What I learned in Seminary: Introduction

For many, theological centers of learning are an enigma. No one knows what goes on inside those sacred walls, yet they feel compelled to know what takes place inside. If someone feels a distinct “call” or urging to work in pastoral ministry, the idea of learning the Bible in a more detailed way often comes up before long.

The decision to attend seminary[1] is a personal journey. As such, everyone’s story is different. The beginning of my journey toward theological learning is centered in my unique call story. The sensation of feeling “called” to preach, along with the drive to seek training in order to do it, were linked. For some, attending seminary is a lifelong goal that they set aside for the time when the kids are out of the house. For others, it is a second career. Everyone has a unique situation that leads them there.

Those unique call stories do not lessen the impact of some serious factors when attending seminary. Seminary is not for everyone, dare I say, it is not for most. When people ask me, “Should I go to seminary,” I tend to get into a polite, but serious mindset. One thing that many people fail to realize about seminary is this: it is graduate school. A Master of Divinity program, which is the standard degree for ordination in most denominations, takes about three years to complete. And completion is in three years is only if someone attends full time, with a couple of summer classes here and there. The financial commitment is immense. Most seminary graduates graduate with crippling debt[2]. And since the vast majority of seminary graduates seek pastoral positions—which are shrinking in number and pay—the effort is effectively dooming them to a life of poverty.

Perhaps Jesus wouldn’t mind that, but most of us would.

I also strive to inform the asker that attending seminary is an intellectual enterprise. As stated above, I was more certain of my intellectual call before I figured out what church to align with. That is, I pursued the call to learn before I pursued the call to preach. However, that is not the case for most. The majority of seminary students pick up theological education as a requirement for ordination. This in and of itself is not a problem. Unfortunately, it can cause seminary to only be an event to check off on the list, not one to actively engage. In this case, seminary becomes merely a requirement to check off the list. Because the academic life of the mind and the practice of faith are seen as antithetical to so many, there is often no cross pollination of the ideas learned in the classroom into what comes over the pulpit.

There are a number of reasons for this. Theological reflection takes effort, and most don’t like their deeply held assumptions challenged. Also, many denominations still require certain beliefs to be affirmed for ordination. So while the important may be great to discuss in class, students will still toe the line in regards to denominational rules.

After that, I inform the person of the work involved. You’ll have to read a lot. You’ll have to write a lot. Your writing and method of thinking and believing will be critiqued harshly. If you don’t like to write (and don’t want to learn to write better), if you don’t like to read, if you don’t like to engage and interrogate your own ideas, than you probably shouldn’t go to seminary. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say this: unless you are in a denomination that requires seminary education for ordination, or you desire to pursue doctoral level work in religion, then you shouldn’t go to seminary.[3]

There are many other ways to become theologically knowledgeable that don’t involve thousands of dollars and hours. I recommend those to people first. They still require effort and critical thinking, but they aren’t as taxing or expensive as navigating through a seminary program. Even if you don’t officially attend, seminaries are a great resource. Search the profiles of professors that work at various seminaries and see what books or articles they’ve written. Go to your local bookstore (or public library) and peruse the religion section. Search for them on the Internet. As you read, pay attention to the sources that the authors use.

If reading is not your thing, there’s yet another way. Take those same names you found while searching for books, books that you don’t want to read. Type their names in YouTube. You’ll be surprised at how many give talks that are frequently uploaded. Maybe reading 300 pages is daunting to you, but listening to a 20 minute talk should serve just fine. Also, many are converting their books into audiobooks or even on iTunes University. You’ll find some gems if you look for a while.

If that information doesn’t deter one from going to seminary, then I get into the big question. That is, “Where will I go to pursue theological education?” That is a vital question, and must be considered with prayerful research and consideration. I’ll address it in the next post.

[1] I use “seminary” as a blanket term for ease of understanding. There are actually several types of places that one could pursue theological education. They’ll be discussed in a future post.

[2] http://www.christianpost.com/news/seminary-graduates-in-record-debt-study-finds-117676/

[3] There are other degrees that you can obtain at a seminary, such as a Master of Theological Study. I’ll discuss other options in another post.


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