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Every single year, for the twelve years I’ve been the pastor at University Reformed Church, I’ve advised young men on where to go to seminary. They haven’t all been looking for the same things, and they haven’t all gone to the same place. But they all were looking for the school that would be right for them.

As a soon-to-be faculty member at Reformed Theological Seminary, I am always eager (and have been eager long before I had a formal relationship with them) for students to give RTS serious consideration. But the point of this post is not to tell anyone where to go to school. We are blessed in this country with many faithful, evangelical, Reformed (and reformed) seminaries that I readily give thanks for. I have friends at a number seminaries and have gladly sent out students to several of them. I can’t tell you what decision to make, but perhaps I can help you think through the right questions to ask.

Here are seven questions to ask before choosing a seminary.

1. What do I want to do with a seminary degree? I am a firm believer in the value of a seminary education. But I don’t encourage Christians to jump into seminary simply because they are eager to learn the Bible. It’s an expensive way to study the Scriptures if you don’t have a definite end goal in mind. So think to yourself, and talk to other people, and try to determine if you need seminary? If so, what for? To be a pastor? To be a missionary? For some other kind of vocational ministry? To go into the academy? What you are looking for will help determine where you go.

2. Is the seminary fully committed to the authority of the Bible at every level of the institution? I suppose in rare instances you could make a case for going to a mainline school if your end goal is to get a PhD and serve in a secular environment (although there are many evangelical schools whose degree would not hurt your chances of getting into the best doctoral programs). But in almost all cases, you will do much better to go to a school firmly rooted in the inerrancy of Scripture and the doctrines of the Reformation. This is not the time for testing out new theories, especially if you are studying to be a pastor. Find a school whose theology you trust, from top to bottom.

3. Have you thought about the tradition you want to be a part of? Seminary does not set your trajectory for life, but it will immerse you in a certain culture and tradition. Southern is a good seminary, so is Westminster, so is Trinity. But one will put you in the middle of SBC life, another into the Presbyterian and Reformed world, and another more broadly into evangelicalism (and the Evangelical Free Church). Think about where you’re from and where you want to end up. The people you train with in seminary may be your ministerial traveling companions for life.

4. What is the community like? No seminary aims for lousy community, but some schools are largely commuter campuses while others have a dorm atmosphere that feels like an extension of college. Do you want to share meals with other students in a cafeteria? Do you want to go to chapel regularly? Would you prefer married housing? Are you fine living off campus and driving in for class three or four or five days a week? Know what you’re looking for.

5. Who will be teaching you? It’s hard for seminaries to be much better (or much worse) than the faculty they employ. Think about whom you respect and want to be with for 3-5 years. Find out not just who the big name scholars are, but who actually teaches the classes and whether they are accessible to students. If you can, try to talk to current students and find out whether the famous faculty are effective classroom instructors. Good scholarship, good writing, and good teaching are three different gifts that don’t always reside in the same person. If you are training for pastoral ministry, you’ll want to see how many of the professors have real world experience in the nitty-gritty of local church life.

6. What courses will you be required to take? Seminary catalogs don’t always make for scintillating (or simple) reading, but it’s well worth the effort to try to make sense of each school’s basic requirements. The curricula can vary widely, both in total credit hours and in emphases. I would look for a school that is strong in the original languages, can teach exegesis, doesn’t skimp on systematic theology, and knows how to translate academic preparation into ministry readiness.

7. What are their graduates like? Granted, no seminary can be responsible for the way in which every student turns out. But on the whole, you should be able to get an excellent idea of how well a school will train you for ministry by looking at those it has already trained. Are they men of character? Are they biblically sharp and theologically sound? Are they doctrinally balanced? Are they good with people? Can they preach? Can you think of several graduates you’d gladly have on staff at your church? The proof is, as they say, in the pudding. Or, in the case of seminaries, in the pastors.


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24 thoughts on “Choosing the Right Seminary”

  1. Steve Douglas says:

    All good thoughts, but another element that many overlook is the cost analysis – what is the return on your investment? Seminary can cost a bundle, is often a three or four year proposition, and most churches don’t pay competitively in comparison to professional jobs of the same requirement – in most cases, they simply can’t. I chose a less expensive seminary outside my tradition because I could work my way through and finish without debt, so that I would not burden my family or a future church. I have friends graduating sem with 75-125K in school loans and could not find a pastorate that could both support them and pay for their school debt. Wisdom and concern for God’s people tells us we need to be concerned about the financial burden seminary may incur. Instead, are there internships, discipling relationships, or church-based training programs that may provide the basics you need?

  2. Bob says:

    Kevin, great article and great things to think about! I wish I would’ve understood some of these when I began my seminary journey!

    I do wonder where cost of attendance and future employability prospects end up in the considerations. Perhaps these would be questions 8 and 9 to your 7 above. I’ve known too many students who took too much debt to be employable in a local church after graduation. With seminary costing between $400-$700 per credit hour on a 90 hour program, that ends up being pretty significant especially with cost of living attached to that. How am I going to pay for this, and how can I be a good steward of my finances both now and moving forward to make sure I don’t make any financially unwise decisions with seminary?

    Also, what degree should I get and what does one do with that degree after they graduate? I found in the first seminary program I did, that many of the students were fresh out of Bible college and had no real understanding of what they wanted to do, or what being a pastor actually involves. Its also important to think about what you’re going to do with this education after you finish it. I’m shocked at how few people actually put thought into this, especially with pastoral work. I’ve known guys that thought pastoring was 40 hours of sermon prep a week for example. I’ve also known guys who never put any thought into the difficulty that comes with pastoral ministry, until the mandatory internship after they had already paid for and completed 70+ hours of their m.div program.

    I think your questions are great! I just wish more people thought about the cost, and what their education will prepare them for.

  3. kpolo says:

    I think it is high-time the Church started considering itself a seminary. The Church needs to do a focused and deliberate job in teaching the truths of Scripture to its congregants at a time like this – an unprecedented Biblical ignorance in our culture. The Word of God is the most powerful weapon on planet earth. We treat it like a foam dart.

  4. John says:

    Yes also consider scholarship opportunities, financial aid, and placement. I know some seminary don’t qualify to offer student loans, which will matter for some people. Covenant Theological Seminary, where I am a student, has been very generous with their financial aid and scholarships. They also have a placement rate of over 90%!!!!

  5. Chris Taylor says:

    It seems to me the PCA should send its students to Southern. No other school really compares on all these fronts. It will be a little more difficult to get up to speed on church polity, but it’ll be worth it.

  6. Jay says:

    I have been looking hard at Trinity (and am taking a visit soon). I plan on going into full-time pastoral ministry. Is there any reason not to go there?

  7. Bob says:

    Jay, TEDS is a great school with world class faculty! It was a dream school for me and I visited, but I wasn’t able to swing it working in full time ministry while doing seminary (couldn’t do the distance). They train pastors to be thinkers, and leave certain secondary doctrines generally open for students to explore. While being a great school, you also pay for that greatness (sticker price anyway if you don’t have scholarships or deep pockets) and the opportunity to live in suburban Chicago. I’ve known guys who went deep into the 5 figures, even a few who went into 6 figures of debt for their seminary degrees by the time they got loans to cover living expenses with their tuition, and I would personally highly recommend anybody NOT to do that. Some churches now are asking candidates about their debt loads, because they know they can’t pay these guys enough to cover minimum payments and a wage that will enable them to live even meagerly. That’s just sad. If you had the means to pay for it wisely, and you’re not afraid to explore (rather than just having your professors beat the denomination’s theological drum over and over), then TEDS is a great seminary.

  8. Neville Briggs says:

    Looking in no.6 to see what courses were required in a seminary, there seems to be no course on washing the disciples feet, taking the gospel to the poor, or caring for widows and orphans in their distress or loving one another as Christ loved us. I suppose the good academic preparation will bring readiness for these minor themes of ministry, eventually, after learning to preach exegetically from original languages is mastered.

  9. Its difficult to decide what say to this article. Kevin has articulated very clearly what his ambitions are professionally and its always good for our self esteem to know what our professional path is and will be. However, I guess when you look around the current state of the world and all the things it is suffers from, you may ask what is the universal solution for the all the groaning’s creation is going through. As believers we clearly know that Jesus Christ is the answer. So I pose the question how does a journey through a seminary and academic life help with as Neville aptly states “washing the disciples feet, taking the gospel to the poor, or caring for widows and orphans in their distress or loving one another as Christ loved us”. Many of the Pastors and Theologians I have encounted and worked with would say their chosen professional path and life is actually a ministry. Well it might be but the lens to use to decide if it actually is ……….will be scripture where Christ himself tells us what we should be doing. Neville listened some of them, but I will add a few more…. minister of reconciliation, extending Christs grace to others, building relationships with diverse people and setting the captives free. This is the acid test. Use it and if it doesn’t pass the test, then don’t go and turn a Christian life into a academic experience. Or as some people have said to me about others “heavenly bound but no earthly good”. Something to think about. I did and I changed my life forever… from Pastoral Overseer (inward looking) to Chaplain- Heavy Industry (outward looking).

  10. Meg I. says:

    I think another important aspect of which seminary to pick is to evaluate “who is leading the charge” at this school. Up until a few years ago, I would not have automatically thought of Southern as a place to consider. The more I listen to Dr. Mohler, read his interviews and most importantly see the zeal with which he will defend God’s character by defending His Word, this is the first seminary to come to mind. Recently, men all around me whom I respect, including my own pastor here in Okinawa, Japan, are teaching on Nehemiah. It did matter who was leading the charge in rebuilding the wall and it does matter who is leading the charge in building into God’s people on a seminary campus.

  11. Rick says:

    A great difficulty I have (other than how shamefully expensive seminary educations are) is that I don’t fall neatly into a particular theological category. I am a convinced 5-point Calvinist, but I am Premil and I don’t think Covenant Theology is biblical. That mix of beliefs narrows my choices considerably, since Premils are often Arminians (and Arminians often seem to despise Calvinists) and most Calvinists buy into Covenant Theology (and CT believers often seem to despise – and misrepresent – Dispensationalists).

  12. Dan says:

    This is a helpful list!

    I received my MDiv at Phoenix Seminary and am now serving the church in Spain. I am more thankful for my time at seminary the longer I serve here, and if it’s not out of order, I’m going to plug my school a bit in response to a few comments. I don’t work for them in any capacity, this is just a happy alumnus speaking:

    @Rick: I’m also premillenial, a Calvinist, and not a paedobaptist, and I felt like I was able to both grow in my understanding of these beliefs and in my understanding of the beliefs of those who are not in agreement with me.
    @Multiple comments: Phoenix Seminary, among other scholarships, offers a scholarship for pre-field missionaries that covers 100% of tuition and books for the full MDiv program. It’s limited to a few students, obviously, but it’s a huge help.
    @Neville & Grahame: I feel like I spent a lot of time learning about ministry to “the least of these,” to the orphans and widows in distress, to the outcasts and the dispossessed, ministry across socio-economic lines and cultures, etc. God used my time there to transform my understanding and heart on these issues for the better. Additionally, I think there’s possibly a false dichotomy underlying at least Grahame’s comment–it’s possible for a person to be both academic and deeply involved in the types of ministry activities you list, and it’s critical that we have the pastors preaching to the congregations about being involved in these works of ministry as well. So, seminary plays a role there, I think.

  13. Neville Briggs says:

    We read in Matthews’s Gospel….

    At that time Jesus said ” I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes Father, that was your gracious will ”

    At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ” who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven ”
    He called a child, whom He put among them, and said ” Truly, I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven “

  14. Neville Briggs says:

    I think that I know what you’re saying Dan. We don’t want to be anti-intellectual. It’s just seems to be a matter of emphasis and priority. The apostle Paul talked about workmen rightly dividing the word of truth but he emphasised that the nature of the church was to be a loving and supportive family, not a philosophical quest.
    The article above just strikes me as being an emphasis on the church as an institution or even a business, that’s why I was moved to comment.
    Nevertheless it seems that there is a place for “academic” learning, perhaps not in preparation for pastoring the flock but more for those with the ability to speak out as apologists and evangelists, which the scripture seems to depict as a specialist role for a gifted and prepared few.
    I know that there have been people in my circle of church membership who have been affected by the strident publications of people such as Sam Harris and Rickard Dawkins and the ubiquitous post-modernists message on the media. Might I suggest that some academic training for that battle ground is needed, but as I said, for specialists with spiritual gifts in that field.
    In the field of the local congregation doesn’t the Bible urge the appointment of spirit filled men ( and women ) whose passion is not for books and fine oratory but the support of the weak and encouragement of the doubtful. Do we really need a network of expensive seminaries for that.

  15. Message to Dan… a fair statement but you will notice I didn’t say don’t go to seminary but rather suggest the use of the lens to help people to decide whether its a profession, a ministry or both. I’ve worked with all types of ministers and Pastors who fit in all these categories. Im am not judging your experience and as you say it passes the scripture test, thats great thing but in my case part of what I was doing didn’t so I made changes. As some have posted its an expensive proposition going to seminary hence the need to test your choices and see what God is saying about it. Clearly many congregation can’t afford such employment and that spiral will get worse as more believers leave the institutional model. In Australia some theological Colleges and Universities are closing some courses down as they don’t get enough enrolment’s anymore. Some denominations are taking on volunteer priests as they cant afford to pay them. The 21st century will see many careers types disappear; being a paid minister will be just one of them I suspect.

  16. pauldreed2 says:

    “Is the seminary fully committed to the authority of the Bible at every level of the institution”

    This is perhaps the most important point. Bart Ehrman comes to mind. A long time ago, he was as committed a Christian as you or I. For his undergraduate, he attended Moody Bible Institute, a fundamentalist Christian school fully committed to the authority of the Bible. But in 1981, he made the decision to attend a seminary not fully committed to scripture(Princeton Theological Seminary). The decision sealed his fate, and he will likely burn in hell.

  17. A. Amos Love says:

    Hmmm? – Choosing the Right Seminary?
    Or is it – Cemetery???

    Does anyone really have any confidence in a denomination’s Seminary, training people today to be a “Pastor/Leader/Reverend” in a 501 c 3, non-profit, tax deductible, Religious Corporation…
    That the IRS call church?

    If anyone checks the record of any Seminary today training young wanna-be’s, they would find their record is abysmal, shocking, a failure rate of the greatest magnitude.

    A Seminary should be required by “Law” to post these horrible statistics about their failures, and post the headlines about this dangerous profession, “Pastor/Leader/Reverned,” in ALL literature sent to prospective students. ;-)

    BUT, I doubt very much they will.
    Too much Power, Profit and Prestige involved to admit failure.

    These institutions have made, “Having a degree,” “Pastoral Ministry,” “Leadership,”
    Into Idols WE, His Ekklesia, His Disciples, are to expect and worship. And “Pay For” $ Dearly.
    To keep the “Good Ole Boys Club” rolling along.

    BUT – Maybe I’m exaggerating. ;-)

    Let’s look at just a few statistics, and dangers, for the “pastor/leader/reverends,” and their families, who are earning a living from these Denominations. And these 501 c3, IRS Corporations.

    This is from – Into thy Word – And they say…
    “…pastors are in a dangerous occupation! We are perhaps the single most stressful and frustrating working profession, more than medical doctors, lawyers, politicians…”

    http://www.intothyword.org/articles_view.asp?articleid=36562&columnid=

    Pastors are in a dangerous occupation! Statistics on Pastors…
    80% of pastors feel unqualified and discouraged in their role as pastor.
    77% say they do “NOT” have a good marriage.
    71% stated they were burned out, and they battle depression beyond fatigue.
    70% do not have someone they consider a close friend.
    57% said they would leave if they had a better place to go-including secular work.
    Almost forty percent polled said they have had an extra-marital affair since beginning their ministry.

    Fifteen hundred (1,500) pastors leave the ministry each month
    ….due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their churches.

    This is serious business – Yes?
    These folks are supposed to be running the show. And their lives are a mess.

    And their treasured “Title/Position,” that they paid $ for, “Pastor/Leader/Reverned”
    Is quite hard to find in the Bible. But I cudda missed it. ;-)

    What is popular is NOT always “Truth.”
    What is “Truth” is NOT always popular.

  18. A. Amos Love says:

    This really is serious business for wannabe “pastor/leader/reverends” and their families.
    A “Title” and “Position,” NOT found in the Bible, for one of His Disciples.
    Could that be a clue? Why so many “pastor/leader/reverends” do NOT last?

    This is more info from a ministry working with “Hurting Pastors.”
    http://www.pastoralcareinc.com/statistics/

    # 90% of pastors feel they are inadequately trained to cope with the ministry demands.
    # 80% of pastors and 84% of their spouses feel unqualified and discouraged as role of pastors.
    # 80% of pastors’ spouses wish they would choose a different profession.
    # 80% believe pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families.
    …………..Many pastor’s children do not attend church now
    ……………because of what the church has done to their parents.
    # 70% of pastors constantly fight depression.
    # 50% of the ministers starting out will NOT last 5 years.
    # 33% state that being in the ministry is an outright hazard to their family.

    #1 reason pastors leave the ministry…
    Church people are not willing to go the same direction and goal of the pastor.

    WOW!!! –
    80% say pastoral ministry negatively affected their family
    70% of pastors constantly fight depression.
    50% will NOT last five years.

    This is NOT a good record for these world class Seminaries. :-(
    Or, for those who graduate with a degree.

    IMO – these Denominations and Seminaries, training “pastor/leader/reverends,” “Must” tell these young wanna-bes, **before** they spend all that money for a degree. That they are entering a most dangerous profession “Pastor/Leader/Reverend.” Dangerous for both the “Pastor/Leader/Reverends.” and their families. Yes?

    BUT, they will NOT. – There are too many “Idols” to $ feed.

    So, Am I exaggerating the dangers of “Pastor/Leader/Reverends?” And Seminaries?
    “their record is abysmal, shocking, a failure rate of the greatest magnitude?”

    And, NOT one of His Disciples had the “Title/Position,” pastor/leader/reverend, in the Bible.

    So, Are they – Seminaries? Or – Are they Cemetery’s?

    Jer 50:6
    “My people” hath been “lost sheep:”
    *THEIR* shepherds** have caused them to *go astray,*

    1 Pet 2:25
    For ye were as *sheep going astray;*
    BUT are now returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.

    {{{{{{ Jesus }}}}}}

  19. Neville Briggs says:

    No Amos, you are not exaggerating.
    The word “pastors ” occurs just once in the NT and from that one word has been created a huge industry .
    You are quite right to depict the seminaries as a self serving business, those statistics prove that you are right.

    The establishment of the clergy system is in direct defiance of Jesus words against hierarchical ” leadership”

    How can the church claim that the “worship ” service is all about Jesus and what He has done for us when the church insists on conducting its affairs in prideful disobedience to its Lords commands.

    Has the clergy become the church’s golden calf idol?

    No wonder that the scripture says of the Lord that He is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.

  20. A. Amos Love says:

    Neville

    Great question – When you ask…
    “Has the clergy become the church’s golden calf idol?”

    That’s a tuff question for these seminaries, and wannabe clergy, to think about.
    Hmmm? Is there any “clergy – laity divide?” In the Bible?

    Seems WE, His Sheep, His Disciples, are ALL brethren. Mat 23:8 KJV.

    In my experience with having been ordained, in “Leadership.” And…
    In my experience with the “Title” and “Position” of *Today’s* “Pastor/Leader,”

    “Titles” become “Idols” ……………. Idols of the heart – Ezek14:1-11 KJV
    “Pastors” become “Masters”…….. A big No, No. Mat 23:10 KJV, Mat 6:24 KJV
    “Leaders” become “Deceivers”…. Isa 3:12 KJV, Isa 9:16 KJV, Mat 15:14 KJV

  21. A. Amos Love says:

    Neville

    Titles, so often become an “Idol,” an addiction, difficult to lay down, hard to walk away from.
    Difficult because, most told so many, “I was “called” by God to be a pastor.”
    Even though, in the Bible, NOT one of His Disciples was “called” to be a pastor/leader/reverend.

    And, because, *Today’s Titles* come with something, “A Little Bit Extra.”

    Power, Profit, Prestige, Honor, Glory, Reputation, Recognition, etc…

    ALL those things that are “Idols” of the heart…
    And God now talks to you according to your “Idols.”
    Ezek 14:1-11 KJV.

    ALL those things that are Against…
    What Jesus modeled and taught His Disciples.
    John 7:18 KJV, John 5:41 KJV, John 5:44 KJV, John 8:54 KJV

    ALL those things that are Highly Esteemed among men.
    But, is abomination in the sight of God.
    Luke 16:15 KJV
    ————

    Hmmm? Titles???

    Job 32:21-22 KJV
    Let me NOT, I pray you, accept any man’s person,
    neither let me give “Flattering Titles” unto man.
    For I know NOT to give “Flattering Titles;”
    in so doing my maker would soon take me away.

  22. Neville Briggs says:

    The tragedy Amos is that is seems that the mob still chooses Barabbas instead of Jesus.

  23. Neville Briggs says:

    By the way Mr DeYoung “they” do not say that the proof is in the pudding. ” They ” say that proof of the pudding is in the eating.
    Same as what Jesus said really, ” By their fruits you will know them “

  24. Lee says:

    I like what you fellows are now up to. This sort of clever work and coverage! Keep up the amazing work friends, I’ve incorporated you my own blogroll.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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