“I’m considering going to seminary. Do you have any advice?”
This conversation happens often enough–a few times a semester, and twice in the last two weeks—that I’ve compiled a list of questions I ask potential seminarians. I use these to prime the pump for our conversation and their discernment.
Of course I have recommendations about specific seminaries, but I prefer to save that for the end. I’ve found it’s far better to first ask good questions that draw out the convictions and interests of the young seminarian-padawan before putting in my specific recommendations.
So here are 10 questions to ask when considering seminary:
1) What do you want to study in seminary?
– Systematic theology?
– Biblical theology?
– Church history?
That’s just a small sample. Any reputable seminary will offer all these options and more, but they do different things better than others. What you want to learn impacts the research you should be doing in terms of reputation and ultimately where you should go.
It may be that what’s really motivating you to look at seminary doesn’t require the full investment of a degree. Say you’ve always wanted to read the New Testament in Greek. You don’t have to go to seminary for that—I minored in Ancient Greek at a state university and was reading the New Testament for college credit. So there may be other options depending on what you really want to study.
2) What degree do you want to get?
This is closely related to what you want to study. Are you looking at a Master of Arts? A Master of Divinity? An MA is often a 2-year degree (full-time, of course). An M.Div is often 3-4 years (going full-time). Are you looking for something else, perhaps a certificate in one specific area (like counseling)? What’s your terminal degree? Are you going to aim for a Th.M or Ph.D or D.Min? Those considerations factor into where you go for the masters level degree.
3) What do you want to do after seminary?
Full-time (vocational) ministry? Or do you want this to supplement the ministry that every member of the church is called to?
If vocational ministry, what kind?
– Pastoral ministry?
– Other church work?
– International missions?
– Non-profit work?
– Something else?
– Not sure?
Like their course offerings, different seminaries are strong in different areas of preparation. You’ll want to research the reputation and talk to current students and alumni about their experiences.
4) What’s your theological orientation?
How would you describe your theological convictions? How defined and set are they? For example, in your doctrine of salvation are you Reformed/Calvinist? More Arminian? Not sure?
Do you have defined views on Scripture? What do you believe about inerrancy, inspiration, and canon?
How about denominations? What’s your history there? Where do you align within the broader evangelical world (and how do you feel about the term “evangelical”?).
What about church governance/polity? Lead Pastor led? Staff led? Elder led? Board led? What are your convictions about local church autonomy, vs. more hierarchical systems such as a presbytery (e.g., presbyterian system) or bishops (e.g., Anglican).
Where do you fall on the conservative/”progressive” continuum in terms of gender roles, sexuality, etc? How do you feel about women’s leadership in the church?
What are your beliefs and practice on charismatic expressions of worship and church life? Schools vary to the degree they affirm or deny the use of spiritual gifts for today. If this is an important aspect of your life and experience, factor that in to where you go.
If these questions about theological orientation are a bit fuzzy to you, let’s zoom out a bit. Who are your theological heroes, living and dead? Ask where they would go today. Or, what authors and websites of a christian/theological nature do you read most often? This will tell you a great deal about your “tribe” even if you don’t have the vocabulary to articulate it yet.
5) Are you willing to relocate?
If so, how far? What kind of context are you looking for?
– Hot/cold climate?
– Coastal or inland? And so on.
These questions shouldn’t be determinative, but nor are they inconsequential. You’re going to be there for a while—you’ll want to like living there.
6) Will you be going full-time?
Will you be trying to work FT or PT while going to school?
What will you be doing to earn $$$?
Will you be taking out more loans? If so, how much, and how much debt are you already carrying? Is this a wise financial decision?
For students already carrying a heavy debt load, it’s increasingly advisable to work a bit while paying down your debt before pursuing further study. A seminary degree is of great value, eternally speaking, but not in the financial compensation department.
7) Will you be doing all or part of this work online?
Is a school’s digital offerings an important factor?
This isn’t simply about you telecommuting and doing an entire degree by distance ed—though that’s increasingly viable. Even if you relocate across the country, you may find a demanding work schedule (gotta pay the bills) might keep you from scheduling all your classes. The more online offerings, the more flexibility you have.
8) Any other factors influencing your decision?
A girlfriend or boyfriend or fiancee?
Proximity to family?
Proximity to a local church you’re connected to?
The final two questions are the most important, regarding calling. Calling has both a “vibe” (internal sense) and “ringtone” (external sense), and both are important.
9) How would you describe your sense of calling, internally?
What leads you to believe pursuing seminary is the next step for you?
Do you believe this is God’s direction for you? Why?
Have you been praying about this? What are you asking for, and what are you hearing?
10) What do those who know you and love you think of this idea?
Are they confirming this as a calling? Can they see you flourishing in seminary? Are you having a hard time explaining your rational to them? Are there cautions or red flags?
These questions aren’t exhaustive, nor does addressing all of them exhaust the topic. But they do set the stage for a helpful conversation that gives the potential seminarian food for thought in their discernment process. Would you add any questions to this list?