How do I choose a school? Is seminary the right choice for me? Once I get there, what factors will contribute to my success as a student?
These are questions prospective students of all ages are asking. And for those who choose a Christian institution, spiritual growth at school is another key question as they map out their educational future.
In this special section, Pastor Mark Warnock, formerly of Illinois, shares insights on picking a seminary. (The Southern Baptist Convention has six, but there are a few other popular choices among Baptist pastors, and an increasing number of alternatives for theological education). He also offers wisdom for how to avoid a common seminary pitfall.
Seminary will be a significant investment of your life. It will take years, it will cost tens of thousands of dollars, and it will be a challenge. Give careful thought as you make your choice.
The first truth to remember is that seminary is not an end in itself. It is a means to prepare you for ministry. So, from the beginning, ask yourself: What kind of ministry will I be doing? Even if you’re not entirely certain, your plans for future ministry will influence which school might be the best choice for you.
Here are several factors to consider:
Denomination. Do you belong to a particular denomination? If you’re committed to serve a particular arm of the church, start with their seminaries. If you aren’t tied to a particular denomination, or will be working in parachurch movements, you have more options.
Doctrine. Seminaries vary in their doctrine, so know your school’s confessional position before you go. Theological education provides a credential for your resume that will label you as being one of “their kind” of students. Of course, it is possible to be a liberal student at a conservative school, or vice versa, but if you want to establish conservative credentials, for instance, going to a liberal school will probably work against you.
Faculty. The quality of instruction at a seminary is directly linked to the quality of the faculty. Some schools are loaded with well-known, published scholars. Others have credentialed but unknown professors. Is there a scholar you absolutely want to study with? Keep in mind that reputation is not an entirely reliable guide. A professor whose academic work is highly respected may be crummy in the classroom. Some of the most able teachers might be people you’ve never heard of.
Culture. Every school has its own culture and emphasis. What are the schools you’re considering known for? Academic theology? Apologetics? Missions and evangelism? Social engagement?
Location. One downside of residential seminaries is that often you must move to a new city and leave the region where you intend to serve upon graduation. This separation can last for years, which disconnects you from the local culture, ministry network, and established family relationships where you currently live. Always give careful consideration to local options before you move across the country.
Cost. This consideration is critically important because vocational ministry does not pay very well on average. Student loans can become a serious financial millstone around your neck. Many prospective students already have significant debt from their undergraduate work.
It’s not easy to pin down the total cost for a theological education, but we found the average tuition for a Master of Divinity from a reputable, accredited, evangelical seminary in 2017 was around $50,000. Keep in mind, this figure is for tuition only—it does not include books, fees, or other expenses.
Some denominational seminaries offer large discounts to students from their denomination, as much as 50% or more, which is a significant advantage. (Matriculation fees in Southern Baptist seminaries are subsidized by Cooperative Program gifts and extensive endowments.)
A few seminaries with large endowments even offer tuition-free seminary. Before you rush to apply, however, consider other factors, like the doctrine and culture of the school. In terms of your final ministry goal, a free Master of Divinity from a seminary outside your confession might prove to be a major obstacle to your future employment in the church. Also, some “free seminary” programs are not accredited. They may not meet the same academic standards or be recognized as a legitimate credential. Investigate carefully before enrolling.
Special programs. Some seminaries may offer special concentrations not available in other places: urban ministry, cross-cultural missions, women’s ministry, and leadership. Again, think about your future ministry as you evaluate the availability of these programs.
Availability of jobs while in school. An institution in a small town may not provide the kind of employment you need to support yourself as easily as other locations. Ask if your seminary has any special relationships with local employers.
Online learning or distance options. Nearly every school has these now. Some have regional satellite locations where you can attend class without moving, or offer modular courses where you only go to campus for one- or two-week intensives. Online classes can be a good choice, if you have the kind of discipline necessary to study where you are. Some students do better in the physical environment of school.
Online education can also move with you from town to town. If you have a job that requires travel, or are doing ministry already in a remote location, online learning might be a good choice.
Alternatives to seminary. Look for local churches that have residency programs for pastors or church planters. While these options aren’t plentiful, increasing numbers of school are partnering with churches to provide credit for church-based ministry training. These programs sometimes cost significantly less than residential seminaries as well.
Pray. “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9, ESV). God knows your future far better than you. Ask him. Like a good shepherd, you can expect that he will guide you right.
This article is excerpted from “The Complete Seminary Survival Guide” (2017) by Mark Warnock. After 17 years of ministry in Illinois, he now pastors and trains church planters for the Family Church network in West Palm Beach, Fla. He earned an M.Div from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Ph.D from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Find him at seminarysurvivalguide.com, or on Twitter @markwarnock.