Choosing A Seminary

By H. Daniel Zacharias & Benjamin K. Forrest

Students attend seminary for many reasons. You may wish to pursue vocational ministry. You may want to go on to doctoral studies. Or you may just want to take courses, residentially or online, out of interest and a desire for growth.

Like many seminary students, you may have grown up reading the Bible, attending Sunday school, going to Bible camp, etc. All of these have given you a hunger for God’s Word, as well as a desire to serve him and others. This has brought you to the decision to attend seminary, and that’s great!

However, choosing to attend seminary is one thing. Choosing which seminary to attend can be an entirely different decision.

Below we’ve outlined several practical ideas and questions to work through as you are deciding which seminary is the best fit for you.

Do your research

There are thousands of seminaries to choose from, each with its own emphasis, principles, and pros and cons. The bottom line is: It’s important to do your research. Choosing a seminary to attend is not a decision to be taken lightly.

Most seminaries have a wealth of information on their websites. You might also be able to speak with a friend or ministry mentor who has been to a particular seminary or knows someone who has. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and seek information from your network.

If a school is close by or if it’s financially feasible for you to travel, consider visiting the seminary campus to learn more and talk with professors and staff.

There is no perfect school; but taking time to research and talk through this decision with your spouse, close friends, or mentors will help you narrow down your choices.

Clarify your convictions, calling, and financial reality

When evaluating whether a seminary is the best fit for you, we also recommend clarifying your thoughts in three areas:

  1. Your personal doctrinal convictions
  2. The direction of your calling
  3. Cost, affordability, and stewardship

First, think about how your personal doctrinal convictions line up with the school’s theological positions. It is not likely you will find a one-to-one compatibility with any seminary, and it is possible that your convictions on some issues will change or become more nuanced as you study. But broadly speaking, if you are a Wesleyan, you may not want to choose a Presbyterian seminary.

Second, consider the direction of your calling. Does this school help you to accomplish the goals you have for your future ministry?

If your goal includes pastoral leadership, then ask whether your denomination ordains or licenses graduates from this school.

If your long-term plan is to move on to doctoral work or pursue higher education, ask about the numbers of graduates who are accepted into doctoral programs.

Especially if your plan involves further education, give preference to those seminaries that are accredited. Essentially, accreditation means that a seminary has proven to its peers (other accredited seminaries) that it does its job with excellence, meets the goals of the school’s mission statement, and offers an education that accomplishes the goals of the degree.

The third thing to consider when choosing a seminary is the issue of cost, affordability, and stewardship. This is weighed in contrast and connection to the previous two issues, meaning that if your goals are the pastorate, then perhaps a school that is less expensive might be a wise decision. Likewise, if your goals are the professorate, know that the most prestigious schools are often the most expensive schools. Is the cost worth the leg up when it comes time to apply for a PhD program? In some cases the answer is yes, and in other cases it is probably no.

It’s important at this stage to also consider all costs involved with attending seminary—housing, travel, books and materials, tuition, etc.

Think practically

Other questions you might consider during the evaluation process include:

  • Do I want to stay close to home to take advantage of free/reasonable rent, or do I want to include the experience of moving (perhaps to the other side of the country or even another country) and becoming more independent?
  • Is there a particular seminary that my pastors or spiritual mentors would recommend for me?
  • What is my financial reality (emphasis on reality instead of hypothesized reality)? Do I have the financial freedom to choose any seminary I want, or do I need to confine myself to one of the cheaper options?
  • Is my spouse on board? Are there any parameters or restrictions he/she would make? What would be best for my children? Is there a seminary located near family who might provide support?
  • Should I consider a fully online degree or a fully residential degree?
  • Should I pursue a degree full time or part time?
  • Should I work during seminary, or should we, as a family, plan for my spouse to work?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to these questions. But thinking through these questions will help you make a plan.

Define your goals and where you need to grow

As you answer the questions above, take into account your own learning style as well as areas where you need to grow. Honestly assess your strengths and weaknesses.

If you sense a need to grow in independence, a move across the country may be exactly what you need at this stage of life. If you have already been in pastoral ministry and know that your preaching is weak, consider finding a school that specializes in training preachers. Alternatively, you may identify strengths that you can turn in to super strengths (by choosing a school that specializes in this area).

In your consideration of an online or residential program, you should also carefully consider your personality traits and learning style.

Someone who feels a strong call to pastoral ministry but who is also shy or introverted may benefit greatly from a residential setting where he/she sits with people face-to-face in a classroom. Some extroverts may also receive a better education from a residential program because they derive their energy and excitement from being around others, making a fully online program a difficult task.

In other cases, you may already be a pastor or lay-leader in your church, and instead of choosing to pass this role on to another shepherd, you instead might wisely and necessarily choose to stay put and enroll in an online program.

Or, you might be the sole provider for your family and giving up a consistent paycheck may not be a realistic option. In this case, or similar cases, an online degree or a blended program might meet your academic goals while allowing you to remain where you are.

Make a decision

We recommend that you go into the decision of choosing a seminary with an open mind. Take time to research and talk through this decision with your spouse, trusted friends, or experienced mentors.

There is no perfect school or situation, so we encourage you to think through the challenges and opportunities that will come from your decision to attend seminary. Our advice is to work to limit the challenges and harness the opportunities.

Seminary education is a challenging and rewarding process, and we believe it is important to enter into your degree program with a plan and with your eyes wide open to all of the realities.

This article is adapted from H. Daniel Zacharias and Benjamin K. Forrest, Surviving and Thriving in Seminary: An Academic and Spiritual Handbook. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2017.