be qualified to receive this repository. They should then unpack the treasure chest in their own lives and ministries, and give the blessed contents to others.

The seminary president is, then, to be a trustee of the treasures of the Gospel, able to “pass the baton” of the Gospel of Grace that is in Christ Jesus, to others who are qualified, by their demonstrated faithfulness (in character, in calling, in actual work, and in hope of the work) to share the contents of that Treasure Chest of the Gospel with men and women and boys and girls all over the world.

What is a seminary president? I believe that when surveying the contemporary scene in theological education, in expectations by congregations and denominations and some boards and in the assumptions of seminary presidents themselves, yet in citing only a few Scriptures and concepts from the Bible, we must affirm:

A seminary president is a preacher, an evangelist and a teacher in a “school of the prophets,” NOT a professional administrator in a religious theological graduate program. There is an eternity of difference.

Much more could studied. Much more could be said and said better. But I do believe that the Bible tells us this much.

Therefore, may God bring humble, Christ-dependent ministers of Christ to this vocation. May I repent of the grandiosity that I was warned against, and the humility that can so quickly evaporate under the bright lights of supposed prestige or position. Oh, may Almighty God raise up faithful preachers, faithful seminary presidents, faithful missionaries and faithful Christians everywhere in our generation! For we pray that God will bring revitalization in our Old Christendom, revival in the New Christendom and a miraculous work of redemption in a Next Christendom through faithful preaching of the Word of God. May those of us called to prepare pastors and missionaries and others workers for this glorious goal, help support our faculty, strengthen our staff, encourage our students, and be about the work, ourselves, of proclaiming the unsearchable riches of Christ to the world.

To God be the glory forever and ever. Amen!


[1] The president of the Association of Theological Schools, Daniel Aleshire, made the statement that those who are most successful at conducing their work well are those who see their office in the context of a “call from God” and who believe that the effort put forward “is worth it because of the Gospel.” From personal notes, Thursday, January 20, 2011.

[2] I will refer to “prophets” in the Old Testament in their full old covenant understanding as speaking forth the Word of God as it came both revealed and in the Scripture they had as well as direct revelation. As I use the word and apply the calling to the calling of pastors and teachers and evangelists and teachers today I do so with a distinction, holding that in the new covenant there is a cessation of continuing revelation. The preacher today is exegeting and expositing the Word of God by the power of the Spirit under the authority of a tested call in the Church of Jesus Christ.

[3] Then the LORD called Samuel, and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. And the LORD called again, “Samuel!” and Samuel arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. And the LORD called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the young man. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant hears.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. And the LORD came and stood, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant hears.” 1 Samuel 3.4-10

[4] Then Saul sent messengers to take David, and when they saw the company of the prophets prophesying, and Samuel standing as head over them, the Spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul, and they also prophesied. 1Samuel 19.20

[5] 2 Kings 2.3; The sons of the prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take away your master from over you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.” 2 Kings 2.5; Fifty men of the sons of the prophets also went and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 2 Kings 2.7; And Elisha came again to Gilgal when there was a famine in the land. And as the sons of the prophets were sitting before him, he said to his servant, “Set on the large pot, and boil stew for the sons of the prophets.” 2 Kings 4.38; And he said, “All is well. My master has sent me to say, ‘There have just now come to me from the hill country of Ephraim two young men of the sons of the prophets. Please give them a talent of silver and two changes of clothing.’” 2 Kings 5.22; Now the sons of the prophets said to Elisha, “See, the place where we dwell under your charge is too small for us. 2 Kings 6.1; Then Elisha the prophet called one of the sons of the prophets and said to him, “Tie up your garments, and take this flask of oil in your hand, and go to Ramoth-Gilead. 2 Kings 9.1

About Michael A. Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D., MPA (University of Wales; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author.
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