“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?”
When I wrote those words in my final semester of seminary, I was weary, and the Disney delusion had long since vanished. Seminary, I had learned, is a rigorous and perilous place.
In their excellent new book, How to Stay Christian in Seminary (Crossway) [review], David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell impart wisdom from Scripture and experience to help prospective and current students survive—even thrive—during the seminary years. Despite its challenges, Mathis and Parnell are glad they went to seminary. I am too. The experience was invaluable. I just wish this little book had been available when I started.
I spoke with these two staff members at Desiring God about the dangers of seminary, whether to go, which one to attend, and more.
It may be easy from the outside to assume seminary is a sort of theological Disneyland. You’re clear from the outset, though, that “seminary is dangerous.” What do you mean?
You’re right, confessional seminaries are generally festive institutions that abound with great teaching and God-honoring faculty. Stepping foot onto such a campus and thumbing through its academic catalog can leave us happily wide-eyed. But this response is precisely why it’s dangerous—not because of the school itself, but because of us. The accessibility of great teaching can fool us into believing seminary is more about acquiring knowledge than getting equipped for gospel ministry. We can begin to chomp down on all the information without letting it take full effect in our hearts.
This problem isn’t new. Helmut Thielicke addresses it in his short book A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, written in 1962. He explains that intellectual accessibility transcends our spiritual capacity. That is, our heads can pick up faster and take in more than our hearts and lives. This problem can easily turn us into that guy who carelessly talks more than he lives, which doesn’t make for a healthy pastor or church.
As a matter of fact, that guy may not even reach the character-oriented qualifications of an elder in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Theological knowledge certainly matters to Paul (“He must hold firm to the trustworthy word” [Titus 1:9]), but according to these qualifications, pastoral ministry is less about what you know and more about the kind of man you are.
What’s the most common misconception about life and ministry you perceive among those first entering seminary?
I wouldn’t know how to gauge the most common misconception, but I could raise a flag about one danger—what we might call a messianic view of the ministry, where we feel like our lives need to be worthy of written Gospel accounts. It’s a dramatized view of the Christian ministry, which subtly influences us to think that every step in life and ministry needs to be sensational and feel historic. Perhaps it’s only a temptation in the overachievers, who want to be top-of-the-class in all they do—and now ministry is the thing. Or perhaps because we love Christian biography, and still have a sizable portion of unmortified pride, we suspect people may write and read biographies about us someday.
When and if such a thought comes, do your level best to dispel it right away. Don’t let a dramatized view of the ministry—with everything having to feel big and immediately significant—lead you to miss the seemingly little things in which God typically does what is most significant.
How can seminarians practically work to keep their hearts warm toward Christ amid all the rigors of study and the demands of life?
There’s nothing profound here. The most practical way to keep your heart warm toward Christ is to go deeper in your devotional disciplines. That means Bible intake and prayer, which might mean reading passages that don’t have any overlap with your assignments, or praying with your keyboard and an open doc, or praying with a group from church, or listening to your favorite expositor, or memorizing Romans 8, or singing along (by yourself) with music from Shane and Shane, or digging up an old devotional work like John Flavel’s Keeping the Heart.
So, in short, don’t neglect the feast of the ordinary means God has given us, in view of becoming more alive to God’s grace.
How should someone go about deciding whether to attend seminary?
I better not pretend as if I can answer this question in a way that meets every potential seminarian where they are. But I can give a few principles for what I gather covers most situations. Take it or leave it.
Seminary is not a decision to be made all at once and all by yourself. If God is stirring in you some burgeoning desire for vocational ministry, don’t rush to change your current major or abandon your present job. Test the desire over some weeks, even months, sometimes even years. Make it a matter of regular prayer. Stay engaged in ministry in your local church and make your investment there go even deeper. See whether the aspiration for vocational ministry deepens and grows. Draw others in, especially your close friends who know you well and share your love for Jesus and his church. Seek their counsel. And look for confirmation from other adults, not just your friends, as you serve and minister in the church. Look for objective confirmation in others about the subjective calling God seems to be putting on your heart, and then look for God’s open door in terms of timing and place. There’s usually no need to rush the process. Move deliberately, but keep moving forward.
It’s much easier when you’re younger and single. If you’re married and have children, there are more factors to take into account, and complexities multiply in terms of how to provide for the family during such a season of educational focus. If you’re married and have children, remember your calling to be a husband and father is more objective and sure than any perceived call to ministry you might be feeling. Resolve not to sacrifice your family on the altar of vocational ministry. Don’t deny the faith and prove “worse than an unbeliever” by failing to provide “especially for the members of [your] household” (1 Tim. 5:8).
How should someone go about deciding which seminary to attend?
There are so many factors, but I’d say make the first one, and most important, the theology and ministry philosophy of the school. It need not be the only factor, but I’d counsel you to make it the weightiest. Typically that philosophy will be embodied in certain individuals, administrators, and especially professors, maybe some you know from hearing them speak, or reading their books, or seeing their names in footnotes. Considering particular professors whom you’d be energized to learn from is a good gauge.
Other factors include proximity—how close you already live to the seminary—cost, and, if you have a family, what employment options become available. And a hugely underrated factor, which I’d love to see prospective students consider more often, and with more consequence, is the local church. In which church will you be a committed, accountable member while at the seminary?
The goal of seminary, you contend, is to grow while remaining weak. Why is this counterintuitive distinction so crucial to grasp?
Yes, seminary is meant to train servants of Christ so that we might be equipped, not get strong (2 Tim. 3:17). Understanding the difference here has everything to do with how we understand our message. It doesn’t matter how mature our skills become, the fact never changes that what we believe and proclaim is utter foolishness to the world.
I fear that mistaking our learning as strength training can easily slip into a bid for the world’s respect when, more often than not, our neighbors won’t care how well we conjugate verbs or where we earned our MDiv. They need our good news more than our good grades. The framework of getting strong and growing in power might work on Wall Street but not on the Calvary Road—not when our labor is about love instead of prestige.