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What is Seminary and Do I Need It?

What is seminary?

Good question ! By definition seminaries are “institutions that prepare students to be priests, ministers, or rabbis”. Seminaries years ago and seminaries today operate much differently. A Protestant seminary in centuries past was considered in theological circles to be a prestigious institution with very high academic standards. Today, education in almost all areas of academia incorporate technology throughout it’s programs. More recently, online caopabilities have become a dominant influence in seminary education. Liberty University, the highest enrolled private Christian college in the country is one of the top ten best online seminary programs according to College Facts with nearly 14,000 students enrolled in 2017. In the last ten years seminary educators have realized that working families no longer have the ability to relocate to a college campus while mom and/or dad gets their degree and in turn have opted to join the online education community.

What do I learn at a seminary? 

Seminaries offer graduate programs that aim to provide a student a rounded ministerial education that includes exclusive courses for a student’s chosen concentration. The most popular degree program at a Protestant seminary is the MDiv. or Masters of Divinity. Credit requirements for the completion of the MDiv. can range anywhere from 75 credit hours to 90+ credit hours (typically with a thesis) depending upon the demand of a student’s concentrated area (major). For instance and MDiv. with a concentration in Bible without a required thesis is a much shorter program than a concentration in Biblical counseling with a thesis. Each program has it’s own “track” or course path that determines the number of credits a student must obtain to satisfy the requirements of the program. The best way to find out what MDiv. concentrations are available out there is to search MDiv. programs for different institutions and see what they offer.

What is the difference between a degree with a thesis and without a thesis? 

Often (but not always) a degree program offers what is called a “thesis track”, meaning a thesis is required at the end of the program that reflects a student’s understanding of a topic within their chosen field. You may hear the term “defend your thesis”, this means you will present your completed research thesis to the head of your department who will in turn, along with a panel, ask questions, analyze and provide a rebuttal to what you have presented. For students, this is where the rubber meets the road. A good panel will make sure the student has in-depth knowledge of the topic by looking for holes, incomplete thoughts and incorrect information. A student must know their topic inside and out and be ready for any questions that arise.

A program may not include (or may make optional) a thesis track. In this case the student only needs to satisfy the credit requirements for the program to graduate. The advantage of a thesis track? First, a degree program with a thesis track looks good on a resume and is beneficial to make public when applying for a position. Second, a thesis  helps a student enter a PhD/research program later on. The process of filing an application to enter a PhD program is daunting enough without fulfilling an additional requirement. If you plan on moving into a research degree program, and it’s available, I highly recommend a thesis track.

Are all seminary programs alike? 

Sadly, no. Like secular institutions, seminaries have reputations as well. In the beginning I mentioned that seminary today is not like seminary years ago. Because of the emergence of online capabilities, pop-up (or diploma mill) colleges can be run out of an office building. Often these “colleges” provide a simple format with low-level requirements, a limited amount of teachers who provide no challenge to the students knowledge or intellect. It’s a pay-receive degree exchange that wastes a student’s time and money. Spotting diploma mill colleges is pretty easy:

  1. Does the college have a campus? If not, that’s usually a red flag.
  2. What is the college rated? There are plenty of reputable rating websites such as US New & World Report that provide extensive reviews on colleges. If the college is not ranked, that is another red flag. Additional note, watch out for fake rating sites where colleges pay services to rank them high. If it looks fake, it probably is.
  3. Seek student reviews. The best reviews are from students that attended the school. If it has a bad reputation, the word spreads quickly on the internet.

Another aspect of a seminary program to consider is the school’s denomination affiliation. If you want to attend a Southern Baptist seminary, you would look into colleges such as Southeastern in North Carolina, New Orleans Theological, Southeastern Baptist along with others that are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. If you are of Calvinist or Lutheran theology, Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi is one of many available to those who desire to serve under Reformed Theology . Pay close attention to what theological beliefs a seminary holds to. They may believe in the Trinity, salvation through Jesus Christ and the rapture but their interpretation of scripture may differ from your own convictions.

Do churches or ministry organizations care what seminary I attended?

Yes and no. If attending seminary, the best thing you can do is to find a good, reputable school that is affiliated with your denomination (even non-denominational). You can always ask your pastor for recommendations as well.

Finally, and sadly it must be mentioned, but some churches favor graduates of certain colleges. This is preferential on the part of the hiring committee or the pastor and mirrors the same politics found in law firms (Are you a Harvard or a Yale man?). Unfortunately I have witnessed many interviewees go through extensive hiring processes on their own dime, only to lose the position to another person due to the school’s name on their degree. My advice to anyone applying for a church ministry position would be to first look at a church’s staff page on their website. Their you can determine if the staff has migrated together like nomads or if they are diverse. Though this does not apply to every church, avoid applying to organizations who feel a pledge to Skull and Bones is more important than serving the living Christ.

So, do I need seminary to be in ministry? 

To answer this question I will cite Luke Skywalker’s dilemna in the original Star Wars. Growing up on the planet Tatooine and living with his uncle and aunt, Luke dreamed of going to the Imperial Academy (run by the evil empire). Sound strange? Well, as much as Luke hated the empire, the academy was all their was for training at the time. Please note, my words are not to compare seminary to the Imperial Academy but the principle of the situation resides in both. Those who are called to ministry will attend seminary because that is where you find structured training. But is it necessary? In good faith I cannot say that it is but I highly recommend it. In my own life I have benefited greatly from my education. In a future post I will speak about the ups and downs of online education but overall, it has assisted me well. Can you enter ministry without a seminary degree? You sure can. Anyone who begins a ministry and follows the guidlines to obtain 501(c)(3) non-profit status and start a ministry but to formally fly for the empire, you would need to go to the Imperial Academy. Most ministry organizations have a list of requirements and found on many of those lists is a an educational standard of possessing an undergraduate or MDiv. degree. Yes, Luke Skywalker skipped the Imperial Acaemy, joined the rebellion and became a Jedi but even he received training from Yoda. My feeling is, even if you are called to ministry and blessed with a gift of preaching, teaching, compassion and/or leadership, training is still required to obtain a good foundation of knowledge and experience.

Above all, pray over every decision you make, especially when facing the unknown. If God brings you to it, God will bring you through it, meaning He will place you where he needs you and provide the means for you to get there. Never jump ahead of him and never think you know more than he does, because you don’t. Simply praise him each day that he wants you to be a part of his plan in serving him and humanity.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.   Psalm 32:8