I have mixed emotions about seminaries (I've written about this a few times here, here, and here). Today's post is for those of you who are considering going to seminary. From someone who managed to graduate (by the grace of God) after four years of toil, here are twelve things, in no particular order, that you should know before taking the plunge:
1. Seminary is much harder on your family than it is on you.
You will find seminary to be a challenging time personally as you try to balance work, school, church, family, etc. However, you will also get to experience all the wonderful things of seminary. Classes and chapel will likely be very positive times. Your family, meanwhile, will probably spend most of their days in seminary housing, far from friends and family. Especially at first they will be very lonely. My advice is to take them to chapel and even the occasional class. Talk to your wife about the fascinating things you are learning. Also, when time permits, get involved in on-campus fun activities for family.
2. Be prepared to read - a lot.
I hope you like reading because you're going to be doing a lot of it. Get in the habit before you go. Just to help prepare your brain, you might want to begin by reading a good systematic theology like this one (I'm not kidding).
3. The original languages are the most important classes to take.
You can gain the vast majority of general seminary class knowledge you need simply by reading good books. However, just about the only way to learn biblical Hebrew and Greek is to take multiple classes in each of these. It will require a great deal of time and effort, but you will not regret it. My advice is to begin by taking Greek your first semester. Plan to take at least one language class every semester you are at seminary.
4. Seminary is pastor-focused.
Most seminary graduates intend to become professional pastors (by this I mean that they will work for a church that will provide them with a salary). Because of this, the atmosphere in general and the curriculum in particular are aimed at pastors-to-be. Additionally, most of the chapel speakers will be pastors who will aim their sermons at pastors-to-be. Just be prepared for this.
5. Preaching is viewed as the most important skill of the pastor.
At the seminary I attended, "preaching class" was seen by the students as the high point of the curriculum. Preaching is what takes place in every chapel. Throughout all that occurs on campus, preaching is thought of as the highest skill of the pastor. This is largely unquestioned (at least by the students).
6. You will have various types of missions opportunities.
I was privileged to attend a seminary that takes missions seriously. Because of this, there were almost constant missions trip opportunities. I was able to go on two trips while in school: one to West Virginia and the other to India. My advice is to take advantage of this if you can. Make every effort to go on at least one international missions trip. If you are married, make sure your wife gets to go, too.
7. Seminary does not take place of the church.
Due to time constraints there is a real temptation to think of seminary as a substitute for church life. This is dangerous. Seminary is largely about knowledge transfer. Church, however, is about mutual edification in Christ. Additionally, your family isn't attending seminary like you are. They probably need a church family even more than you do. Also, don't expect to find a church that is like the one you left back home. Instead, just try to find a place where you can help others grow (and where the majority of the church is non-seminarian).
8. You can grow closer to or farther from Christ.
As in any other time of life, your relationship with Jesus can deepen or grow weaker while at seminary. Taking classes about Jesus is not the same as walking in step with him.
9. Minor differences can easily get blown way out of proportion.
Both in class and out you will have many opportunities to engage in theological discussions with other students. Sometimes the finer points of theology start to seem too important. These can become dividing points when they never should be. Be careful to keep what's most important just that - most important. That is the gospel.
10. Pressure to adhere to the church institution is ever-present.
Institutional practices are ever-present because they are rarely questioned. If you do question them, be prepared to be given strange looks. Those types of questions are not generally welcomed. Interestingly, I found that professors were usually much more willing to question the institution than students were. Feel free to ask hard questions, but just be ready to be in the minority when you do.
11. Do not expect to be taught biblical ecclesiology.
This goes along with number ten. Because seminaries are part of the larger church institution, they cannot teach biblical ecclesiology. While in seminary I wondered why I wasn't required to take a specific class on the church. Now I know why. It couldn't be taught. Too many difficult and uncomfortable questions would arise.
12. Remind yourself over and over that you are not an expert.
After you take a few classes in Greek, church history, ethics, etc., you may be tempted to think of yourself as part of the biblical elite. This is Satan speaking through pride. Watch out (no joking here). We are all part of an equal priesthood of all believers. Those who graduate from seminary are no better in any way than other believers. I'm certainly no expert. Tell yourself repeatedly that you are just another believer. Nothing more and nothing less.
Finally, if you are considering attending seminary please be certain that it is one that embraces the gospel of Jesus Christ. Many seminaries no longer do. Also, find one that has missions as a central focus. Let me recommend a few American seminaries:
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Asbury Theological Seminary
Dallas Theological Seminary
Fuller Theological Seminary
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
Reformed Theological Seminary
Talbot School of Theology
Trinity Evangelical Divinty School
Westminster Theological Seminary
Additionally, more than a few excellent seminaries exist overseas. I cannot recommend any due to lack of knowledge on my part. However, I highly encourage you to research it. I've been told than an international seminary experience is like no other.