Right about now, my inbox starts to fill up with inquiries about seminary.
Here’s what I usually tell people who are in the seminary discernment process. It’s true what they say: What you get out of seminary depends mostly on what you put into it. There are superb faculty—and superb students—in every seminary in the country.
By Kenda Creasy Dean
Discernment has more to do with fit. Don’t narrow the field too quickly; there are practical issues, such as GPA and finances, which must be considered midway through the process, but start by casting a wide net. You never know when God might show up and part the waters.
Still discerning the next faithful step? Here are questions and tips to help you see if seminary is in your future. Vaya con Dios!
The Big Question:
Most ministry doesn’t require a theological degree, so ask yourself why you want to get one. In the end, there is one—and only one—good reason to go to seminary: because God won’t leave you alone until you do.
Preliminary Questions: What to ask before you hunt for schools
- Is God calling me to a ministry that seminary will help prepare me for?
- Do I want to be ordained? What are the ordination requirements specific to my tradition? Whose approval do I need to go to seminary or start the ordination process?
- What faith tradition do I represent? (Hint: Almost no one is theologically non-denominational; we all have a perspective through which we see Scripture, the church, how God acts in the world, etc. The sooner you own up to an “orienting theological tradition”—even if you want to move away from it—the easier seminary will be. You can always change your mind once you get there.)
- Do I want to be formed with others from the same faith tradition (for instance, by going to a denominational seminary)? Or do I want to be formed alongside people from a variety of traditions?
- With whom do I need/want credibility? Pastors? Academics? Youth ministers? Mainlines? Evangelicals? People inside or outside the U.S.? All of the above? Different schools tend to have different “audiences.” Which “audiences” do I want to serve?
- Are there certain schools I should rule out for vocational or theological reasons? For instance: Does this school prepare people like me for ordination? Does my denomination recognize this school as “legit”? Does the school have the academic program I need? Are there additional requirements if I go to a school outside my denomination? Does this school have a good reputation with the people who might want to hire me?
How to Search for a School that “Fits”:
- Go to the people you most admire in ministry. How did they get to be the kind of ministers they are? Where did they go to seminary?
- Get your degree in a person, not a program. This is the single best advice anyone gave me about graduate school—and the further you go in graduate school, the more important it becomes. Find someone whose way of being in the world and looking at ministry resonate deeply with your soul—and then go study with them. Become a disciple of a disciple you want to emulate.
- Visit the campus. You get more information out of one visit than a lifetime on the Internet. If the school has “prospective student weekends,” take advantage; the school will be on its best behavior, and you’ll learn a lot in a condensed period.
- Imagine yourself living in the school’s community. You have a life to live, and not just a degree to get. If you can’t envision your life in this place, cross the school off your list.
- Talk to students who are already there. Faculty members won’t hide information from you, but students know more. What is the program like that you want to be in? What do they wish they had known when they were applying? Who are their faculty mentors? What does campus life look like for students like you (married, single, second career, straight out of college, etc.)? What churches in the area might you consider for worship or work? Do most students want to be pastors or something else?
Deal-Breaker Questions to Ask Yourself:
- Is the school’s theological vision compatible, but not identical, with mine? Will it stretch me—and am I willing to be stretched—beyond where I already am?
- How will I be prepared for “the Church of 10 Years from Now”?
- Can I imagine myself among the students I have met here? Do I want to be one of them? Do I want to take a long trip with them? Or do I feel like the odd relative at a family reunion?
- How much debt will I incur? Will my family be able to breathe financially once I’m in ministry?
- How much do I like school? What happens to my stomach when I think about being a student again? Do I get excited or am I bracing myself for “more school”? Hint: If the latter . . . run away.
- How easy is the “academic game” for me? Hint: If you struggle with courses that involve lots of reading and writing, don’t sign up for the dual degree program or other extended courses of study.
- Do I need a structured program of spiritual growth? Some schools provide lots of support in spiritual as well as academic formation; others leave spiritual formation up to the student. Hint: If you’re looking for a setting where people sit around and talk about their feelings, go to camp, not seminary.
- Will I have support systems in place while I’m in seminary? Hint: If not, wait to come to seminary until you do. Seminary is designed to challenge you more than support you.
- If I am married or in a serious relationship: Does my spouse/significant other think this school will be good for us? Will s/he be happy here? Is there a community for him/her to plug into? Can s/he pursue some of his or her own dreams while I’m in seminary?
Because if your spouse isn’t happy, nobody’s happy.
Dr. Dean is a UM ordained elder and professor of youth, church and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. She’s the author of Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church.