I Wouldn’t Trade Seminary for Anything

Editors’ note: This is the fourth 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 associate my seminary years with a wide range of emotions and experiences. I went through a period of unhindered excitement and joy, of grave disillusionment, of utter heartbreak, and ultimately of satisfied contentment. I experienced a new appreciation for my church, the personal heartbreak of divorce, the camaraderie of lasting friendships, the frustration of academic hardship, and the satisfaction of slowly discovering my place in God’s kingdom. It wasn’t anything close to a utopian experience, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Like any of God’s good gifts, seminary can be rightly appreciated, but it can also be idolized and mismanaged. Your time will be temporary and focused, and as such, the atmosphere is uniquely specialized for the specific task you face. Your primary challenge is to find your identity in Christ rather than in academic, social, or vocational success. Embrace your seminary experience, just not too tightly.

Seminary is a great gift, given to us that we might do even better jobs as ministers than we might have otherwise. As a result, it’s our job to steward that gift appropriately and with the proper perspective. This, of course, is a balancing act for anyone. Here are five things I’ve learned that, by God’s grace, will help you along the way.

1. Be Comfortable as a Mere Church Member

Seminarians often spend their first few months looking for a church that’s not a “seminary church,” then gunning for some kind of leadership position or teaching opportunity within that church a few months later. Stop. The best thing you can do for your growth as a leader is to serve your church in ways that are commonly overlooked. Be the sound guy for a while. Wash dishes after church supper. Sit in the pews, take in the sermon, and talk about it with others in the congregation—especially those who tend to be ignored. Servant leadership is more than an abstract leadership philosophy; it’s a concrete series of actions you’re in the perfect position to live out at this stage of your life.

2. Have Other Hobbies or Interests Besides Theology

If all you care about is theology, biblical studies, and the inner-workings of kingdom ministry, non-seminarians will find you insufferable. Such friends and family have all sorts of interests, and while you may not have a vested interest in popular culture, fashion, decorating the house, or sports, they do. Therefore, if you fail or refuse to engage these subjects, you’ll seem like a bump on a log at best and a jerk at worst. Caring about people extends even to caring about the things they care about, even if it may feel trivial or like a waste of time.

3. Embrace Empathy, Not Merely Conviction

Seminary tends to be a safe space to share your convictions with your seminary buddies without having to “walk on eggshells,” but after a while it’s easy to forget those eggshells are often the fragile hearts of hurting people. Discussing hot topics may be a fun intellectual exercise, but in the real world those hot topics are usually attached to genuine human pain. Abortion, gay marriage, welfare, drug use, and other polarizing subjects are more than just abstract philosophical-theological-political footballs. They’re tied to realities we may not be able to readily comprehend until we put in the work. So put in the work. Don’t merely seek out the opinions of those different than you; seek out their stories and their company. Listen carefully to the struggles of those whom Jesus came to seek and save, laboring to understand exactly what experiences have made them so adamant about their position.

4. Be Yourself

Seminary should be a place for discovering how to best use your gifts and interests to further God’s kingdom, but for many it’s simply a place to learn how to mimic the gifts and interests of others. Time in seminary can be incredibly clarifying and freeing if you’re not too wrapped up in pleasing other people. Unfortunately, the seminary atmosphere often seems to invite uniformity to a damaging degree. If you’re not careful, you’ll subtly bend your personality to match the whims of others. Change should come from humble obedience to Jesus Christ, not social pressure and unbiblical expectations.

5. Be Ready to Change Course

When I started my seminary career, I had every intention of being a full-time minister. All my desires, counsel, and intuition pointed in that direction. I’d done ministry before seminary and found it to be fruitful and rewarding. And yet, as I neared the end of my seminary career, my life had changed to such an extent that I no longer envisioned myself in a traditional, full-time ministry position. I quickly switched my degree program from an MDiv in theology to an MA in theology and the arts and graduated much sooner than expected. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made, even though it meant not finishing my language classes.

You may feel convinced in your call to ministry now, but God doesn’t always make his plans for us as clear as we’d like. Sometimes he has another kind of ministry for us in mind that doesn’t involve being formally employed by a church or ministry. Sometimes this means cutting our losses and leaving seminary. Other times it means finishing and moving on. Either way, it’s up to you to be honest with yourself as the time spent in seminary reveals—whether through confirmation or redirection—the concrete reality of God’s glorious plan for the rest of your life.

  • http://flamingfundamentalist.blogspot.com/ Curt Day

    Every suggestion in this article is very good. They resonate with my seminary experience from when I attended WTS. I would like to add one point though. Regardless of one’s vocation after seminary, the seminary experience should be that of beginning to learn how to translate the Gospel into the language of any group you are with and there are two languages one must know to perform this translation. One must know the technical language of the theologians whom people encounter in their lives and one must know the language of the people one is with.

  • Dean P

    Awesome article. I had very similar circumstances with the MDIV and switching to the MA. I now believe that every evangelical Christian that is serious about living out and applying their faith should go to seminary or at least take classes from one: either part time or online. It is just necessary in the culture we live in today.

    • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

      I don’t know if this is necessarily true. I think, especially for someone not going into full-time ministry, a solid church will provide a more valuable educational experience than seminary ever could, especially if one devotes themselves to it wholeheartedly.

      • Jared

        Richard, I think there is a sense where a good solid church could provide educational experience to someone preparing for a ministry better than any seminary could. But there is also a sense where even a good solid church has limited tools in properly equipping a future Gospel minister. I think both church and seminary has vital roles.

        For example, the church could teach how theology is really applied in the real world where concepts are not just theological/philosophical ideas, but issues people struggle with in daily life. Churches, however, are not as equipped in areas: providing an academic environment that hones one’s skills in writing and reading, variety of faculty with different specialties, a library, language training (Hebrew/Greek), etc.

        • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

          Jared, I was replying to Dean’s suggestion that “every evangelical Christian that is serious about living out and applying their faith should go to seminary.” I would probably suggest that someone going into full-time ministry go to seminary, assuming they hadn’t already attended Bible college.

  • Phil S

    I appreciate this series and am thankful to hear different people’s journeys.
    I got a Bachelor’s in ministry first and have been a Youth/Associate Pastor for 7 years. I completed a Certificate in YM about 3 years after I started and am now going back through Fuller’s primarily online MATM. I am excited to take 1 or 2 classes at a time, be able to use those in ministry, and avoid the academic burnout. I am blessed to do it this way and hope everyone finds their best fit as well. I’m excited!

  • http://www.scribblepreach.com Nick McDonald

    This is helpful – I’ve felt guilty about reconsidering my M.Div, and have had a few raised eyebrows at my pursuing an MAR in order to take some key opportunities presented to me. So glad to hear someone who looks back and is glad for it!

    • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

      Glad I could help! Just remember not to blow off wise counsel. In fact, seek out as much as you can, and then do what seems most wise. Don’t fall into the guilt-trap!

  • http://practicingresurrection.wordpress.com Bill

    This is an excellent post, with what seems to me to be great advice. I would add that for many seminary may help steer them to a future that does not include vocational ministry (as has been the case with me).

    • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

      It certainly did that with me. The key is to be open with whatever God has for us, even if they don’t match up with our ambitions.

  • W

    Wow did I need this article today. As I woke up this morning, I was asking myself and asking God through prayer how did I ever end up at the Seminary I now attend. I am almost done with my MDIV and I look at how God has grown me through the process and look at my Seminary and there is a huge gap. Most of the people at my school could be classified as legalistic and there are days when I feel like I am surrounded by the smartest but most unloving believers on the Earth. Perhaps my age and career transition plays a role into the refining process God has put me through. I so appreciate this sentence, “Your primary challenge is to find your identity in Christ rather than in academic, social, or vocational success.” From my point of view often seminarians become parrots as they merely repeat the views of their favorite professor or author and in the process step on people in the process. Don’t get me wrong I would not change what I have learned in seminary for any amount of money, but at the same time I would not necessarily recommend seminary for everyone. Never forget seminary is a refining fire and everyone’s fire is different, your fire might be so different that you find yourself outside of most of your fellow students. Major on the majors, not the minors and love people as Christ would love them, the goal of seminary should not be more head knowledge but deeper heart knowledge.

    • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

      Right on. I’m with you completely.

  • carl peterson

    I liked this article. I think #1 is good but I think seminarians also need to think about post seminary positions. They need to resume build whether they like it or not. It is just the way things are. I did not want to do the usual “become a youth pastor for awhile” to boost my resume while in seminary since I had no desire or calling to be a youth pastor. I did not want to just use it as a stepping stone that unfortunately many seminarians do. But one can find other ways in which build a resume for the future. So I agree with the posters comments but one must think of the future also and build experience for future ministry opportunities.

    • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

      I wince at the idea of needing to think about “building a resume” in order to be a pastor. I think the church and individuals are better served by relying on their church and the relationships they build there to find a job when the time comes. In the meantime, it might be valuable for would-be pastors to work in a secular workplace as they wait for God to lay the groundwork. Just my opinion, though.

      • A.C.

        Are you saying wait for God to lay the groundwork for a ministry position or something else? Thanks in advance :)

  • Daniel

    Woaah did I need to read this today. I was greatly encouraged and reminded of God’s desire to bring people unto himself and to extend his glory amongst all the nations. As a current seminarian like many of you, this past year for me has been one of the most trailing times in my life. I think a lot of my “excessive burnout” has been due from going straight from undergraduate religious studies to the seminary level. I just finished my second year with plans of straying from the M.Div to the M.A. to be done sooner, but to also have more time to be involved with local ministries and not have the burden of being a full-time minister yet. Seminary has pushed me in so many directions, challenged my faith, broken my heart for the nations and my neighbor and to see the absolute need for raising and leading a church that is immersed in the gospel. God has really brought me to the point in which I totally have to trust him to give me what I need and I do pray that the decisions I do make will honor him. I pray for the rest of you as we all strive to be like Christ and further our knowledge of and in the scriptures. Thanks again greatly for the blog.

    • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

      Glad to hear it!

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  • Ben

    This post was an encouragement for me I am nearing the end of my fourth seminary class for the summer. I’ve enjoyed seminary, but I’m looking forward to being finished. Its interesting how the Lord uses the time that you spend in seminary to grow in him, and to mature you as a person. I can see as I near the end of my seminary that the Lord had redirected my course in ways I would have never thought possible three years ago.

  • http://www.pushselectmagazine.com Jeff Wheeldon

    Didn’t finish your languages eh? Tsk tsk.

    For your current ministry, 1337 beats Greek anyways :)

  • Juliany Gonzalez Nieves

    I just want to say thank you for writing and sharing this article. I needed to read this.

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  • Eric

    Great suggestions. Only one I would disagree with from my seminary experience, and now in ministry, is #1. True, many seminary students are looking for a leadership role in a church while in school, but who can blame them, that’s the main reason they are pursing the training – to be a leader. But, I don’t think most are looking to be catapulted to leadership simply because they are in seminary. What they are longing for is to be mentored and have some real world experience. I would say, being brought into the leadership fold through a pastor mentoring you or having other experiences in a church such as teaching as imperative if you want a pastoral, teaching or even missions position when you graduate. Pastoral search committees aren’t going to care if you volunteered in the nursery, they demand you have leadership experience.

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  • alexeyhurricane

    why do we need seminaries???