How to Choose a Seminary

By Richard J. Mouw
Past President, Fuller Theological Seminary

drmouw-profile-photoNot long ago, I met the daughter of the first woman to graduate from one of the large evangelical seminaries in the United States. She laughed as she told me of a typographical error in the graduation program. Instead of receiving a bachelor's degree in sacred theology, her mother was listed as earning a bachelor's degree in secret theology!

Today, there are approximately 220 seminaries in the United States. None that I know of offers a degree in "secret" theology. They do, however, offer programs of study ranging from a Master of Arts in Christian Leadership, for those who want to be theologically trained lay persons, to PhD degrees in Theology, Biblical Studies, Church History, and even Clinical Psychology. Choosing a seminary, and the right program once you get there, is one of the major life choices you can make.

Three Types of Seminaries

Most seminaries fall into one of three categories: denominational, university-based, and independent. The category you select will make a significant difference in the type of learning experience you will have.

Denominational schools exist primarily to serve the needs of a particular religious group, training their clergy and other church leaders. The theology and agenda of that denomination dominate the life of the school.

By contrast, university-related theological or divinity schools are often finely tuned with the larger culture of the institution. They exist alongside other professional schools, such as law and medicine. You'll probably hear more about what's being debated by the deconstructionists in the university's English department than about what will be voted at a denominational synod or convention.

Freestanding, independent seminaries usually exist to serve a movement. Often they are founded because of dissatisfaction with both denominational and university-related schools. The largest number of such seminaries are part of the evangelical movement in American Christianity.

In selecting between the three types of schools, it's important to keep your career pathway in mind. Certain denominations require that their candidates for ministry attend their own seminaries. Students for whom that is not a factor may benefit from the broader educational perspective that may be found at a university-based or independent school.

Size and Emphasis

The size of the school is another important consideration. Some people feel more comfortable in a smaller setting, where students and faculty have close personal interaction. There may only be one professor who teaches New Testament studies, but there is an intimate sense of community on campus.

Other students prefer a larger seminary offering a broader range of courses. They may be able to choose classes from five New Testament scholars, each with his or her own specialty. With the wider academic choice, however, may come a more limited sense of community. Both settings require trade-offs; both can train people well for Christian service. The choice probably comes down to one's own personal style.

Seminaries differ not only in context and size, but in their emphasis. At seminaries focusing primarily on rigorous academics, the professors may be world-class scholars who are given plenty of time for research and publication. The worshiping life may be optional, something students experience as part of a local church. Individual professors, especially in university settings, may see themselves as scholars of religion, but may not necessarily profess a personal religious commitment.

Seminaries emphasizing spiritual formation over academics may provide community worship experiences every day of the week. Professors may be selected not only on the basis of scholarship, but by what they personally espouse and live.

Programs of Study

Until the 1970s, most seminaries existed primarily to train future pastors. Students, who were predominantly young men fresh out of college, enrolled in a Bachelor of Divinity (now renamed the Master of Divinity) degree program. Three years later, they graduated and took their places in the ordained ministry of their denominations. So typical was this pattern that many schools offered no other degrees.

Today, some seminaries still emphasize the MDiv, while larger seminaries may offer a dozen or more different programs, at the master's and doctoral levels. Less than half of the students at some schools may be planning a career in pastoral ministry. Seminaries prepare missionary translators, marriage and family therapists, clinical psychologists, church planters, consultants, parachurch leaders, and church history professors as well as parish pastors.

With such a broad array of opportunities, prospective students can probably find a program well suited to their needs. A key is to explore not only seminary catalogs, but the students' own desired outcomes as well.

For those who want to enter the pastorate, for example, the basic degree is still the Master of Divinity. If, however, their goal is to be theologically astute bankers or business persons, they probably do not need to take an MDiv program. They might prefer a Master of Arts in Theology or Christian Leadership program, in which they take courses in ethics and church history, rather than in the practice of performing weddings and funerals.

Over the last 10 to 15 years, the popularity of the Doctor of Ministry degree has increased significantly. The degree integrates the traditional theological disciplines with the hands-on concerns that pastors bring to a continuing education program. Persons entering a DMin program usually have been in ministry for some time and are interested in answering the concrete questions and challenges they face in their professional lives.

In selecting a Doctor of Ministry program, prospective students should look at whether or not a seminary's faculty really "owns" the program. Is the program taken seriously, or is it considered a marginal, income-producing project? I recommend choosing a program at a seminary where continuing education is considered an important goal of the institution and its faculty.


Thirty years ago, seminary education was a rather uneven thing. Various religious traditions had developed different approaches and standards in their educational programs. Degrees carrying the same nomenclature involved very different preparation.

For the last 20 years, the pattern has been for nonaccredited schools to move in the direction of accreditation by the Association of Theological Schools. Today, very few are not at least eyeing accreditation, which guarantees minimum standards and relative uniformity of program and curriculum.

Much of this has to do with a developing sense of what goes into the training of a person for professional ministry. Thus, whether schools are conservative or liberal, Catholic or Protestant, denominational, university-based, or independent, they have moved toward consensus about what the overall patterns of theological education should be. Programs, in general, are aimed at a balanced, well-rounded curriculum, including the historical, systematic, biblical, and practical.

I think this balance is vital, because all kinds of evidence exists that religion and arrogance too frequently go hand in hand. Some of the most arrogant people on earth are those who think they understand God and what God wants for everybody else.

Theological education is a humbling process, because it introduces us to the nuances, the complexities, the legitimate areas of difference between people. It is impossible to go through a well-rounded program of theological education and come through with all your preconceived ideas intact.

Those of us involved in theological education want people to come out of the process with conviction, but not with arrogant, simplistic views. To be right is not just to have correct ideas, but to have a loving spirit and attitude toward other people. Humility, flexibility, a self-critical posture, a readiness to hear and serve others--that is what a good theological education reinforces.

Practical Considerations

Several practical considerations come into play in choosing the seminary that is right for you. What geographical location do you prefer? This is not just a matter of north, south, east, or west, near or far from your current locale. It also implies a decision about a rural or urban setting. Some people's ministry is enhanced by separation from the hustle and bustle of life. Seminary for them might best be a "wilderness experience," like Paul's in the Arabian Desert. For others, immersion in study also means connection to the diverse people who live in a large city. Their ministry is expanded by the living laboratory such an urban setting can provide.

A related choice involves what kind of seminary community you prefer. Do you want a school which draws a student body primarily composed of people similar to yourself? One that primarily serves people of one gender or ethnic group? Or do you want to study with scholars and students drawn from diverse settings and backgrounds?

An important part of a seminary education has to do with the kind of community to which you have been called. It's not just the books you read that make a difference, but the people you sit next to. People from varying backgrounds and life experiences ask different questions. The kind of theological reflection you engage in as part of a community of scholars has a lot to do with how diverse that community is.

Value Versus Cost

No matter what the seminary, the cost of an education is always significant in time as well as in money. In fact, dollars and cents may not be the best way to put a value on an educational program, though a prospective student must, of course, compare costs. There are very expensive theological programs that aren't very good, and financially inexpensive programs that are excellent.

Cost is not necessarily indicative of value. Value has to do with how well a program prepares people for the kind of work to which they are called. A degree program that not only provides job-entering credentials but also shapes your mind in important new directions is worth whatever price it may require.

God’s Call

And that leads me to a final consideration: Where is God calling you?

This may sound strange, coming from a seminary president, but I don't think God calls everyone to pursue a seminary education. There are certain people with such a religious passion that they just don't need seminary. They are in an inspired hurry to do the work to which God is calling them. For example, I don't think it would have done Mother Teresa much good to spend her time in seminary. God was calling her to the streets of Calcutta. Her theological education came at the feet of Jesus, as she ministered to the broken and rejected of his children.

But God is calling many others to a time of intense study that seminary can provide. If you are one of those, listen to God's voice. There is room for people with all kinds of motivations: to get the credentials to enter full-time ministry; to satisfy intellectual curiosity; to test out a call; to find out more of what it means to be a human being.

Theology-studying about God-cuts close to the bone of our humanness. To study the God who made us is a very intimate investigation. The person who studies theology is more likely to be engaged in self-examination than a person who, for example, studies chemistry. Out of that self-examination can come a passion for ministry that can carry over into whatever vocation you pursue.

I encourage you to consider God's call in your life. As you do so, with prayer and thought and investigation, God will lead you to the place that is best for you, where you can rejoice in his unfolding plan for your life.

Explore more about vocation and calling here.

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