Sending Your Team

Considering Going to Seminary?

Brian Strider

Seminary. The word alone often divides people into two camps. For some it induces yawning, for others it holds out the promise of discovery. I’m guessing that if you are reading this, it’s the latter. You’re happy to admit that you find fascinating what others find boring or unimportant because you are patient enough to see the trends and implications. Allow me offer you some reflections and questions as you explore the possibility of going to seminary.

There are several different roads to seminary. If you were on staff with Cru or already working at a church, your scenario would be different. For the sake of this article I’ll be working off the assumption that you are planning to go to seminary straight from college.

First, let me say how seminary could be useful for you and your life work. The Holy Spirit has been working through the history of the church to enlighten the minds of Christians, helping them to apply God’s word to the church. God has graced his body with teachers and that is something to be thankful for. Any understanding of 1 John 2:27 (“you do not need anyone to teach you”) that dismissed the role of teachers in Christian ministry is misled.

Having said that, one of the things you will benefit from most is exposure to core theological disciplines. You’ll take classes on the Bible, possibly original languages like Hebrew and Greek. You’ll take classes on theology, helping you to put doctrines and ideas together. You’ll have history classes, giving you a wide-angle lens on controversies and problems that the church has faced. You’ll even have some classes on philosophy and worldview, which will help you to think about questions often overlooked but important. In other words, seminary training will give you some bearing on approaching Scripture and its application, but it will also equip you for a lifetime of teaching and building up the church.

To be fair, though, you should know that seminary has its limitations. It is intended to equip you, augmenting and supplementing what most churches can’t offer— intense training in those theological disciplines. It is not intended to make you a pastor or minister. This is too frequently misunderstood. A level of maturity is assumed. While a business college is not the place one learns to roll pennies or balance a check book, seminary isn’t the time to learn about the importance of a quiet time or the need to keep close watch over one’s life. This is a larger issue that we’ll have to leave for now, but think of seminary as your soccer coach, not your parents.

INTRODUCTORY WORDS ON DEGREE PROGRAMS

Part of what I’m assuming is that you’re probably going to go after an M.Div., which is short hand for Masters of Divinity. It’s the standard degree that most pastors have. It’s not your average masters degree that some of your peers would get in their business school. It takes about three years to finish, and those three years are often very full -- probably including a summer or winter set of classes (total ~95 credits).

Most pastors pursue M.Div.’s, and if they want to, they may go on to get a Masters of Theology (ThM), which is roughly another year and a half of classes (kind of like a mini-PhD). Why would they do that? The M.Div. is a very broad degree and covers many subjects. For example, while earning a M.Div., a person may have taken only one class covering all of the Old Testament prophets or the letters of Paul. If a person has a desire to go deeper in a specific area, like, say, New Testament, they can do so while pursuing a ThM.

If you know, however, that you are not going to pastor but simply want to be an informed Christian or elder in your church, you might consider an MA in theological or religious studies. These degrees only take between one and a half to two years to complete (~30-60 credits). MA’s tend to focus on a particular area like counseling, New Testament/Old Testament, theology, history or Christian thought. They typically help you to get your bearings in a particular area while still giving you minimal exposure to those other areas.

In an MA program, what you almost never get are original languages like Greek and Hebrew. That’s where the MDiv’s come in. An MDiv basically gives you a smattering of all the MA programs plus classes in the original scriptural languages.

So if you want original languages, you can go one of two routes: 1) Get an MDiv. or 2) get an MA in any area (eg, Biblical studies) and stack on some language classes that may not be part of your program. This is an expression of supererogation. Taking the latter route is like buying a base model car and putting in an aftermarket stereo that shakes your neighbor’s windows. The first option is like buying the large custom built van (MDiv) with its already included features.

The major degrees, then, are the MA (11/2 -2 years), the M.Div. (3-31/2 years), and the ThM. (41/2 years). None of these are doctorates, but you can continue on and earn a doctorate. However, I wouldn’t think about that yet. The most likely reason you would get a PhD. is if you wanted to teach at a Bible college or seminary. Once you’re in seminary, you’ll know whether that is a good direction: you’ll notice you’re smarter than everyone else, ruin the grading curve for your classmates, and feel generally appalled at the mental lethargy of others.

WHAT A DAY MIGHT LOOK LIKE

Here’s a very artificial picture, assuming you’re not married, are taking a full-time load, and are not independently wealthy. You wake up at 7AM and have a quiet time. You know that if you don’t, you won’t do as well on your Hebrew quiz. You have four classes scattered through the morning and early afternoon. This means you’re sitting through a lot of lectures, taking notes, constantly mentally engaged, and visiting the library for research.

As you walk back to your dorm or trek across campus to the library, you join the masses of nerds who are flipping through Greek flash cards. After all, you want to be a good steward of your time, or at least you want to look like you are. Throughout the day you’re trying to convince your Arminian roommate that libertarian freedom is a weak position because he won’t be “free” to sin in heaven.

In some sense this day looks no different than your undergrad days, but the classes are harder. It’s not uncommon for a 3-credit class to require 1,200 pages of reading, a mid-term, final, and a fifteen page research/exegesis paper. So imagine four or five such classes stacked in a semester. (Do the math: five classes means you’re probably reading about one hundred pages per day including extra research reading. Trust me, graduate level study isn’t reading Jabez or John Eldridge.) However, the intense work challenges your thinking and opens your eyes to beautiful vistas of God’s grace. Seminary can be a rich time for you spiritually.

The rest of your afternoon and evening could be split between studying and your part-time job at Starbucks. Seminary is a weird time because you’re an adult with probably an undergrad degree, yet you’re no more independent or rich than you were as an undergrad. But don’t be discouraged, some day you will be a productive member of society, joining the ranks of those with graduate degrees.

AREAS TO CONSIDER IN CHOOSING A SEMINARY

CONFESSIONAL

Look for a school that understands itself to operate consistent to Scripture: one that is confessional. I don’t mean it has “confession kiosks” sprinkled through its campus, but that it “confesses” or holds to the truths of historic Christianity. I’m assuming you’re an Evangelical, affirming the inerrancy of Scripture and the substitutionary death of Christ.

This is important! The presuppositions a seminary holds about Scripture and salvation will not only work their way through lectures and required reading, but also in its approach to learning. You’ll often find that a lack of commitment to original languages is a deeper symptom of a lack of commitment to (the authority of) Scripture. If you’ve given up on the Bible, why bother to learn the languages used to communicate that revelation? You see the slippery slope.

I can’t highlight this enough. For most of us there are forms of theological liberalism that are like carbon- monoxide: they appear harmless or undetected but are poisonous none-the-less. Because of the formative nature of the M.Div. program, it is important to find a school that is evangelical and confessional. For advanced studies or a Ph.D., maybe consider other universities (that’s another conversation).

CWALITY

Yes, that’s right, cwality—it’s from the Greek. Seminaries are everywhere--kind of like chiropractors. You notice them in the phone book, you notice them attached to small brick buildings, you notice them in the passing comments of a blog. You have to be able to sift through them and discern which are best. There is usually a reason why you hear of some and not others. Not necessarily always, but usually the more popular evangelical schools are the ones with the “strong professors.” Now by strong I don’t mean that all other seminaries are made up of weaklings. A good professor is first of all a godly man. Doctrine and life cannot be separated. Brilliant professors are usually devoted followers. What you don’t want is a godly professor who isn’t very intelligent. You want big heart and big brains.

Let me warn you that often the professors who write all the books are professors who are given much time to do research. This means the more research leeway that they are given, the less time for teaching they have. So just because you see a picture of them in the catalogue doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to see them in all of your classes. Make sure you look into the possibly less known second-tier professors and investigate them. (If you see “Research Professor” or “Distinguished Professor” next to their name in the seminary catalogue, that’s a clue you won’t see them much.)

Quality is also seen in academic commitment and rigor. You want a school that is accredited, preferably by something national like the Association of Theological Schools (www.ats.edu). Not only will accreditation help you transfer credits if you need to change seminaries, but it will ensure that you are receiving a level of quality.

Quality can be assessed in terms of libraries and resources. Trust me, you want a decent library. You need access to good reference material, journals, and historical documents. A school that out sources its library or points you to a neighboring college will not meet the needs you’ll have to learn and do good research. Part of your decision on a seminary should include a visit to their library or at least a comparison with other libraries of the number of volumes it contains.

Finally, quality can be judged in terms of the facilities. During my visit to the seminary I ended up attending, I asked a student how he chose this particular one. He said, “It’s got an indoor track” (His name was probably “Jose-Maria”). It would be great, but not a deal breaker, if a school leveraged things like good technology.

Quality: brains, books, and buildings. In that order.

CONNECTIONS

A few years of seminary provides crisis rich opportunities, which in turn accelerates the rate of developing meaningful friends. These folks are not only your study partners, but they are the friends who struggle with you to make ends meet. Beyond sharing the same circumstances, they are most likely people who share like-minded convictions and philosophies about life and ministry. You may serve together at your church. You may even see yourselves working together after seminary as church planters or mission team members.

If you are clear on denominational leanings, you ought to go to a seminary in that denomination. While you’re in school you’ll start to enlarge your network by meeting current pastors, association leaders, or other seminarians who will pastor in that denomination. So if you’re entertaining the idea of becoming the pastor of a Presbyterian church, then go to a Presbyterian seminary. This might also affect your tuition costs.

COST

Not all schools cost the same. Let me advise you to not go into seminary with the mindset of picking up (more?) school loans. If you were going to be a doctor or lawyer, I might advise differently. However, the reality is that your salary as an associate pastor, youth pastor, or church planter will not be very impressive from a worldly perspective.

Everyone has their story. You may have sold your large house and lived off capital gains through seminary. Or you may have had a gracious family member with a high paying job put you through school. Or you may have had three part time jobs and lived on a diet of granola bars for three years. Whatever it is, you’ll need to figure it out. Also keep in mind that unexpected things might come along, such as marriage or kids.

Try to plan it out and make a wise decision. Try to prevent this scenario: You re-locate and find a couple of jobs. You don’t get a scholarship. You get into a car wreck and run out of money. Somehow you get married. Your wife is pregnant a month later. You pick up another job. You have to cut back to one class and can’t find time to study. You drop your only class. Now you’ve moved cross-country to work at UPS, Wendy’s and the library—but you’re not moving any closer to the work you felt originally called to.

Be smart. Plan a bit. Find scholarships. Stop buying Tim LaHaye novels. Look into church matching funds programs. Resolve to live a Spartan lifestyle. Auction your Veggie Tale collection. Do what it takes and make it happen.

[NOTE: With some of these criteria in mind, you may want to know about the seminaries Cru has established national partnerships with. They are good ones to begin your search with. They vary in theological tradition, location, and cost. The five partnerships are:

  • Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago (www.teds.edu)
  • Dallas Theological Seminary (www.dts.edu)
  • Reformed Theological Seminary with campuses in FL, MS, and DC (www.rts.edu)
  • Bethel Seminary with campus in MN and CA (www.seminary.bethel.edu)
  • Talbot School of Theology (www.talbot.edu)A couple of well know schools to also consider are Southern Seminary in Louisville (www.sbts.edu), Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston (www.gcts.edu), Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis (www.covenantseminary.edu), and Westminister Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (www.wts.edu). I know I left out other good ones and the one your uncle went to, but don’t take it personally. It’s just a sampling.]

    Back to our other selection criteria...

CHURCH

Your seminary training is never meant to be separated from the local church. While you’re in seminary, you should be regularly attending, loving, and being loved by a church. To not do so would be like an Olympic athlete working out but never showing up to compete with his team or like an EMT watching people die. Seminary training equips you to serve God’s people and reach out to others. So as you consider choosing a seminary, try to ask around about churches near that school or in that city.

[NOTE: This may seem odd and like I’m moving you backwards in your process of choosing a seminary, but there are various paths to getting to seminary besides straight out of college. Each has its own advantages or benefits.]

A church family will help you think through your decision to attend seminary. I would suggest doing an internship at your most recent church or finding a church where you can intern. This will benefit you in several ways, mainly showing you what you have or don’t have. What I mean is that you might have a very romanticized view of the pastorate, and this could be corrected or adjusted during the course of the six months or year that you work for the church. On the other hand, you might have the abilities and gifts which will only be enhanced and strengthen by the internship experience. You also might have glaring character issues that surface and your church can help you to address these issues.

Through all of these discoveries, your church will be able to help you assess whether or not you should pursue seminary and when would be the best time to do so. Most seminaries require a “church affirmation” as part of the application process. Remember God brought you into his family, which means your Christianity is always tied to others.

In a similar vein, you could entertain the thought of doing an internship with Cru and getting your feet wet in campus ministry. Perhaps a year or two in campus work would help you to see that ministry is or isn’t your contribution to the Great Commission. It may help you to see the areas you are particularly interested in developing when you do go to seminary.

This is not a recruiting article, but a tertium quid would be to join Cru staff and pursue seminary training through summer seminary classes in the context of ongoing ministry. This would allow you to spread out your degree and pay for it a little at a time. This would also allow you to find ways to integrate it into your current work. Just an option.

CONCLUSION

Confessional-Quality-Connections-Cost-Church. Keep these in mind. You may not find a seminary that meets all your expectations in all these areas, but these should help you to narrow down your best fits. Tuck away in the back of your mind the truth that God is sovereign, is carrying out his plan, is subjecting the whole universe to Jesus Christ, and is placing all things under his feet (Eph 1:20-23). Your decisions are never outside of his wisdom and plan and he intends his people to participate in brining glory to his name and blessing to his people.

I can’t end without suggesting that you read a booklet that has become a classic. It’s called The Religious Life of Theological Students by B. B. Warfield. It would be appropriate to read through it while researching seminaries. You owe it to yourself. Remember that seminary is not meant to make you a Christian or to be responsible for your growth, though that may happen. It is a time for you to be trained in those key disciplines of Christian thought that will help equip you to connect people to Jesus Christ through the Scriptures. If you want more on the same topic, read Keeping Your Balance edited by Philip Duce and Daniel Strange (IVP, 2001).

REFLECTION

1. As a call to pastoral ministry is a significant indicator that seminary may be a wise next step, in what ways has God shown you that a Pastorate may be in your future?
2. Of the different degrees, MDiv., ThM., and MA. What do you think might best fit your future plans?
3. Have you felt called to serve in a particular denomination?
4. In what ways could you benefit from working with a church or on staff with Cru for a couple years as a stepping stone to seminary?
5. In thinking of attending seminary, what areas of study are you most interested to explore?
6. Have you sensed you might have gifting in counseling, teaching, preaching, evangelism or missions?

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