Your 4 Priorities for Seminary

I’m still in seminary. In my final semester, sure, but still here, still plugging away. And I’m tired.

Don’t get me wrong—I’ve enjoyed my seminary experience. It’s been immensely beneficial. But it’s also been rigorous.

When I first contemplated seminary back in college, I felt like the kids in Jerry Seinfeld’s bit when they learn of Halloween. I didn’t have a category for something so spectacular. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to live in a theological Disneyland?

Now, several years later, I can’t help but look back on my wide-eyed wonder and smile. Seminary isn’t Disneyland. But it is a unique and precious opportunity. And what you make of it is up to you.

Here are four simple yet crucial principles for every seminarian (prospective or present) to bear in mind. Priorities shape our lives—so they’ll shape your seminary experience, too.

1. Prioritize Your Church

Too many treat seminary as an excuse to sideline the local church. Even if they regularly attend somewhere on Sundays, their commitment is basically meaningless. They aren’t submitting their lives to a church, and deep accountability is virtually nonexistent. (No, your college buddy doesn’t count.)

If you hope to flourish during your seminary years, then you must realize that sanctification is a community project. As a Christian in the context of a covenant family, “how you’re doing” is everyone else’s business.

Don’t be the guy who spends three years shirking the church and then expects to tell a congregation to amp up their commitment. Start practicing in the present what you will preach in the future.

You didn’t come to seminary to commit spiritual suicide. So find a gospel-entranced church, fold yourself into its life, and spend yourself there in service—even if “service” doesn’t look like “teaching opportunities.” After all, it’s there—in the unflashy quietness of local church service—where the real action lies. God isn’t showcasing his manifold wisdom to the heavenly powers through the library (Eph. 3:10).

Seminaries don’t produce qualified gospel ministers; churches do. The church is God’s appointed vehicle to display his glory to the world. Go and get your hands dirty there.

2. Prioritize Your Family

Seminary isn’t easy on a family. In fact, if you’re married, the real hero of the seminary years is probably your spouse. I’m the first to admit that the rigor of this season has come with cost to my wife. She’s anticipating that finish line as much as I am.

If you’re married, love your wife well in the seminary years. Date her, pursue her, pray for (and with) her, listen to her, encourage her, and spend time with her. She’s worth it.

Settle this now: will my family suffer because I cared about my grades, or might my grades suffer because I cared for my family? As one of my professors put it, “For some of you this semester, it would be a sin not to get an A. And for others of you, it would be a sin to get an A.”

Don’t sacrifice your family on the altar of seminary. Your family is more important than “preparing for ministry.” In fact, caring well for them is preparing for ministry (1 Tim. 3:4-5).

3. Prioritize Your Soul

What good is it to gain the whole (conference-speaking/book-writing/church-planting/soul-winning) world at the price of your own soul? The Devil prowls around your desk like a roaring lion. He doesn’t care how much you succeed academically so long as you atrophy spiritually. He’s determined to devour you—not you the budding scholar, but you the follower and friend of Jesus Christ.

So spend unhurried time with Jesus. Read your Bible slowly, carefully, prayerfully—and not just for class. Befriend unbelievers and introduce them to Jesus. No matter how high your GPA, you’re never above the most basic of spiritual disciplines.

4. Prioritize Your King

Be very careful not to let your theology subtly morph into theolatry. Helpful heart-assessing diagnostics might include:

  • Am I more excited about studying Jesus or knowing Jesus?
  • Am I more excited about explaining the gospel or enjoying the gospel?
  • Am I more excited about analyzing the Bible or applying the Bible?
  • Am I more zealous to master the Bible or to let the Bible master me?

Nothing should be more humbling than the study of God. Sadly, however, many seminary graduates leave more prideful than when they arrived. They gained a lot of knowledge but lost a lot of humility. Sure, they may “understand all mysteries and all knowledge” (1 Cor. 13:2; cf. 8:1-2), but these stellar theologians are empty noise in God’s hearing.

Seminary is about knowing Jesus to advance his renown, not using him to advance your own. So prioritize your church, prioritize your family, prioritize your soul, and prioritize your King. May God grant you and me both such grace.

Editors’ Note: This article was written at the request of Desiring God in connection with the series How to Stay Christian in Seminary.

  • Luma

    This is excellent, Matt!

    • david bartosik

      agreed, crazy to think that we would think we are going to have an impact in the local church and tell others that they need to be attending yet you–a future leader of the church- shrinks away during seminary! Greatest observation in my mind that could be overlooked was continue to be involved with the local church.

      Great thoughts to anyone in or graduated from or considering seminary!

  • Dave Jenkins

    Matt, Spot on! I’ve told tons of seminary students this very thing. Like you I’m in my final semester, actually in my final two classes and graduate in May. If your a seminary student please heed what Matt is saying he is telling you the Truth!

  • Kyle Howard

    thanks for the counsel brother!

  • Karl

    Excellent Matt, as a young seminary student this is challenging, encouraging & helpful ! Thank you!

  • RN

    The next article I’d like to read along these lines would be: “your 4 priorities for actually AFFORDING seminary someday…”

  • Theron St. John

    Thanks for the counsel and advice, brother! As someone who is considering Seminary, I found this to be a very helpful and reflective article! Blessings!

  • Jeff Cavanaugh

    Good words, Matt.

    One possible implication of 1 and 2 – and RN, this touches on your comment about affording seminary – is that you may have to take it slower than the 3 years everybody thinks it takes to get an M. Div. If you have to work a job, even a full-time one to support your family and pay for school, do it. And don’t worry about having to slow down. Same for church – if you’re too busy to be involved with your fellow church members’ lives, take one or two fewer classes each semester and focus on what’s important.

    • Matt Burris

      Amen, Jeff. I took five years to get my MDiv. Along the way I got married, we had a couple of kids, and I worked full time in the community for the last couple of years. The slower pace helped me to get more out of my studies, and being out of the seminary bubble helped to keep me grounded in the real world.

      Many people get their degree in three years, but many also take a more winding path. If it takes you longer, don’t fret – instead, enjoy the journey God has you on!


    • Matt Smethurst

      Thanks, Jeff and Matt, for your helpful thoughts.

  • Mimi

    Thank you for this post! As a future seminarian, this is very helpful and edifying. May God continue to bless and keep you.

  • Rob H

    I really needed to hear this! I’m half way through and my friend is a few months away from completion. This punched us both right in the jaw! Thank you for your words of wisdom!

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  • Andrew Green

    Excellent read! Thanks Matt!

  • paul Cummings

    I wish I had had this in the Seminary back in the 90s…were it not for serving in the local churches and their passion for the Gospel, I would have been a jaded, lost and selfish cynic from my seminary days. Thank you.

  • Casey Clark

    Matt- thanks for writing. I think number three is so important as it is so easy to assume certain disciplines will just flow naturally from course work at seminary. Especially where I was, you needed to assume you wouldn’t be reading considerable amounts of God’s Word.

  • Jonathan Parnell

    “In fact, if you’re married, the real hero of the seminary years is probably your spouse.”

    Matt, this is great. Thank you!

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  • Matthew Knapp

    If you view seminary as a job (although one you pay for the privilege to have), these all *should* fall into place. Great points. I’m really starting to like your posts.

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  • Jacob

    I prioritized my church a bit “too” much. I pretty much neglected my studies in my first 4 years as a full time Youth Pastor (hanging out with kids, doing ministry “work” probably averaged over 60 hours a week). It took me 13 years to finish an MDiv (I did move 5 times in that time span though (switching seminaries multiple times is not a good idea if you don’t want to lose more credits due to transfer…)).

    Good article, but remember, don’t go to the extreme :)

  • Kathryn

    Don’t forget us women! I’m in my final semester of seminary, as well, at Midwestern. 51 days, to be exact – but who’s counting? (-; And I am SO READY. So. Ready. To. Be. Done. I am looking forward to new priorities and new opportunities. And so very thankful I have been able to go to seminary. My husband has enjoyed the past two college football seasons. I love me some college football, but not with quote the same vigor – he has enjoyed many 11:00am to 11:00pm Saturdays while I study. (-:


    • Matt Smethurst

      Thanks for commenting, Kathryn. I think it’s fantastic when female gospel warriors can go to seminary. My wife is doing so now!

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  • Mark Alexander

    Sage advice Matt and I agree with all four points. But from personal experience I am a strong advocate of family first.

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