When my wife and I began seriously praying through seminary as a “next step,” I relied heavily upon the accounts of others' experiences on particular campuses. I found blogs written similar to some of my own - “Hello world! Praise God - we’re at seminary. I’ll be checking in on the regular to give you all the updates about our journey. Talk soon!” Inevitably, the Wordpress or Blogspot account was vacated 3 posts later and, true to life, this is almost exactly what happened to me.
At the risk of these suggestions sounding overly practical, I should note from the outset that your time in the Word and in prayer will outpace your budgeting and degree completion plans by an astronomical margin. Ultimately, the Holy Spirit is the one who will direct and guide, giving you the wisdom and discernment needed to make a wise decision. That being understood, here are five areas to take a long, hard look at before making a committment to pursue seminary training for the next three to four years of your life.
Many people are motivated by the logic of the seminary decision. A man or woman feels called into a certain ministry context, but, having just completed an undergradutate degree, still feels ill-equipped for the task. Seminary is a great place to work out some of the minutia of one's call while receiving top-notch biblical training. Others do not sense a need for seminary at all. While one's intuition may be trustworthy here, the feeling alone doesn't necessarily mean seminary training isn't still a right choice. For all the things many "never learned in seminary," there are dozens more that I've only learned because we're here. I spent ten years in various ministry positions before pursuing a seminary degree and do not regret my "trial by fire." But I'm unbelievably excited about the next ten years in ministry because of the way I've been shaped by my seminary experience.
This is the most common piece of advice I hear, but I get the feeling that hasn’t always been the case. It’s easier to look at course offerings, degree programs, tuition, and any number of other things that are more logical selling points. But you should know that “New Testament I” and “Apologetics” can be offered on an optimal course schedule at a steeply discounted rate, all while truly being undersold within the walls of a classroom. This rises and falls on the quality of the individuals hired to lecture week-in and week-out.
Credentials matter, so yes, scour the faculty bios and look up post-graduate institutions you’ve never heard of. See what they’ve published and read of their ministry involvement. In addition to those things, and as best as you can tell, be on the lookout for those who are diligent in their preparation and who find that blessed admixture of stewardship and joy in the role God has placed them. These professors tend to stay after class, hidden in the center of a circle of students peppering them with questions. You see them in a coffee shop, chatting with one of your peers about life, ministry, and all manner of different things.
During my own decision-making process, the faculty at Midwestern wasn’t what it is now, and it likely still does not compare to what it will be in the future. It was a rare case in which I could easily recognize a promising trajectory. Confidence in where the school was heading in terms of faculty choices grew as I discerned the school's leadership team was serious about the work God had placed them in the midst of.
You can get a feel for where a school is at currently pretty easily. Ask a few questions here and there, take a look at how things are, etc. What might not be as obvious is the direction the school is headed.
- Does the top-level leadership of the school have vision for what the institution is going to be?
- Do they speak openly of their hopes, dreams, and prayers for what the school can and will become?
- Is there any forward thinking at all? How are past mistakes addressed? Are they addressed at all?
- Do leaders within the institution give a sense of their dependence on God for institutional progress?
- Where does credit go when things are looking up? Where does blame fall when the tables turn?
I get it - leadership gurus don’t have what it takes to cure what ails the church, but visionary leadership at the helm of a theological institution is worth its weight in gold. All these questions and many more like them help gauge the temper of an institution simply by helping you get a feel for the type of people who are in charge.
Do not kid yourself into thinking you’ll spend all of your time clocked in at work or with your nose in your books. It will definitely feel that way at times, but you’ll need to do at least some of what normal human beings do as well. The seminary community is not always easily assessable, but going in with the understanding that relationships you form during your years there could last the rest of your life will help you immensely.
I consider myself to be introverted by nature, but knew I would only get out of my seminary experience what I put in as far as engaging relationally. Believe me, there have been some incredibly awkward experiences. I am far from being natural at this. Even still, I’ve found the risk has been well worth the reward. There are brothers and sisters who I was unaware even existed three years ago who I now consider some of my closest friends.
It's possible I went completely against protocol in this regard. My wife and I settled on Midwestern as our future place of study site-unseen. I read as much as I could, e-mailed a few people, talked on the phone with admissions, then said “Yes.” I suppose I was very much a model prospective student. I digress.
Three weeks before we were to scheduled to pack our U-Haul and uproot our lives, we thought it wise to actually visit Kansas City. We needed a place to eventually unload our things after all. We made the trip of our own accord, stayed in a budget hotel for a long, sleepless night, made a requisite trip to Joe's KC Barbecue, and set up an impromptu visit with an admissions counselor at the school. It was only then, walking around the campus for the first time, that we knew we’d said “Yes” for the right reasons.
When You Know, You Know
I'm not prone to putting stock in things that just "feel right," but truly, the campus and city did. Call it discernment or the Lord giving us an answer, but we knew. A friend of mine once mentioned to me that often, when he’s praying through big decisions, it feels like some doors open easier than others. The door to our future seminary home offered very little resistence.
We made the initial visit with a “No” still in our back pocket, but by the grace of God, we were able to cash that in and have enjoyed our time here in Kansas City. In just over a month, I will join other brothers and sisters in walking across the graduation platform, receiving tangible validation for a job well-done. And, at some point during that graduation day, I'll find some time to myself and I'll thank God for the intangible benefits we've received in and through the seminary community, those things we'd never have known about if we had not trusted God with the details of this season of ministry training.