Cheating and Seminary: An Open Letter to Students

Cheating and Seminary: An Open Letter to Students

By Andrew Spencer

Administrator’s note: SEBTS student Andrew Spencer was recently moved by an article he read that referenced seminary students and cheating. He was led to write the following open letter for the SEBTS student community and others who may be interested. We resonated with his open letter and decided to publish it at Between the Times. We hope you find it a helpful challenge, especially if you are a seminarian or collegian at SEBTS or a similar institution.

Someone recently brought an article in the May 2011 edition of Reader’s Digest to my attention. Most of the time, if I bother to read Reader’s Digest, it is just for the jokes. This article, however, proved to be worth the read, although it pained me to read its content. This was such an important article that I thought I’d bring it to your attention.

The article was a reprint from the Chronicle of Higher Education from November, 2010 entitled “The Shadow Scholar.” (It is available through EBSCO if you care to find it.) Ed Dante, a prolific writer using a pseudonym, explains how he makes over $60k every year as an author of other people’s academic work. He has written for everyone from undergrads to PhD candidates, sometimes writing complete master’s theses for students. He writes:

I have become a master of the admissions essay. I have written these for undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral programs, some at elite universities. I can explain exactly why you’re Brown material, why the Wharton M.B.A. program would benefit from your presence, how certain life experiences have prepared you for the rigors of your chosen course of study. I do not mean to be insensitive, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been paid to write about somebody helping a loved one battle cancer. I’ve written essays that could be adapted into Meryl Streep movies.

This sounds pretty dishonest, and certainly as future pastors, seminary professors, and educated laity this cannot be a significant problem at SEBTS. Every student has to sign an acknowledgment of the academic integrity policy at SEBTS before they are admitted. That statement declares that “Students should . . . maintain the highest standards of academic integrity in all of their work.” Fortunately, we Christians are immune to this phenomenon.

Or, perhaps not. The next paragraph in Dante’s article states:

I do a lot of work for seminary students. I like seminary students. They seem so blissfully unaware of the inherent contradiction in paying somebody to help them cheat in courses that are largely about walking in the light of God and providing an ethical model for others to follow. I have been commissioned to write many a passionate condemnation of America’s moral decay as exemplified by abortion, gay marriage, or the teaching of evolution. All in all, we may presume that clerical authorities see these as a greater threat than the plagiarism committed by the future frocked.

This was the depressing paragraph, and the reason that the article was pointed out to me. What makes it worse is that Dante, presumably a non-Christian, gets it while his conservative Christian customers do not. He sees the “inherent contradiction” in seminary students cheating, and uses that as leverage to point out the hypocrisy of paying someone to write an article denouncing someone else’s sin. The fact that Dante references papers criticizing abortion, gay marriage and evolution make it clear that some of his customers must be conservatives. This isn’t the “social-gospel liberals” compromising on academic integrity; rather, this is an indictment of people who profess to believe the Bible on social issues, ignoring the blatant dishonesty of their actions.

How did we get here? I think there are three probable answers. The first is that sometimes we tend to focus on the goal, rather than the journey. We think that we will be prepared for ministry when we get our MDiv, MA, BA, PhD or whatever. Somehow, we get confused and begin to idolize the resume bullet over the real treasure: the opportunity to delve deep into the Word and theology so that we are better prepared to answer people’s questions and glorify God by serving the church effectively. Getting a degree doesn’t prepare us for anything, even the study doesn’t prepare us for ministry, really. There is nothing in Scripture that teaches that we must have a degree in some form of religious studies to effectively teach the Word. The journey to earning a degree should be helping to mold our minds into what God wants us to be. If we shortcut that by cheating, then we are sinning by cheating as well as by wasting an opportunity to grow.

The second probable answer is that some of us don’t belong at seminary. In Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students, Spurgeon spends his second lecture discussing what the call to ministry includes. (If you haven’t read this chapter, then get it from the library and read it, then ask yourself why you are at seminary.) One description of improper candidates for ministry jumps out when I think about cheating seminarians: Spurgeon references an “exceedingly large class of men [who] seek the pulpit they know not why. They cannot teach and will not learn, and yet must fain be ministers.” If you are willing to cheat our way through seminary because you are not academically capable of getting through, then either find another path into ministry or do something else. Cheating your way to a degree so that you are “qualified” to be a pastor will leave you living a lie for the rest of your career.

A third probable answer to the question is that some of may just be lazy. Friends, if we are too lazy to do our own research, then soon we’ll be stealing our sermons from the Internet. God is not honored by the lazy person in ministry, or the lazy student of theology.

There is more to be said about this problem, and the purpose of our seminary education. However, this article from Ed Dante should give us pause as we press toward the end of the semester and maybe even graduation. It should make us stop to ask why we are at seminary, and whether we ought to be. If we have cheated, it should make us repent and sin no more; it should make us ask each other, not just how our prayer lives are, but whether we are being honest in our research and on our exams. In the end, we worship by writing our papers, just as we worship when we sing on Sunday morning. 1 Cor. 10:31 applies to your class paper as much as it does to your diet.

Andrew Spencer lives in Wake Forest. He will be graduating SEBTS in May with the MDiv and beginning PhD studies in Christian Ethics in the fall.

  10Comments

  1. Don Gale   •  

    I appreciate this letter. I am for seminary and against cheating. But I did want to point out that our recently created system of leadership development has helped create this problem. If you are “called to the ministry”, you just go to seminary, and then accept a “call” from some unknown church who doesn’t know you. That system enables the kind of cheating outlined in this letter. If leadership development were more driven by the local church and existing leaders (through discipleship, candidate recognition by the body, supplemental seminary, etc), these problems would be kept in check because the seminarian would be deeply known. If our leadership development methods don’t change, this problem will only continue. I’m thankful for places like SEBTS and SBTS who are working towards a more biblical model of training.

  2. Justin   •  

    Sadly, “ministry” is not always pure. I only know a handful of people who went to seminary because they sincerely wanted to preach and teach. Most that I’ve talked to going to seminaries and Bible schools go because it is a good job. One fellow even said it was the family business: his grandpa was a pastor, his father was a pastor, he would be a pastor, because it pays well, and you can get paid to do “ministry”. The average salary of a pastor in the US was over 60,000. Not a bad job market. Gone are the days of penniless pastors. Why is there cheating? Follow the money.

    http://www.churchjobs.net/
    http://www.churchstaffing.com/
    http://www.ministryemployment.com/

    Recession + Job availability that requires seminary degrees + desperate people = cheating.

  3. Kerry   •  

    While I believe this may happen among seminary students, ‘Dante’ is not someone that could be deemed a reliable source. He allegedly enables cheaters for a living. His boasting set off alarm bells in my head about his credibility. However, kudos to Andrew Spencer for delving into the issue. There are many wolves among the flock.

  4. Dwayne Phillips   •  

    I also hope that seminaries will start to question their practices for entry that creates such as strong temptation towards cheating.

  5. RazorsKiss   •  

    What depresses me just as much is that either 1) an unbeliever can deceive seminary professors this systematically or 2) That the standard for seminary papers is so low as to be indistinguishable from that of a non-Christian moralizing. These are supposed to be seminary-level papers, from men learning to exegete Scripture, exposit it, and expound it for their flock.

    God help us.

  6. Allen Mickle   •  

    I wouldn’t say “gone” are the days of the penniless pastor. I don’t make $60,000 and am not in it for the money. I pastor a very small rural PA church. That’s not the only reason for cheating. It’s simply the expression of sin finding it’s outlet. Are we surprised?

  7. Jason   •  

    I do not condoning cheating, nor am I about to suggest that cheating is because some one (or something) made them cheat. “Eve why did you eat the fruit?” Eve- “The snake made me!” However, does this perhaps show of a problem on both ends? The student sinning and the school (seminary) that has failed to understand that many students are forced to make a choice between doing the bare minimum required to pass while taking care of their flock and family, or neglecting their flock and family in order to maintain the workload seminary requires.

    I am pro-seminary education. I believe I am a better Christ follower, husband, father, and pastor because of the tools I have learned at seminary. That said there is a hipocracy(sp) to some degree in seminary.One one hand they tell you that your main job is to minister to your family (and then church if you have one), yet on the other hand each prof. will load you down with such a work load that you will indeed fail. It might not be your class, it may be your kids. It might not be your class or your kids, but it’s your wife. Or it might be your church.

    I don’t claim to have the answer, at least not a really good answer. But I do know this is and has been a problem in many seminary students lives. Anyone got any suggestions or am I just being a baby?

  8. Andrew Spencer   •  

    Thanks everyone for your interest in the conversation.

    I hope that my letter doesn’t cause people to miss my main point.

    Nowhere did I draw the conclusion that all seminaries or our seminary in particular is a hotbed for cheating, nor was the point that every seminary student has or will cheat. The point is that the opportunity is there to cheat and some students at least who fall to the temptation of cheating. Allen is correct in stating that this is “the expression of sin finding it’s [sic] outlet.” And, no, we should not be surprised. Instead, seminary students should jealously guard their integrity.

    As for actually deceiving professors, Dante doesn’t comment that he got all A’s on his seminary papers and, quite frankly, many liberal scholars who were formerly conservatives (Bart Ehrman comes to mind) have showed that academic excellence is not a measure of regeneracy. Given the right sources, one can rightly understand what Scripture and scholars say about a particular passage without believing it: being able to accurately represent an opposing viewpoint is a mark of good scholarship.

    Hopefully, this conversation continues between students so that some who might have been tempted to cheat will be strengthened to resist temptation.

    Spencer

  9. Frank   •  

    I was a blessed with a teaching fellow who included this in an email to the class after several complaints about low grades: “I hope your pursuit of Christian perfection is as great as your pursuit of perfect grades.” His point was our grade obsession rather than cheating, but it could be applied with even greater truth there.

  10. Fred   •  

    I attended Trinity Evangelical Theological Seminary. Yes, I cheated while I was a student. Yes! I would do it again. Why? Because I found seminary to be a fairytale land of students, all trying to me more holy than the next one. The seminary was a joke. I cheated and I got out fast. I never looked back. I have had a very successful ministry. Many will say that what I did was wrong. Maybe it was, but I became very tired of the attitude of those around me. If I had it to do again, I would not even go to seminary- I would minister as Christ told us to do in the first place. I have spoken to many pastors who told me they cheated as well. It has become a main stay for those tired of dealing with poor quality seminaries. Even those seminaries like Trinity that claim to be the best.

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