I have spent 35 years of my life educating ministry leaders, innovators, spiritual companions and academics in a seminary. I had wanted to pastor a church, but during the early feminist movement in the US, churches in my denomination were not willing to take a risk on a woman. So instead I was invited to educate and form leaders for these same churches. God has a sense of humor. And, my disappointment became my joy, investing in seminarians who lead and serve all over the US and world. I believe in seminary education. I have seen it’s value.
Yet, I often hear reasons people give for not going to seminary. Because of today’s abundance of podcasts, training programs, and conferences available about the church and ministry, why bother going to seminary? Some say it is better to learn on the job and save your money. Others believe that seminaries are just places where you learn arcane academic topics which are of no interest to the average church attender. Why waste your time? Another common belief is that the Holy Spirit will guide you into all truth, so you don’t need formal training.
All these statements have an element of truth to them. However, I would like to suggest that there are significant reasons why a seminary education matters and should be seriously considered for those called to lead and serve in God’s kingdom.
- Scope and Rigor of the Call – When you are called by God to enter ministry, it is one of the most difficult and courageous decisions you can make. Pastoring, church planting, chaplaincy, formation, Christian thought leadership, justice or mission work is not a romantic romp of Bible preaching, creating exciting events and programs, and comforting hurting souls. It is a job that engages the principalities and powers of darkness. It is a role for which there are few rewards, either monetary or social. It will always take you to the end of yourself. There are few compliments and many conflicts. The responsibilities can bleed into every area of your life, weekends, family time, evenings, vacations, personal down time. You will constantly be disappointing people whose expectations you can rarely meet. You must prepare yourself for the importance and challenge of the call.
- Requirement for Preparation – If you were to go into battle as a soldier, you would want to be fully trained so that you are prepared for every eventuality. If you were a surgeon or a pilot or a social worker, you would want to know your craft and have practiced it until you feel competent to serve others in that role. Why then would the highest calling of serving a church or a mission require less? Jesus himself intentionally trained his disciples for two years. The early church had a rigorous training process for her elders and ministers. Christian leaders throughout history have always taken seriously the need to prepare those called to ministry for the spiritual, mental and human challenges before them.
- Bible, Church History, and Theological Knowledge – The fundamentals of understanding Christian faith are located in the disciplines of the church: Old and New Testament studies, Church History, and Theology. To engage these vast, ancient fields requires a commitment to study, to think critically, and to discern with the Holy Spirit and with the guidance of trained experts. Grades, exams, essays, and discussions are all part of serious and responsible learning. It matters that we have rooted in our minds the best thinking about Scripture and Theology. It matters that we are not casual about our faith or arrogant to believe that our frail minds can hold all the wonder and truth of God.
- Complexity of Required Skills – To lead and serve in ministry requires a complex tool kit that engages the mind, the will, the heart, and soul. An individual needs to think critically, respond professionally, be self-aware, deeply rooted in Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit, and relationally and culturally astute. Communication skills, conflict management skills, change management skills, leadership and administration skills, preaching, teaching, counseling, forming, and engaging with communities in which the ministry is embedded are necessary. These skills are learned and developed. Even with natural gifts, the bucket can quickly run dry without a well to return to.
- Need for Formation and Companionship – In seminary the formation of one’s body and soul to be like Christ is fundamental to the educational journey. Ideas are not enough. Complacency with faith and spiritual disciplines is common among the faithful. The steady focus over a period of time on becoming like Christ with accountability and companionship is critical for developing leaders who can withstand the tests and temptations of ministry and who thrive for the long haul. Putting that intentional formational focus into the curriculum with accountability and companions leads to the best outcomes for growth.
- Opportunities – A seminary masters or doctoral degree can open doors for a variety of ministries in chaplaincy (military, hospital, hospice, prison, business, etc), soul care for missions, formation ministry, leader positions in nonprofits, teaching in schools and universities, many pastorates to name a few. The opportunity for a better paying position and for more options comes with a seminary graduate education.
The difference between getting information and going on a seminary journey is the difference between shopping in a grocery store and training as a chef. Jesus calls us to prepare tables for anyone lost or hungry. That requires thought and care. When you are called by God to enter ministry, it is one of the most courageous decisions you can make. It will always take you to the end of yourself. You must prepare yourself for the importance and challenge of the call. Click To Tweet Jesus intentionally trained his disciples for two years. Christian leaders throughout history have always taken seriously the need to prepare those called to ministry for the spiritual, mental and human challenges before them. Click To Tweet
What should I look for in a seminary?
The key to a successful seminary education is choosing a seminary that will serve you well. One of the reasons people don’t go to seminary is because they’ve talked to graduates who attended and who lost their way or felt they weren’t really prepared for the work in the fields. So, what should you look for in a seminary?
- Mission – A seminary should have a clear mission to serve the ‘church.’ Such a mission is reflected in programs and courses which include a balance of academic, practical, and formation courses.
- Student-Centered – The delivery of seminary education should fit the lifestyle of a working adult, so it is flexible and adaptable to the various life needs of students. Does the seminary fit the life of working adults with families and responsibilities? Does the seminary respond to you immediately, answer your questions, guide you, make it clear they are there to support you on your journey, or are you ignored? Are all requirements and costs clear up front with no surprises?
- Community & Diversity – The best seminaries have some sort of practice for creating community either with cohorts or regular opportunities to study and grow together. An individual journey does not prepare you well for the church. Also, the faculty and the students with whom you study should represent the diversity of the Christian church. Go to the faculty page and see if there are women and men and people from a variety of ecclesial and ethnic backgrounds serving on the faculty.
- Quality of Education – Are the faculty recognized in their fields and engaged with professional and ecclesial organizations? Do they publish and speak on platforms that serve ministers or chaplains or formation guides? Do they teach your courses, and how are they taught? Is there a faculty member who engages with your learning and formation on a regular basis?
- Commitment to Formation – Formation of students is a fundamental part of seminary education. If you graduate and don’t love Christ more and know yourself better, the seminary hasn’t succeeded. Formation must be in the culture of the seminary and not just in a few courses. From admissions through to graduation there should be an observable culture of formation.
What can I expect?
Depending on how many credits you take, you can expect for every course (usually 3 credits) you spend 5-7 hours a week with the instructional and assignment work. If you took 2 courses, you would need to set aside 10-14 hours a week for seminary work. It is graduate education. If you begin such a serious journey, then preparing to travel it well is important. The majority of seminarians have regular jobs and families. That is today’s norm. Seminary is also for any age. Some people go from college to seminary, but the majority of people are older, some even retired from a career and who now want to serve the church in some form.
How do I plan for a successful seminary experience?
First, pray and wait to discern if you are truly being called to get a graduate seminary education. If you are, it will be clear to you. When the Lord calls, the Lord makes a way, even when it might seem crazy or impossible to you. Also, get your family and friends on board. Discuss together and plan for when regular study and reflection times might occur. Education and formation aren’t something added on to already busy lives. If you are serious about a seminary education, make room for it.
How do I pay for it?
There are several ways to pay for seminary education.
- Scholarships: Most seminaries have scholarship funds for students. Always apply. Always ask.
- Sponsorships: Explore sponsorship options with your church, denomination, family and friends. Don’t be afraid to ask, and if they contribute, report regularly to them costs and outcomes. This is an investment in you for the sake of God’s work in the world.
- Speed – Take Your Time: The best seminary education is the one in which you go slow enough to learn, reflect, and incorporate ideas and habits into your life. There is no hurry. The best education is one which shapes and grows you, not the one that is over quickly with no memory of its value.
If I’m thinking about it, what should I do next?
Pray. Search online. Ask trusted friends and spiritual mentors. Choose 3-4 and then vet them thoroughly. You will know the right one for you, and it might be a surprise.
P.S. 8 years into my teaching at a seminary, God called me to plant a church. I continued to teach to pay the bills, but I planted two churches. What a thrill. I loved pastoring, and I love companioning and resourcing pastors still. The difference between getting information and going on a seminary journey is akin to shopping in a grocery store versus training as a chef. Jesus calls us to prepare tables for anyone lost or hungry. This requires thought and care. Click To Tweet
MaryKate Morse, PhD, is professor of Leadership and Spiritual Formation at Portland Seminary. Currently, she is the Lead Mentor for the Doctor of Ministry in Leadership & Spiritual Formation. Raised in the Air Force, MaryKate lived in various states and overseas. With her husband, Randy, and small children she lived in the Andes Mountains of Bolivia and Peru doing ministry and social projects with the Aymará Indians. She is a certified spiritual director and pastor with the Evangelical Friends. MaryKate continues to explore how spiritual formation and effective leadership result in the transformation of individuals and communities especially for evangelists and front-line leaders in diverse cultural environments. She has planted two churches and served as Executive Dean of Portland Seminary. Morse is also a leadership mentor and coach, conference and retreat speaker, and author including Lifelong Leadership: Woven Together through Mentoring Communities, Making Room for Leadership: Power, Space, and Influence, and A Guidebook to Prayer. MaryKate is married to Randy and has three adult children and five grandchildren. She enjoys being with family, hiking, reading, exploring new places, and playing with her dog, Tess.