Seminary Is Not the End

Editors’ Note: This is the third in a series of brief articles from students and graduates answering the question, “What do I wish someone had told me before seminary?” Previously:


I received a lot of good and helpful advice prior to starting seminary. I turned down great ministry opportunities because I was certain God had called me to pastoral ministry. My wife and I knew seminary would be tough. We entered full of realistic expectations and prepared for hard times. But the hard times never came.

The whole experience was wonderful. I loved seminary. I mean, I really loved seminary. The classes were stimulating. The professors were brilliant and caring. My classmates were encouraging. I did well in my classes. I looked forward to school every day. My family even thrived in seminary. But then I graduated. Suddenly there were no more classes, professors, or classmates. Everything I’d grown to love was gone.

I wish someone had looked me in the eye before seminary and told me it’s a means to an end, not an end unto itself. The goal of seminary isn’t a piece of paper that says Master of Divinity. On the contrary, seminary is simply a conduit through which you reach the goal of the calling God’s placed on your life. This fact is likely self-apparent to many. I knew it to be true, but even in my knowledge I didn’t truly believe it.

Had I genuinely understood that seminary is a means to an end, I would have spent more time preparing for the calling placed on my life and less time trying to be spectacular at the preparation. Simply excelling at the preparation doesn’t prepare you for real life theological crises that come hard and fast in the pastorate.

“My teenager has a gluten allergy. How can she take communion? Does it still count?”

“I just found out my husband has been having an affair. Should I get a divorce?”

“I’m in the ER. I just had a heart attack. I need help.”

“I’m pregnant and afraid I’m going to lose the baby.”

“My father just died, and I don’t know what to do.”

I’ve listened to each of these difficult situations. I’ve empathized with the individual. And I’ve thought, Wow, what an incredibly hard situation. You really should talk to your pastor about that. Then I realized I’m their pastor. Their real-life theological crisis had rightfully landed on my desk.

I believe if I’d better realized the calling God had given me, then I would have spent more time in seminary praying for those to whom I would minister. I didn’t even know where I would end up. When I daydreamed about the future I didn’t necessarily envision my current scenario. But the Lord is sovereign over my life. He knew the where, and he knew the who.

Not a single one of those scenarios caught God off guard. I would have prayed more so that I’d be able to rest in his will for my congregation. I would have prayed for compassion and wisdom for people who hurt and need the gospel. I would have prayed for greater faith to believe the calling God had entrusted to me.

I also would have spent more time with real people in my neighborhood and at my church instead of gravitating toward people who liked to read dead Dutch guys and use phrases like “hypostasis,” “hapax legomenon,” and “the chthonic thralldom of sin.” I need those people too, but in seminary it’s entirely too easy to get lost in the academic world and lose contact with why you are there.

Once again, I wish someone had emphasized to me that seminary is a means to an end. I gained all the biblical and theological tools to be able to think through these crises. But real-life theological crises require more airtight theology. Real crises that real people in the real world face need not only good theology, but also one who understands his calling to pastor them. In short, acting like seminary isn’t the end would have helped me better prepare to step into the pastoral calling God has graciously given me.

  • Betsy Childs

    Helpful advice!

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  • Trevor Minyard

    It is also helpful, in my humble opinion, for the “young and called” future minister to work a different vocation for a few years. Whether it is before, during, or after seminary… there are just some things you are going to learn working in a traditional business environment you may be “protected” from in the pastorate.

    This vocational reality forces the minister (or future minister) to have a better grasp on what his current/future congregates will be experiencing day-to-day. As opposed to just referring to what some dead Dutch guys said about a different dead Dutch guy 200 years ago.

    • David

      Trevor, I agree. I can’t tell anybody that it’s GOd’s will for them NOT to go to seminary, just like I couldn’t tell anyone that it was, I think it is wise for young people who desire the office of the pastor to be patient and go wax Mr. Miagi’s car. The best training I’ve had for ministry are the last 5 years I’ve been out of “official” bible training. But that’s just me. I think that for others it would be detrimental to be out of that type of training for so long. God words differently in each of us, however I think it’s healthy to realize that training outside of the classroom is just as good or even better than training inside it. Good theology is necessary but you don’t need a classroom to get it. Classrooms are nothing but helpful. They are not necessary.

  • Garet Robinson

    This is a good piece. In seminary we are given this isolated place of theological formation that, if we aren’t careful, can lead us closer to “list your favorite theologian” than becoming equipped ministers. During my time I remember a wonderful professor placing into my hands pastoral books by Piper, Thielicke, Spurgeon, & a few others . These books helped me immensely. We need to help our seminarians connect theological formation with pastoral ministry.

    We need to have a serious conversation about the nature of seminary training and what it looks like for this century. These kinds of pieces are helpful in provoking those conversations.

  • Dorothy Keller

    Good advice Donny. We are the hands and feet and voice for God in this world. Loving others is always the right thing to do, although also the most difficult thing to do.

  • Nicholas J. Gausling

    This is extremely useful advice, and accents the point that aspiring ministers (be they future teaching elders, counselors, parachurch leaders, seminary professors, missionaries, etc.) need mentorship and practical application within the context of a local church.

    One could lock himself away in a library and study about God for twenty years, and he would probably emerge understanding things about deep theology that most people throughout the history of the Church never have. But is there great value in that if such truth can’t be applied and communicated to the Church for the glory of God? The study of doctrine is for the purpose of application, and the consummation of application is worship.

  • Peter J Bergian

    This has always been one of my greatest concerns for the Church today. All you have to do is go to school and then become a leader of the greatest most important system of beliefs that any person or group of people can have.. I have stayed before the Lord at great personal expense, not pursuing the ministry but pursuing the Lord. To have a revelation of Him in life and experience. It breaks my heart to see what some will say behind the pulpit because a piece of paper gave them the right to be called a minister.. My wife and I have been to hell and back and look forward to the day the Lord will allow us to speak into the lives of His people.

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  • Patrick Logan

    Great and helpful post indeed. While I haven’t attended seminary as of yet, I find your insight and experiences to be refreshing. As a young pastor myself, it’s always good to hear the different vantage points of other fellow servants of Christ as they endeavor in the pastorate. I hope and pray that you continually be encouraged in Him and thank you again.

  • Bruce Taylor

    Actually this article makes some hard issues plain. The Church needs to take seriously the charge they have been given to make disciples. This is not just an evangelism and basic training endeavor. Rather it is about helping those under your care follow who God has for them to be. As a Pastor I feel a great burden to walk with people who believe they are called to vocational ministry. This is a responsibility of leadership and the Bible Colleges and Seminaries cannot be expected to provide it because it is not their job. There are 2 primary training grounds in Christianity – the Home and the Church. When we send our bright energetic young people off to be taught by others we are usually not taking enough responsibility to see that they are getting the real training they need. All too often the voices of active ministry wisdom are no where to be found in the seminary.

  • Curt Day

    Describing Seminary as a means to the end is a good and necessary insight for people to hear.

    I would like to add two thoughts of my own. First, one’s seminary years become more effective once one realizes that one needs to be able to translate the complex theological concepts into everyday language. Your comment about wishing you had spent more time real people shows a great need for seminarians preparing for the ministry.

    Finally, I would advise seminarians preparing for the ministry to find examples of seminary professors who can graciously disagree with all sorts of people and hang around them in order to imitate them. It is very tempting for seminarians to just focus on learning the concepts in order to talk to theologians. But those who are gracious in dealing with disagreements offer a wisdom that is not in the textbooks and they prepare us for ministering to both real people and fellow theologians.