So, You Think You Want to Go to Seminary?
Calling. If you grew up in the Church, you might be sick of that word. Does God have a calling on your life? How are you supposed to know what it is?
Some people clearly hear God calling them into ministry. Maybe it happens while leading a Bible study and realizing they’re really good at it. Maybe after a dramatic return to the Father’s grace they want to share that grace with others. For me it happened leading worship and glimpsing the wonder of entering God’s presence as the Church. But is everyone supposed to hear the Lord that clearly?
What’s My Calling?
If you’ve given your life to following Christ, then you are called to serve the Church and the world with your gifts, your time and your money. That is our universal calling as the Church—our vocation—to imitate Christ by walking in His love and giving ourselves for others (Ephesians 5:1). We have this universal role, but we also have a unique one: God created us to fit in the church and contribute something really meaningful through the gifts the Spirit gives us (1 Corinthians 12:7).
A calling is something God speaks to you and confirms in your church community. Since God gives gifts to the Church for the Church (Ephesians 4:10), the place to discover your gifting is the church body. How would a toe know what it is and what it’s supposed to do apart from the foot? Trying to find out who God made you to be outside the Church is like asking the old question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If a Christian is apart from the Church, do they have gifts?
Hearing God’s calling is a lifelong journey as God refines our understanding of His vision for our lives. And God’s process of calling us is as unique as the people He’s calling. So how is the Lord calling you to be who He made you to be? Don’t worry if it seems foggy right now or if it happens differently for you than for someone else. Ask God to show you the next step. Ask the church to help you discern God’s voice. Serve the church and wait for the Lord to show you where you fit in His body.
Choosing a Seminary
Everyone has gifts and a calling to serve the Church. Some do so with gifts of leadership (Ephesians 4:11). If you and your church have discerned a call to leadership, seminary will help you prepare (2 Timothy 2:15). But how do you plan your ministry training?
The most common seminary degree is the Master of Divinity (M.Div.), which is a prerequisite in many denominations for ordination (though there are a variety of shorter master’s programs as well). This program is usually three to four years post-college and involves studies in areas all pastors need to be equipped in: Theology, Bible, Christian History and Practical Ministry, as well as internships and other ministry experiences.
But not every M.Div. is the same. Seminaries come in many shapes and sizes. Before you can find the right one, you need to know your calling. The right ministry education for you will be the one that best equips you for your particular calling in the Church.
Do you want to be a professor and serve the Church through research and teaching? Then look for a divinity school, which focuses on the academic disciplines of theology and philosophy. (But take care not to become so disconnected from the Church that you aren’t very helpful to it.)
If you want to go into full-time pastoral ministry, look for a seminary that will help you develop your particular gifting and calling. For instance, if you’re drawn to pastoral care, look for a faculty with professors who have years of ministry experience in that area and training in psychology or counseling as well.
As you discern your calling, work with your mentors to create a list of values. It will help you evaluate your options for ministry preparation. Here are some general values to keep in mind as you pray and plan your seminary study.
In 1 Timothy 3 Paul lists qualifications for leaders in the Church. What he doesn’t include in his list, though, is which degree is required. Instead he focuses on characteristics of spiritual maturity. Serving the Church is not only about what you know—it’s about who you are. Information about God is critical but not primary. Invitation to relation always precedes information in Scripture.
Ministry springs from the overflow of God’s presence and love in our life. The most important preparation for ministry is learning to live Jesus’ words in John 15:4: “Abide in me, and I in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”
Real Ministry Experience in the Local Church
The purpose of seminary is to train you for serving in the church, but ministry can be very different from the classroom. How are you going to practice ministry while you are training for ministry? Find out what practical ministry experiences are part of the program and what healthy local churches and seasoned leaders you can connect with.
Maybe practicing ministry means only doing seminary part-time. In fact, many three-year M.Div. programs leave little time for ministry or personal spiritual health in the midst of their demanding requirements. You might finish seminary with a degree but lack spiritual maturity or practical ministry experience.
I’ve had the opportunity to work on staff at my church while attending seminary. I’ve learned the most when my ministry experiences can be reflected on in the classroom and when the research of the classroom can be enfleshed in the church. I have a front row seat to see which ministry approaches are working in real life and which are not.
Diversity and Community
What is the culture of the seminary? Are all the students, professors and administrators the same age, gender, socioeconomic background, ethnic background and denomination? In a pastoral ethics class, I learned that while one classmate’s culture is at ease with accepting large gifts (like a new Lexus) from parishioners, another’s culture refuses even the smallest gifts (like lunch at Subway). Learning how others apply the Gospel to a different context can help you apply it to yours.
Seminary professor Soong Chan Rah says the Church desperately needs to escape its reliance on Western, white, middle-class Christianity. A narrow demographic at seminary can lead to a narrow Gospel. Different church and cultural traditions bridge the gap between theology and practice, challenging our own assumptions and enriching our faith.
Professors will be mentoring, training and shaping your life as a pastor. Do they exhibit the above values? Are they mature Christians who are committed to life and ministry in the church? Do they have a diversity of ministry and life experience from which you can learn? If you find professors or pastors like this, follow them. Use independent study courses to get more individual interaction with them and your area of calling.
Crafting Your Unique Journey
God has a unique calling for you and a unique path of preparation for that calling. There is room for you and your church to be creative in your training. You can study part-time while still doing ministry without the pressure of graduating as soon as possible. If you have just graduated from college, you can take time off from school to gain some real-life church ministry experience in your local church or overseas.
Many schools have consortiums to study at other nearby institutions and take advantage of the strengths of different contexts. You can use independent studies or other summer immersion experiences to attend pastoral leadership conferences, visit different churches or intentional communities, and devote time to ministry projects in your church.
Maybe the best way for you to stay engaged in the Church is to stay at your current church and find educational opportunities nearby. If there isn’t a good fit locally, you could do a distance-learning program combined with periodic immersive on-campus experiences. A missionary from our church travels from Brazil every summer to study at a seminary to round out his training.
Listen and Go
The Church is the hope of the world. How is God calling you to serve in its mission? Get in the church, listen to the Lord and community to find out who He is calling you to be and what He is calling you to do. Then give everything you have to follow that call. If seminary can help you serve the Church better, then go.
Trevor McMaken lives with his wife, and two children in Wheaton, IL where he is a pastor at Church of the Resurrection. He is completing the final year of his M.Div. at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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