Questions from my students: should I go to seminary?

Obviously this question is highly personal and requires a certain level of relationship between the question-asker and the respondent. Still, I have received this question dozens of times in just this last year as I have wrapped up my own journey through seminary, and I feel equipped to write out some general thoughts about graduate ministry training.

Right out of the gate, I have to acknowledge my bias towards seminary: I am a huge fan of higher education — college and beyond — and my personal experience in academia was very positive. I attended Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon through a cohort program (they’re now making it available for all to apply for; it used to be top secret) and the pace, curriculum, professors, administrative support, library resources, etc., all exceeded my expectations. This certainly has everything to do with the response I give below.

I should also say this response is geared towards those attending seminaries to get theological degrees like a Master’s in Biblical Studies or an Master’s in Divinity. Many seminaries, including Western, offers many other degrees of which I will not comment. If you’re thinking about counseling or executive coaching or organizational leadership, just click away from this page because I’m not sure I’ll be of much help. I lead a School of Ministry and I am a pastor. My response comes from my background as a pastor and it will serve potential future pastors/theologians/ministry leaders probably best.

I’ve organized these general thoughts with two different beginnings to two different sentences. One starts with, “Go to seminary if…” and the other begins with “Do NOT go to seminary if…” There’s tons of nuance in between these two sentences, and I would not recommend reading this article as your sole counsel in regards to deciding whether or not to attend seminary, but maybe this will get your brain moving towards the right direction. So, without further ado…

Go to seminary if…

…You desire to ground your theology. When I was thinking about going to seminary, a mentor of mine at the time told me not to expect to learn how to do ministry or pastor people in seminary — only actually leading/serving people will teach you that. Instead, he told me, go to seminary to get your theological foundation in order. He was right. I learned my best ministry practices in the church, but I learned my best theology in seminary.

…You desire to be in leadership in a church one day. In our age, it’s certainly possible to lead a church without an education (I’m restraining myself from ranting on this for another six paragraphs), but I wouldn’t use those leaders as a model. Usually, leaders who lack education make up for that education with a remarkable set of skills and giftedness many of us do not have. Some young pastors have incredible spiritual gifts (that is, activity done by God through them) of knowledge, wisdom, and teaching. They’ve got it in spades and they’ve been able to succeed and grow without the help of a formal education. They are not the rule, but the exception to it. For many of us who desire to lead churches in any capacity, seminary education will prove to be necessary. Do not be fooled, to lead a church in the 21st century one does not need organizational and management skills or a talent for communication. Although these things help, what pastors today need in a well of Biblical and theological reflection from which they can draw.

…You crave a deeper and wider understanding of Scripture. This is connected to the first one, but is maybe more specific. Many people will not be in senior leadership at churches, but they will be Bible study leaders, biblical counselors, worship leaders, youth pastors, and many other occupations as they serve the church. That’s most people I talk to about seminary. But if I sense a person has a deep desire to know the Bible and their idea of a good afternoon or evening is studying Scripture, digging into commentaries, and reading theology texts, seminary might be for them. They may never be on staff at a church — or maybe they will be — but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is when I see a person hungry for more of the Bible in their brain. This was me, to an extent. I remember reading through Romans 9–11 in my early 20s and thinking, I just want someone to help me with this…I want to spend a month thinking through this and getting help with it. In seminary, I did.

Do NOT go to seminary if…

…Theology kind of bores you. The vast majority of Christians love God and their neighbors but struggle reading theology books and commentaries. The seminarians are the weird ones. Most people care tons about God, but their faith expresses itself with childlike simplicity. They read their Bibles, they pray, they love their neighbors, they listen intensely to sermons, they worship God with their work and lives, and they love their neighbor as themselves. This fulfills the law and the prophets, Jesus would say, and you don’t need a seminary education to live a faithful Christian life, thankfully. Many people contemplate seminary without thinking about the practical side to you: you will read a lot of theology. A good idea is to look at class titles for any seminary degree and gauge your reaction. Does the class title, “Pauline Theology” excite you or bore you? How about an entire class on the book of Ezekiel? If these things make your eyes glaze over you’re not a bad Christian, but you may not make the best seminarian.

…You desire to outsmart your leaders. This may sound crazy, but I’ve encountered it several times, especially in Evangelical circles lacking a kind of intellectual rigor. This is mostly a problem with men, but some people desire to go to seminary in order to be the guy who knows more than elders, lead pastors, etc. Some youth pastors see seminary as the perfect opportunity to skip the steps of ministry formation even Jesus himself took: a long, disciplined life of study. Seminary is not a short cut to theological brilliance, but a foundation on which we build the rest of our lives as pastor-theologians. It begins our life of study, it does not complete it.

…You don’t have the time. No one has time for graduate school. As Dallas Willard says, “Time is never found, it is made.” You will have to make time for seminary, just like any schooling in adult life. But I heard somewhere that one should make a plan before building a tower. Can you make the time for graduate school? If it is worth it, do it. If you want an advanced degree, go for it. But don’t be fooled into thinking you’ll “find time” for seminary — you won’t. You’ll need to make it.

Conclusion

This is already too long and I edited this as much as I could. Are there more reasons to go to seminary? Of course! Are there more reasons not to? Definitely. My final conviction is that we need more seminary-trained pastors than untrained pastors. There is still a huge value in spending 3–4 years of your adult life reflecting on Scripture and studying with those who have studied it for years. Pastors are a uniquely trained bunch. We are not formed by “the patterns of this world” but we are shaped by the Scriptures and the theological minds who have come before us. Is this “practical?” Hardly. But the Christian life has very little room for that word anyway.

How have you thought through seminary? I’d love to hear from you to keep the conversation going. Comment here or shoot me a message on Twitter: @chrisnye

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Chris Nye

Living in Portland, Oregon with my wife and son. Doctoral candidate at Duke University. Author of a few books: chrisnye.co/books