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.