I will speaking at Gordon-Conwell later today. This has me thinking about seminary. Here are a few questions to ask before you go, as you decide where to go, and while you are there.

Three Questions Before You Go

1. Might you benefit from more experience in the “real world” first? Many students will graduate from college and head off to seminary. This is what I did, so far be it from me to suggest you have to work a “real job” for three years before going. But for many students, seminary will be richer and more helpful with a little more life experience.

2. Will your seminary education be going toward some end which requires such a seminary degree? Graduate school costs money, money you probably don’t have. With so many Christian books, conferences, and online resources these days, you can learn a whole lot on your own. If you are going to seminary because you love Jesus and love the Bible, that’s wonderful, but you may want to consider if there are less costly, less time-consuming, less disruptive ways to keep learning and growing.

3. Are you prepared for a largely academic approach to learning? I am all for academics. I think seminary course work should be challenging. But writing long papers, taking tests, listening to lectures, and reading thousands of pages is not for everyone. Seminary is not like a three year Passion Conference. It is like graduate school. Know what you’re getting in to.

Three Questions as You Decide Where to Go

1. Have you thought about the tradition you want to be a part of? Seminary does not set your trajectory for life, but it will immerse you in a certain culture and tradition. Southern is a good seminary; so is Westminster, so is Trinity. But one will put you in the middle of SBC life, another into the Presbyterian and Reformed world, and another more broadly into evangelicalism (and the Evangelical Free Church). Think about where you’re from and where you want to end up.

2. What is the community like? No seminary aims for lousy community, but some schools are largely commuter campuses while others have a dorm atmosphere that feels like an extension of college. Know what you’re looking for.

3. Are there certain professors you want to learn from? It’s hard for seminaries to be much better (or much worse) than the faculty they employ. One of the reasons I went to Gordon-Conwell was to take classes from David Wells. I was not disappointed. Think about whom you respect and want to be with for 3-5 years.

Three Questions While You’re at Seminary

1. Have I found a good local church? I loved seminary, but without a ground in the local church, you can lose your bearing. You’ll run the risk of being over-intellectual and disconnected from life-on-life ministry. Plus, if you aren’t actively involved in a church you won’t be able to discern whether pastoral ministry is really for you.

2. Are you expecting for seminary to be something it’s not? Most seminaries try hard to provide hands-on learning and make the coursework useful for pastoral ministry. But it can’t replace an internship or on the job training. Don’t get down on seminary because it’s a lot of note taking and paper writing. What did you expect?

3. Are you ok being yourself? Not every student can be the star student. Not every student can be the guitar hero. Not every student can be the guy with experience in 15 countries who speaks 4 languages. That’s ok. Be yourself. Beware of pride, unhealthy competition, and jealousy. Say with Paul, by the grace of God I am what I am.

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43 thoughts on “So You Are Thinking of Going to Seminary?”

  1. Paul says:

    All good advice but Kevin’s a guy who has a successful ministry. Plenty of seminary grads will not end up with a career like Kevin’s. So I would add:
    1. Are you prepared to spend tens of thousands of dollars on an education that leads to one of the worst paid jobs it’s possible for a college graduate to have that’s not being a musician, a social worker or an elementary school teacher?
    2. Do you want a career in which, according to one survey I read, 70% of the people in it have precisely zero people they would consider to be a friend?
    3. Do you want a career in which being married is, to all intents and purposes, a requirement for getting a job but where your employers expect you to work as if you are single and in which (according to another survey) more than 75% said they did not have a “good” marriage?
    4. Do you want a career in which there’s often an unresolveable state of conflict over who really is in charge (eg. the pastor versus the lay elders)?

    Some people think there’s a huge dropout rate from the ministry for seminary grads. An oft quoted statistic is more than half of seminary grads are not in ministry five years after graduating but I don’t know what the basis is for that statistic. But if that’s true, it’s pretty risky to go into this career.

  2. CK says:

    Yeah, sounds risky indeed… but isn’t striving to follow God an often risky venture? I think this is a perspective we’re often far removed from in our culture where convenience is so readily available. That being said, it’s always a good thing to have as much information on a given issue as possible. Thanks for the contrast!

  3. Reader says:

    I think these are excellent points, Kevin. It seems that in some corners we idealize education and knowledge to the point that these kind of questions aren’t being asked and answered honestly.

    And I’m not anti-education; I went to an Ivy as an undergrad and am currently a GCTS student. Learning can be a powerful tool in God’s hand, but that doesn’t mean it has to come from a degree program, and it certainly means that above all we need to seek the power and maturity that come from communion with Jesus. Otherwise our education is vanity.

  4. Trent says:

    Kevin,
    If you changed a few words, these are the EXACT things I used to talk over with college students when I was in college ministry. Great advice. Well said.

  5. Ryan Boyer says:

    I agree with the first two comments, but I also think the questions posed by Kevin are good questions to ask. Further, they are some of the *initial* questions that should be asked by someone considering to go to seminary. I would especially encourage the real world work experience before going. One, it helped me pay off my undergrad loans. Two, it helped to form my heart for the local church, which ultimately reshaped my ministry. Curiously, I may be slightly askew in my agreement with Kevin; we went to the same seminary at the same time. Despite God’s different plans for our ministries, I would still encourage a prospective seminary student to ask these questions.

  6. Nancy says:

    Thank you so much for addressing this topic today. My son is presently considering seminary, and I have forwarded this post to him.

  7. Jason Nicholls says:

    Very good advice on #3 “While You’re At Seminary.” And it will certainly help if seminaries themselves would work toward fostering an environment where students feel valued for being themselves. I remember feeling a little “looked past” in my seminary days because I was a typical, English-only, midwesterner from a small Bible college. Perhaps someone like you can be a voice reminder our seminaries and their faculties of this.

  8. Chris Land says:

    This is great advice and wish I had that when I started seminary. I started Southwestern Seminary in Ft. Worth back in 2000 and stop attending in 2002. I do have the desire to finish but I feel attending seminary would hinder my ministry. Not to mention, I have learn a lot from the last 4 years than I have learned from Seminary. If I do go back, I would love to go to Southern but I would have to uproot my family to Louisville.

    It amazes me that churches require seminary degrees from individuals who are more Biblical Illiterate than guys who know more about the Bible than seminary graduates. My only reason for attending seminary would to get a good church position. I know the apostles would never get some of the 21st century churches because they did not attend seminary, but hanged with Jesus for 3 years.

    I am not trying to talk people out of seminary, but I know it may hinder a lot of people doing ministry right now.

  9. mnmike says:

    2. Will your seminary education be going toward some end which requires such a seminary degree?

    I’m really grateful for this list. #2 is the question my local church challenged me on very strongly. Instead I am in an unpaid internship with the church. If it turns out that I have giftings for pastoral ministry, then seminary may make more sense. Plus, as you mentioned, there are so many resources now to facilitate education without the high cost of seminary. Seminary clearly has a role to play, but not necessarily as the first step towards full-time ministry.

  10. Brian says:

    I’m a 41-year-old with a B.S. in Computer and Information Science, who is serving in lay ministry as an interpreter (I work with a predominantly-immigrant Spanish-language congregation in addition to attending the church I grew up in) and institute-level Bible instructor. Like Kevin said, I’ve learned a lot in the last 3 years reading books and blogs and listening to podcasts from conferences and other churches.

    I have some practical experience under my belt, both in the secular workplace and the local church. I feel I do a decent job of teaching and explaining things (at least the students in my Bible classes tell me that). So question 2 under “before you go” becomes key. Since I would like to pursue full-time teaching at a Bible college or in the Bible department of a Christian university, I need the seminary degree.

  11. Tony says:

    Here’s two more:

    1)”Are you really willing to serve the Lord 55+ hours every week for the rest of your life?” This has been a jolt to my system as a young pastor, its a reality that alot of guys need to know; pastors don’t get true “weekends.”

    2)Are you actively serving in a local church as you are studying at seminary? This one is more of a piggyback on what Kevin mentioned…it always blows my mind to see guys studying so hard to serve the Lord in seminary for the rest of their lives, yet they neglect the responsibility to serve their church while in school. Plus you can just flat out get over saturated with content when studying, so it good to “squeeze the sponge” a bit and bless others in your church by sharing what you are learning.

  12. Shepherd says:

    These are all fantastic points. Really great wisdom in this article.

    One that I might add would be

    Have you discussed these thoughts about going to seminary with your pastor / elders?

    I think there is an importance in having the support and wisdom of your local church on this matter. It is important to remember that we are not merely called by God but that this call is recognized and affirmed by the church itself. Your pastor / mentors will be able to give you further direction, probably, in what you should do / where you should go etc. Or at least some wisdom in how to go about making that decision.

    Shepherd
    from the Knight Blog

  13. Brian LePort says:

    All great point of advice. Thanks Kevin.

  14. Mark Hershey says:

    Great insight Kevin. I’ve recently finished seminary and thoroughly enjoyed it – Your questions were dead on. I wish I would have thought about them when I was starting seminary. The questions “while you are at seminary” would have especially helped me. Depending on where you go, it really is so easy to compare yourself to others or to find yourself complaining about the work load. Also, friends of mine who did not connect with a local church during seminary really struggled in their walk.

    Let me know if you have any insights or article recommendations about “recovering from seminary” :) or helpful advice for the transition from seminary to full time ministry! Thanks

  15. This may sound funny, but almost any time I end up talking about going to seminary, my wife gets pregnant. I have four children. . . .

    When my friend was encouraging me to go to seminary, I explained this to him and he said something like, “I have an easy solution. Don’t talk seminary in the bedroom!”

  16. Timothy says:

    On the first question relating to where you might go. Might there be value in going to somewhere not slap bang in the middle of where you are already? The reaon why Tim Keller and John Piper get along is that they each find it easy to relate to someone outside their own tradition. But how does this happen? Pehaps greater mixing of the traditions would be of benefit. Might there be value in Baptists going to TEDS or Westminster, or Presbyterians going to Southern?

  17. Mike says:

    Mark, I am with you, I will finish seminary (SEBTS) in May and have entered the “transition” phase. If you are looking to be a senior pastor of a small church, youth or music you are golden. If you are looking for an associate role, it seems scarce. I have to remind myself that the Lord is sovereign and will open the door in his timing. Nonetheless, it is a challenging place to be.

  18. RJ says:

    I have looked at a number of seminaries the last few years. People have given me mixed responses about (DTS) Dallas Theological Seminary.

    Comments anyone?

  19. Benj Petroelje says:

    Timothy, I understand your comment regarding the “mixing” of traditions but the irony of the schools you list is that we’re still talking about schools within an extremely narrow band-width of eachother. All three schools define themselves in terms of a fairly narrow, conservative, evangelical theology. And they’re all American institutions. I’m not trying to say that there is anything wrong with that, or that any of those schools are bad. I did extension-site course work through TEDS and now I’m doing my MDiv at Regent College in Vancouver, BC. My only point is let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that within those three schools anyone is really cross-pollinating with anything close to the broader range of Theological Graduate Institutions available. Of course graduates of those schools will get along. They’re being educated by and encultured in very similar institutions (again, comparative to the theological spectrum available).

    I, personally, find great value in the Regent model – that of interdenominationalism. Regent doesn’t ignore denominations, acting as if they don’t exist or matter (the weakness of non-denominationalism). In fact, they very much encourage people to be rooted in and informed by their traditions. But the wonderful part of Regent is that, in bumping up against people from various traditions, theological backgrounds and perspectives, one is actually able to deal critically and consciously with their tradition – and not merely be “encultured” by it uncritically. This, I agree with you, is the value of doing graduate education at a school whose professors are not solely teaching from a certain tradition. The breadth of my learning increases dramatically.

    But, of course, there are strengths to denominational seminaries as well – particularly for those knowing what denomination they want to pastor in and are seeking ordination within that denomination.

  20. Benj Petroelje says:

    Sorry – my “interdenominational” should have been “transdenominational” above.

  21. Mark Hunter says:

    Question: was Jesus ever asked “Lord, which Bible school should I study at”, or, “Lord, teach us how to study the Biblex”.

    No.

    But he was asked “Lord, teach us how to pray”.

    Where are the Prayer Schools?

    I’m never done being amazed at the North American infatuation with studying the Bible, achieving academic credentials and letters after names.

  22. Timothy says:

    Dear Benj
    I take your point. I am English and not qualified to judge the academic institutions in America. But I think there is real value in conservatives tackling at least open evangelicalism and open evangelicals conservatism. I went to a moderately conservative establishment for my BA, a Barthian place for my MA and a moderately liberal place for my PhD. I learnt lots from each. I remain moderately conservative (I did not lose my faith!).

  23. Andy Devine says:

    I must say this article could not have come at a better time in my life. I was feeling pressured to get my M.Div simply because in my area that I live in, most people view that as what it “takes” to be a pastor. But I do have BA in Biblical Studies and some may say well you need an M.Div on top of that, but for me God hasn’t “called” me to get a degree but to be in ministry. I know in some ways an M.Div may help me in ministry, but as Kevin said there are many free resources out there that I can continue learning and still have time as a married with two kids bi-vocational associate pastor to devote to my family and personal spiritual growth. :) Thanks KEVIN!! And everyone else who commented to help affirm some things that I need some confirmation on.

  24. Andrew Hall says:

    http://www.biblicaltraining.org/

    Just in case you’re reading this and unaware of this free resource, Biblical Training provides free audio lectures from professors at Western, Gordon-Conwell, and other seminaries. There is a wealth of resources here from which any elder or lay leader can benefit.

    Also — I was listening to a Gospel Coalition interview of James MacDonald (Harvest Bible Chapel, Chicago), who said that you’re ready for full-time ministry when the church needs full-time what you’re already doing part-time. Challenging.

  25. Benj Petroelje says:

    Timothy,

    Thanks for the gracious response. I certainly wasn’t challenging you personally on what you said – I applaud you for attending three educational intitutions that represent a varied spectrum. My only point was that, as evangelicals, it doesn’t make sense to pat ourselves on the back for being “diverse” by attending one of the three schools listed – like I said, all of those schools approach theology from within a fairly narrow band-width of conservative evangelicalism. One isn’t exactly receiving a broad range of opinion at any of those places.

  26. I think the point about working is a good one. In saying that the ministers who’ve had the most profound influence on me, never had a secular job. But generally, I think it’s good to pay a bit of tax / rent / experience ordinary life for a period. I’ve also been helped by the heaps of stuff off itunes from WTS, Covenant, RTS and elsewhere. There’s no excuse in our day and age for academic laziness from evangelicals.

  27. Jeremy says:

    As a recent seminary graduate who wishes he hadn’t gone, I would like to add a few things. Right now is probably the worst time to go to seminary when it comes to being able to get a job afterward. Churches are cutting back with regard to staff, and I don’t see the situation getting any better in the near future. I went to a good school, have first class references, and haven’t been able to get a job in almost two years. Churches expect you (or someone) to spend anywhere between 30k-60k to get a degree, but pay you at the far low end of the pay spectrum. I am stuck with loans for the next 10 years, loans that are going to keep me from being able to save much money at all. And I am single. I can’t imagine what I would do if I had a family. I took a job where you don’t need any education and it pays more than what I have seen from churches with much better benefits (as in many churches who want to pay you part-time money for doing full-time work). I am academically inclined, but didn’t have the grades to get into a PhD progam. But I realized I am not really pastorally inclined either. So I am just an over-educated layperson with tons of debt. There are just so many people who apply for every job posting that they only consider people who have experience. And even after numerous internships and volunteering for 10 years, I can’t get into full-time ministry. I am still active in my church, but I am not where I want to be. Maybe I am not cut out for ministry. Maybe there won’t be the number of full-time jobs out there that I thought there would be. But just be careful about getting into tons of debt. If you just want to learn a lot about the Bible but aren’t cut out for ministry, try to become self-taught.

  28. Mike Winters says:

    These are excellent things to meditate on and consider. I, myself, am on an eventual trajectory to seminary and some of these things really help me out in weighing the cost and making sure my intentions and motives are pure, as well as allowing myself a proper idea of what to expect.

    Thank you for your wisdom, as someone who’s been through it, Kevin.

  29. Great advice, and similar to what my pastor told me when I asked the same question. I love that you weren’t afraid to point out that there are many non-seminary paths to serving and learning deeply about God and the Bible (and less costly, too).

    Discerning your call from God is so critical. Are you being called to serve, or to be a pastor? There’s a huge difference. I thought I was being called to pastor, but with time and prayer, my ministry was intended through writing and sharing online. Good, too, because I lack development in some of the relational skills that pastors must have.

  30. Timothy says:

    I am sure that this is an inadvertent mistake, but to ask whether one is called to serve or to pastor implies a very strange view of pastoring. As Jesus makes clear in Mark 10:42-45 and parallels the number one requirement for a pastor is that they be servants of all.
    As for the lack of relational skills, many of us will know of pastors completely lacking in these.
    Perhaps a heart of love for others, a commitment stubbornly to serve, and personal holiness are more important than social/relational skills. These David may well have but I am sure that what he does is equally important and so he need not regret the path his career has taken.

  31. Timothy says:

    Someone else has written about semnaries that we should avoid the following:

    I would also add those seminaries where the Faculty is comprised of people where 90% have a ThM from the school they are teaching at and at least 75% of their Faculty have PhDs from the seminaries they are teaching at.

    He actually goes on to name some but any applying for a seminary or the equivalent should glance over the faculty to see if it is true of the one they are considering.

  32. Damion says:

    Thank you for these words Kevin.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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