The journey to seminary is a long walk, often uphill. For many of us, it takes years of prompting and encouragement before we make the commitment to go to seminary, but even then, countless decisions lie ahead when making the choice of what seminary to attend. To make life just a little easier for the prospective seminarian, here are 4 things you need to consider before you choose a seminary:
1. What is the denomination of the school you are seeking?
In postmodern Christianity we see a trend toward more “nons,” that is, non-denominational or unaffiliated Christians who prefer an independent church with blended traditions. Even so, there are few non-denominational seminaries, mainly because the non-denominational label is a bit of a myth. What might be a more accurate and descriptive term is a “multi-traditional church.” Non-denom churches are still shaped by deeply rooted traditions, biblical interpretations, social and political events, and belief systems, just as are Baptists, Catholics, Presbyterians, and every other denomination. In fact, if a non-denominational church or seminary can't be honest about their roots and the history that has formed them, it's an institution that is likely unaware of their Christian history or its significance. Silent prayer, communion presided over by an ordained minister, confessional creeds, baptism by immersion, laying on of hands, and singing the doxology are all traditions that came from specific branches of Christianity at one time or another and came about because of different belief systems.
Thus, when choosing a seminary, the denominational body that supports (read: funds) the school you consider, will have an impact on the worldview, hermeneutics, political position, and teachings of that school. One shouldn't be shocked then, if considering a school whose denominational body is complementarian, that such a school will not support the ordination of a woman.
Similarly, if you are seeking ordination in a specific denomination, check with your local leader to see if there are stipulations on where you receive your education in order to apply for ordination. Some denominations will require you go to one of their schools, however, the opposite does not follow. If you go to a Methodist school you do not have to seek ordination in a Methodist tradition.
2. If you aren't constrained to one denomination or you aren't sure what denomination will be a good fit for you, consider the ethos of the school.
Ethos is a word used to describe the character or credibility of a community. What beliefs, ideals, and practices do you observe through the website, communications, and visits that indicate how the school might shape your behaviors, theology, and ministerial identity? For instance, do you seek a diverse seminary that brings a variety of viewpoints to the table and enriches discussion? If so, be sure to look for all kinds of diversity. There is the diversity you can see: ethnicity, gender, and age, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. A truly diverse seminary includes an openness to various traditions, lifestyles, backgrounds, and economic states.
Some schools may profess to be all things to all people, so you may have to look beneath value statements and testimonials on brochures. Ask, “Who leads chapel and does every service fit into the model of one or two traditions? Where did the professors go to seminary?” Again, are they all from the same one or two institutions and what are those institutions like? Does the school or university affiliated participate in any political or social action? If so, what does this say about its beliefs? Here are a few more questions you should ask your prospective seminaries' admissions offices.
When you visit, what does it feel like: an institution, a practitioner's lab, a worship community, a country club, or a wacky family? What is it that you're hoping to find? You want to ask all these questions to get a sense of A) whether this is a place diverse enough to stretch you, but also B) familiar or inclusive enough to allow you to explore, learn, and flourish.
3. Consider the critical opportunities the school provides, and I don't mean amenities.
Amenities are nice, but not crucial to good education. Sure, I wouldn't trust a school without a library, but if they don't have a full-service gym, so what? I'm sure you can find a YMCA close and your student fees will be a lot cheaper. The opportunities I'm talking about are things that will serve you while in school, but also long after. Maybe you always wanted to study abroad, but didn't get the opportunity in undergrad. See which schools offer these type of programs, how they select students, whether they give credit, and what options there are for financing. McAfee offers a non-traditional study abroad program every other summer, that we call “mission immersion.” Because of its short time-frame, students are able to receive several credits while spending less time away from work, cutting the cost of the trip, and even allowing adults who are married and have families to experience another culture for a period of time.
What kind of financial aid does the school offer, including merit scholarships? Does the school offer part-time positions like work-study or graduate assistantships? How are students selected for these positions? Are you hoping to learn some skills outside of ministry like nonprofit management, counseling, public health, or community development? Do any of the schools you are looking at offer dual degrees, cooperative programs, or internships/fellowships outside the area of traditional ministry? What kinds of ministry are you interested in (youth ministry, prison ministry, teaching, worship etc.)? Do the schools you're considering offer opportunities to practice your affinity for these types of ministry? Perhaps they offer classes, specializations, or programs that can help you broaden your horizons or find your niche!
Finding out early on what the school has to offer will keep you from finding yourself in a place where you feel stifled or disappointed. Consider schools that allow you the freedom to change your mind and shape your ministerial call as you experience new and different things. You may start out wanting to be a music minister and realize instead you are passionate about children's ministry!
4. Think about what you might contribute to the school.
You are unique. Your background, your gifts, your story, and your ministry will be radically different from anyone else's. How do I know? Because it's true of every minister, no matter how cookie-cutter things might look on the outside. You have your own style and voice even if it doesn't feel that way now. Where you choose to invest not only your money (tuition isn't cheap anywhere), but also your presence and talents should be an area of consideration when choosing a seminary. Don't take the lazy approach and try to find a school that will invest in you with no questions asked of you in return. This kind of education produces very few quality ministers. You need to be challenged, from the pulpit, from the lectern, from the seat next to you, in the hallway, the office, and at home. You will be a better minister for it. So where will you plug in? This is not the same as the question of where do you fit in? If you fit, chances are there is a really square box that some will eagerly put you into. If you are more concerned with how you can contribute to the community, then perhaps you may not fit perfectly, but you will thrive and you will transform. Can you imagine being immersed in God's work through the school's community, or will you simply be another patron filling a seat, hoping for some inspiration or nugget of truth?
I hope you will choose a seminary that forms you for ministry from every angle and that affords you the opportunities to develop a contextualized ministry approach. In today's fast-paced and rapidly changing world, we need church leaders who are not just responsive, but who proactively and prophetically minister to the broken because we need the hope of Christ. Find a seminary that will teach you not just how to think about ministry or how to do ministry, but how to be a minister.