Christian reflections

So You Want to Go to Seminary

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You love Jesus. You love learning. You’re interested in serving in ministry. The question comes up…

Should you go to seminary?

It’s a spiritual question, of course, but it’s a practical one as well. I’m deeply grateful for my seminary degree and experience, but there are a few things I wish I would have thought through before heading out to graduate school.

If you’re thinking about seminary, a few things to consider:

1. Can you do what you feel God is calling you to do without going to seminary?

This probably isn’t a question you want to start with, but it’s an important one. Seminary can seem glamorous. It isn’t. Seminary can seem like it will teach you all the answers. It won’t. Seminary can seem like a glorious escape from the mundane aspects of daily life into the beauties of theology, Biblical knowledge, and pastoral care. It won’t be.

My husband and I went to seminary because we felt called to ordained ministry in the Presbyterian Church. That’s fairly impossible without an Master’s of Divinity or its equivalent. The road ahead necessitated ordination, so we pursued it.

Still, there are tons of ministry careers that don’t require ordination. Do you feel called to children’s ministry? Specialized training might be better. Are you interested in working in a nondenominational or other non-Mainline church? You may be better served with a Master’s Degree than an M.Div., which can be done at a variety of schools – not just seminary. Are you still discerning your career path? Take a class or two at a seminary, but don’t move across the country until you’re fairly certain it’s what God has for you. There are ways to dip your toe in the seminary waters without diving in headfirst.

It’s also important to remember that a seminary degree does not guarantee a ministry position. It’s competitive out there. It took me seven months after seminary to find a pastoral call, and those months seemed like an eternity. Yet I was one of the blessed ones who found something within a year – many people look for years. Many others end up cobbling together part-time ministry work with other part-time work just to make ends meet.

2. Are you secure in your personal faith?

Seminary is a place where you can deepen and broaden your faith, but if you head to seminary hoping that it will clarify your deepest faith questions – think again. Seminary at its best exists to give you tools – exegesis, textual criticism, Greek and Hebrew language, homiletics. Gone are the days when seminaries concerned themselves primarily with the care of souls. If your faith is shaky, seminary will only shake it further.

One seminary friend of mine once described going to seminary like walking into a Men’s Warehouse.

“If you go in there and say, ‘I’d like a navy blue suit, white shirt, and red tie,’ you’ll come out looking good. But if you go in there and say, ‘Dress me!’ you might walk out looking like Lloyd or Harry from Dumb & Dumber.” True dat.

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[Photo borrowed from Collider.]

3. What is your plan to cover the cost?

This isn’t the most spiritual of questions, but it’s important. Don’t mortgage your future for a seminary degree. Unlike medical or law school, you likely aren’t going to earn six figures after seminary ever. If you go into serious debt, you’ll have to carry it for decades.

My husband and I attended seminary simultaneously, and were blessed to attend a denominationally affiliated one that covered our full tuition expenses. Yet we still had to pay to live which, as we soon realized, is what most people work full-time to be able to do. In seminary working full time was difficult, and bills soon piled up. I worked three part-time jobs while Daryl studied extra hard in hopes that he’d be able to earn both entry and a stipend in a future PhD program (and he did, thanks be to God).

We ate a lot of beans, rice, and lentils. We actually learned to really like beans, rice, and lentils. We shopped at thrift stores. We sold one of our cars. Date night became a walk around the mall and a shared cup of cocoa. But as frugal as we were, life is life and there were still things like dental bills and library fines (ahem, Daryl…) that couldn’t be put off. So we graduated with some debt. We payed off one of our major loans a few years ago (HAL-LE-LU-JAH), but still have a couple more to go. Our seminary debt is not crushing, but it’s always there. And this is debt we have after not paying any seminary tuition.

Granted, we went to seminary together, which is a bit unusual. Folks with a working spouse have less of an uphill battle. Singles who can live in dorms have a little bit of an easier go, too. Your unique situation will play into your financial state at seminary and beyond.

So think through the finances. You don’t want your future ministry hampered by you needing to work a parcel of additional part-time jobs. You want to safeguard your family’s future. God will and does provide, so be wise, not fearful. But do crunch the numbers so you don’t get a nasty surprise upon graduation.

4. Are you committed to finding a church while in seminary?

I can’t tell you the number of friends and colleagues I have who went off to seminary and then stopped attending church. This. Is. NOT. Good.

I get it, though. It’s tempting to start skipping church. When you head off to seminary you’ll likely end up far from home, and building new Christian community at church as well as seminary seems like a lot of work. Your academic workload will be significant, so those Sunday morning hours seem alluringly perfect for study time. Additionally, Sunday worship, filled with actual people who are messy and real and perhaps even irritating from time to time, and a pastor whose sermon is not quite up to snuff compared to all the St. Augustine and Bonhoeffer and Julian of Norwich you’ve been reading, these things add up to an uphill battle. Almost everyone goes through a phase at seminary where they feel like the local church is just kind of beneath them.

Fight. This. Feeling.

It’s just pride, pure and simple. If you are training for the ministry, you must keep submitting yourself to the work of God among the people of God. This means faithfully attending worship whether you feel like it or not. It means submitting to sermons and prayers and songs you didn’t choose or write or plan. It means gathering with diverse people who aren’t theologians or scholars but instead retirees, young parents, teenagers, business people, doctors, teachers, and homeless folks, to worship the God who unites us all.

Seminary will train you, but God will form you. When God becomes someone you talk about more than someone you talk to and worship, it’s time to leave seminary. When you can critique a sermon but not be convicted by one, it’s time to leave seminary. When you can write an A paper on the Book of Job but have stopped reading your Bible for God’s word to you, it’s time to leave seminary.

Daryl and I drove an hour each way to worship while we attended seminary. There were many, many Sundays where it seemed more prudent to stay home. To sleep in. To fill those hours with study. Yet we committed to each other and to the Lord that we would worship every week, to remember whose we were.

Commit to this. See it through.

If you’re not committed to a local church now, ask some hard questions about why seminary entices you.

 

Those of you who have gone to seminary, what would you add to this list?

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