Why You Shouldn’t Go to Seminary (right out of college)

March 7, 2011 — 23 Comments

As we send out college graduates to be lifelong laborers, we will hopefully have a good percentage of students heading into full-time ministry.

Which brings the perennial question from students: Should I go to seminary?

As college ministers, it’s an issue we need to be well versed in. [Another post for another time – we also need to have well thought out advice on graduate school. More and more, students are pursuing graduate school- some rightly, some as a way to delay adulthood.]

The short of it: for most college students I would say–  No, you should not go to seminary (right out of college).

When I was considering my options coming out of college, I got this wise advice from my pastor-
“Get some experience in ministry for a few years and then, if you feel it would be helpful, go to seminary. If you go straight into seminary you simply will not have context for all the information you are taking in. You will not have pegs to hang things on. And I think Cru offers the best 2 years of training in ministry.”
Seminary without ministry experience can be like reading a parenting book before you have kids. Or like when my wife and I attended a marriage conference as an engaged couple (which I’m not discouraging!): we sat there knowingly nodding our heads as the speakers talked about conflict and the difficulties of marriage. We had it all figured out.And we didn’t take any notes.

In a recent #AskTK Q&A on Twitter, Dr. Tim Keller was asked: Should young leaders go to seminary or go on staff at a church right out of college?
TK: Not necessarily a church, but better to get ministry experience before seminary to ask the right questions once there.

Every Christian leader needs to be well trained and well educated. But seminary is not the only way to arrive at that destination.

“Ralph Winter’s observation is tragically too true: The most extensive, pervasive strategic error in the Christian tradition lies squarely in our coveted and generously supported, but unquestioned, concept of years of “schooling” as the way for leaders to develop and be trained. . . .

Formal education definitely has a place and can make an enormous contribution in the life of a leader. I am the product of a couple of graduate degrees and am deeply grateful for my formal education. But there are limitations to what formal education can do.” – Sam Metcalf in his book, Beyond the Local Church
In another interview, Tim Keller shares how College Ministry is “our best leadership development pipeline” because on a “college campus, you’re on the culture’s cutting edge. By exposing people to the cutting edge of culture where they have to deal with the modern mindset, where they have to deal with non-Christians — that, in Keller’s opinion, is the best way to develop pastors and lay leaders.”

I always counsel students to get a few years of college ministry under their belts before going to seminary. Yes, I’m biased toward college ministry. But, as Tim Keller asserted, I really do believe ministry on a college campus offers the best place to become skilled at evangelism (engaging other religions and world views) and rapidly multiplying discipleship.

In his recent post, The Pipeline is Shrinking: Reflections on the State of Church Planting, Bob Thune observes: “Turning a seasoned youth pastor or college pastor into an effective church planter is a two-year project; doing the same with a young seminary graduate is more like a ten-year project”

As college ministers it is our duty to ask students – why are you going to seminary?

I am not at all anti-seminary. But I am very against the blind belief that seminary is the default next step after college for anyone going into ministry. I’ve seen too many young people invest years of their life and tens of thousands of dollars and come out on the other end jobless and hopelessly in debt.

The secular publication The Atlantic painfully described the situation in an article called “Higher Calling – Lower Wages“:
“Of the seminary students who graduated in 2011 with a Master of Divinity degree (the typical degree for a full-time pastor), more than 25 percent accrued more than $40,000 in educational debt, and five percent accumulated more than $80,000 in debt. Those lucky enough to get a full-time job as a pastor will join a profession whose median wage is $43,800”
Reformed Seminary put together this sobering graphic:
With those cautions in mind, here are some guidelines to consider as you decide whether you should you go to seminary.

Don’t go to seminary:

  • to grow spiritually
  • to figure out what you want to do when you grow up
  • because you want to go into ministry (if a student says this, ask them: “How will seminary help you do ministry better?” If they can’t answer that, they’re not ready to go to seminary)
On the Church and Culture blog, James Emery White (a pastor AND former seminary president) describes

who should go to seminary:

For those wondering whether to go to seminary: It is critical to discern why you want to go in the first place. No one should go to try and find themselves, get fixed, get healed, get spiritual or figure out what they want do when they grow up. Save your money and go to a good Christian counselor.

Who should go?
  • If you are going to be a teaching pastor, getting the best of biblical studies, languages, theology and church history is essential. There can be little doubt that most seminaries have this training down to an art, and no matter what anyone says, such training would be hard to duplicate on most local church levels.
  • If you feel called to work within a denomination or ecclesiastical structure that requires it. [My thought: It’s still not a bad idea to ask “Well, is that the best agency for you?”]
  • If you feel called to academia.

Here are some excellent places to read more:

I did not begin my seminary education until I was in my 30’s. As a matter of fact, I never recommend that anyone pursue seminary education until they have been out of undergraduate school for at least two years. Even a few more years under your belt will not hurt anything. You can always discern who the youngest and least experienced students in the room are by the quality of the questions they ask. Those who arrive a little older know why they are there and what they want to get out of a seminary education.
“First things first: theological training is a must for anyone called to the pastorate. So I’m not denying the importance of sound, rigorous theological training. I’m simply questioning whether seminary is the place to get it. Here are some of my concerns . . .”

“Christians have a nebulous perception that a seminary degree is like a union card for pastoral ministry. News flash: it’s not. In fact, in Acts 29, we find that church planters without a seminary degree are often more successful than those with a degree.”

“Seminary pulls pastors “off the streets” for 3 or 4 years to isolate them in a sterile academic environment. While this might be great for paper-writing, it’s really bad for missional living.”

“The seminary model is a tired one that needs to be updated for a post-Christian, technological age. Here’s a possible way forward . . .”
Three Questions Before You Go
1. Might you benefit from more experience in the “real world” first? Many students will graduate from college and head off to seminary. But for many students, seminary will be richer and more helpful with a little more life experience.
2. Will your seminary education be going toward some end which requires such a seminary degree? Graduate school costs money, money you probably don’t have. With so many Christian books, conferences, and online resources these days, you can learn a whole lot on your own. If you are going to seminary because you love Jesus and love the Bible, that’s wonderful, but you may want to consider if there are less costly, less time-consuming, less disruptive ways to keep learning and growing.
3. Are you prepared for a largely academic approach to learning? I am all for academics. But writing long papers, taking tests, listening to lectures, and reading thousands of pages is not for everyone. Seminary is not like a three year Passion Conference. It is like graduate school. Know what you’re getting in to.
  • Todd Wagner, Senior Pastor at Watermark Church in Dallas, has an excellent seriesof very honest posts on seminary. A few of his points:

You don’t want to work at a church that will hire you only if you have been to [seminary]. [If a] church would not consider someone because they do not have a degree from a seminary, DESPITE an obvious qualification of life and commitment to continual learning, it is likely a church that believes that the unbiblical idea of  “clergy/laity distinction” is real and necessary. I agree with Paul that our lives are the best letters of accommodation (2 Corinthians 3:1-6a) and with Peter that we are a kingdom of priests (1 Peter 2:9) who should be led not by degreed men, but by men who separate themselves by degree of personal holiness and giftedness.

I do not hire folks because they have been to or are going to any seminary.  The easiest thing to teach someone is theology and Bible. I hire guys that have shown a history of faithfulness, teachability and passion for the King and his Kingdom. DTS can teach theology and Bible (and they do well), but not the other stuff.

Seminary neither kills nor helps your heart. Many guys have struggled greatly in their walk with Christ while at [seminary]…my guess is they would have struggled greatly had they not been down there.  Many guys have grown in their love for and usefulness to Christ while at [seminary]…my guess is that they would have continued in obedience and faithfulness wherever they were.  If you go to [seminary] thinking it is going to be the means through which you take ground in your walk for Christ…you will be disappointed and discouraged.

  • In his book Dangerous Calling, Paul Tripp has an excellent chapter on the spiritual dangers of seminary:
Academized Christianity, which is not constantly connected to the heart and puts its hope in knowledge and skill, can actually make students dangerous. It arms them with powerful knowledge and skills that can make the students think that they are more mature and godly than they actually are.

Is it not possible for seminary students to become experts in a gospel that they are not being exposed and changed by? Is it not dangerous to teach students to be comfortable with the radical content of Scripture while holding it separate from their hearts and lives? Is it not dangerous for students to become comfortable with the message of the Bible while not being broken, grieved, and convicted by it? Is it not important for seminary students to be faced daily with the personal implications of the message that they’re learning to unpack and deliver to others? Is it not vital to hold before students who are investigating the theology of Christ the frequent and consistent call to life-shaping love for Christ? Shouldn’t every Christian institution of higher learning be a warm, nurturing, Christ-centered, gospel-driven community of faith? Could it be that rather than having as our mission students who have mastered the Book, our goal should be graduating students who have been mastered by the God of the Book?

I am convinced that the crisis of pastoral culture often begins in the seminary class. It begins with a distant, impersonal, information-based handling of the Word of God. It begins with pastors who, in their seminary years, became quite comfortable with holding God’s Word distant from their own hearts.

[Now, obviously this is true for any Christian leader, whether in seminary or not, and Tripp spends the majority of his book addressing the dangerous world of all Christian leaders]

What are your thoughts on college students going to seminary right out of college?

For those of you who have gone to seminary, what helpful insights do you have?


photo courtesy of kern.justin

timcasteel

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  • Those are some great, challenging thoughts. I think we could look at the cost/benefit of many things Christians do on auto-pilot, seminary is. Great example. I have a lot of seminary friends who are definitely not school-work types and don’t see the utility. They BS their way through papers, don’t read assignments, scrap by some C’s, and just want the degree. People just want a college degree to get a job, but it’s a shame if we just want a seminary degree to be able to say “I went to DTS” like it’s “I went to Stanford.”

    • timcasteel

      I agree Will – that would be my primary reason for sending a student the “Why You Shouldn’t Go to Seminary” article from Bob Thune. It keep them from just drifting on Auto-Pilot. It challenges their thinking. No matter what a student does after college they need to have thought it through as a Lordship issue yielded before God.

  • Tim,

    I have many conversations with people about whether they should go and this is a great overview.

    I’m finishing my 2nd sem degree this spring, but didn’t start until I had about 5 years of ministry full-time under my belt and I’m so glad I had that experience before doing. Definitely noticed a difference in how I was engaging and learning in contrast to people who hadn’t really had significant experience. Having real life experiences inform and shape learning is huge for long term retention and stewardship of such an opportunity.

    I did both degrees part-time and that was hugely helpful as well. I never stepped out of the ministry world and loved the interplay between ministry and the academic learning side at the same time. The two worlds shaped each other greatly.

    I will say that of the several seminaries I’m pretty familiar with, they all have made major strides the last decade in adapting their approaches. A lot of the criticisms I hear about seminary today seem to come from people who are referencing experiences 15-20 years ago. I wondered for a while when I was younger, but now I don’t buy the “seminary is not worth your time” argument that I hear from some. I’m pretty encouraging by the changes many are making to make such an education even more accessible and integrated into ongoing ministry efforts. It’s easier than ever to get such an education and training without disrupting your life which is awesome.

    If helpful for anyone, my criteria I used for choosing a seminary program:
    1. Pick a program that doesn’t require me to move
    2. Pick a program that integrates into what I’m already doing and that is not full-time
    3. Pick a program that doesn’t require me to have to commute to a campus multiple days a week and is intensive based (based on my own personal working/learning styles)
    4. Pick a program that embodies things I’m passionate about pursuing and learning
    5. Pick a program that has some credibility from people I believe are trustworthy and have faculty I would want to learn from

    8-9 years later that criteria served me well. They led me to a great situation and allowed me to have the best of both worlds – that is until kids came along and something had to give 🙂

    Thanks for getting some wisdom and encouragement about seminary opportunities out there for those that are thinking about it!

    • timcasteel

      Very helpful Brian – especially since you have so much experience in this world. I’ve finished the 10 SOL Seminary classes but haven’t gone any further. I have felt the same way about my classes – I’ve “loved the interplay between ministry and the academic learning side at the same time. The two worlds shaped each other greatly.”

      • Decided to come back and put in a plug for the 1st program I did via Bethel for specifically the CCC staff who might check this out.

        It’s designed be a former staffer (Mark McCloskey) and is based on the leadership model so the common language is extremely helpful for staff to integrate their education into their own contexts. It’s 1/2 traditional seminary stuff like theology and the like, but the other 1/2 is a blend of ministry and organizational leadership.

        It’s a 3 year, part-time program designed for people in ministry and I think they now have tracks through St. Paul and San Diego. It kills me that more staff aren’t going through this program (or even know about it) because it integrates with our world so well.

        There – I’ve done my alumni duty 🙂

  • Tim,

    Great resources. Thanks for the food for thought.

    My two cents…

    Let’s start this training earlier. How many 16 year olds are hearing “You would make a great Architect/Doctor/Teacher…” but never hear “You would make a great Pastor/Missionary/Minister…”? The earlier we start their training for ministry the better equipped they are for making the kind of decisions you are talking about (Is seminary right for me right now?).

    I think this requires two shifts in our current system. Students need to break free from the consumer mindset of “this ministry is here for me” and see that they are put there for their church or campus ministry. When that happens, less people will graduate college wondering if ministry is a natural fit for them because they’ve already been living it for years.

    I think that shift only happens if we as leaders take the first step. We need to stop inableing this consumer mindset. We need to be calling out young leaders early and often. Each of us can probably look back to someone who gave us a piece of their ministry and pushed us towards where we are today. This also requires more than just providing opportunities. We need to be training them to the love the Word, the World, the Church and to do so with humility. Seminary builds a foundation for these loves that last a lifetime. But it only works if it us coupled with a Gospel centered humility.

    – Cole Penick
    Part time seminary student
    Full time minister

    • timcasteel

      That’s a good connection Cole – it starts with helping students get an earlier taste of “real ministry”

  • Provocative post title 🙂 . As for advice I would give a student:

    I believe seminary is a great way for the church to pool its resources in order to give quality theological education for those going into long-term vocational Christian service; especially pastoral education. So the first question I would ask them is, “Have you discerned a call to full-time Christian ministry?” I would say this involves an aligning of their desires/passions and gifts/abilities, and needs to be tested by the encouragement and affirmation of the community (preferably their church and Christian family / friends) and Christian leaders. Additionally, I would say it needs to be tested through practical ministry experiences (in other words, they need to have demonstrated that they already have a capacity for personal ministry). Finally, they need to have made a long-term commitment to ministry before I would recommend seminary.

    So if it was a graduating senior who had an extensive personal ministry as a student, strong passions, gifts, and commitment to full-time long-term ministry, and the agreement and confirmation of Christian leaders who know them well, I wouldn’t necessarily have reservations about their going to seminary. Personally, though, I would recommend to them a year or two of full-time ministry in order to further test their calling.

    Of course, the more experience you have, the more you will probably appreciate and learn from any kind of education, including theological education. But there is a certain body of knowledge that can be extremely important on the front-end of a vocational pursuit, especially for a knowledge-work profession like Christian ministry. And there is a lot of value for ministries in understanding that candidates have been through a certain preparation curriculum. I’m not saying that obtaining a degree makes you a minister; simply that theological education is important because your knowledge/view of God determines how you will do ministry.

    On CCC Training:
    I highly value the practical ministry training and coaching I received through CCC, especially in the areas of evangelism, discipleship, MPD, and leadership. (I think I learned the most through the natural process of the ministry; although well put-together, the 2-year new staff development material was not prioritized or well-integrated into my ministry). I would qualify the “best 2 years of training in ministry” to mean “in evangelism, discipleship, and leadership” (you’re probably not going to learn much about counseling or working with demographics other than college students, preaching, gaining a thorough knowledge of the Bible, needs based ministry, baptism, communion, and other important pastoral issues.) Despite this, this is solid training in one of the traditionally weakest areas of church leadership. I would also add that doing this as part of a ministry team is an immensely valuable and rewarding aspect of this training.

    I highly recommend the short DeYoung article. As for the Thune article – I think his solution is an idealist one that may work in some situations but depends on your philosophy of education. It really is sort of a “homeschool” vs “public school” type of argument. Personally, I would rather be educated in a community of learners where I am being taught by the best of the best in my field and have the opportunity to interact with them. The problems with the traditional model he presents are certainly real, but he doesn’t present or refer to any studies that reinforce his conclusions or suggest the extent to which the problems go; they remain his empirical observations. I would guess that, though these problems certainly exist, they vary widely by both institutionial philosophy and the approach of the individual to their own preparation for ministry.

    • On the Thune article: I would also just say that your decision should definitely factor in your immediate and long term goals. If you don’t know specifically why you are going to seminary, or don’t know what to expect from the seminary you are going to, you definitely need to re-evaluate.

    • timcasteel

      Haha – That’s funny – I thought about you when I wrote this post. I’m just link-baiting people like you to click and see what heresy I’m proposing 🙂

      Good to hear your insights as one who has applied these thoughts – getting two full-time years of ministry before going to seminary.

      Yeah – I agree, I’m not sure if Thune’s proposal is the greatest. But I do like the critical thinking and hope that kind of thinking becomes widespread as we think through broader means to equip as many leaders/pastors as possible for the work of ministry. In brainstorming solutions, it takes mediocre ideas to spark better ideas!

      • And provocative post titles to keep people engaged and thinking about them. 🙂

  • Tim-
    How many people do you know head towards MBA’s who are on CCC staff? Considering the solid SOL classes and practical experience we get in the field, it seems like our theological training is more than adequate, but I’m wondering how well an MBA in Entrepreneurship (Field Ministries) or International Business, and/or Int’l Relations (WSN) would benefit Staff members. Any thoughts?

    Drew

  • Matt

    Great thoughts. Here are two thoughts from me: Acts 4 says that the scribes and high priests saw the boldness of Peter and John, saw they were “uneducated, common men” and were astonished. “And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.” NOT that they had been seminary trained. If I understand Cru’s history, Bill Bright began the ministry with the idea to reach and equip college students as lay men and women, those who could carry on the ministry of the church just as well as trained pastors… which is often still true today. Any other thoughts re my little snippet of info?

    • Anonymous

      I definitely lean toward experiential training vs classroom training. I like what Bob Thune proposed in his article – seminary level studying in the midst of doing ministry.

      For me, it’s been very beneficial to take seminary classes at Cru’s staff training every 2 years. It’s been just the right balance for me – challenging me to go deeper in my understanding of God and His Word and immediately applying it in teaching/leading staff and students back on campus.

  • T Mac

    I was given the same wise advice. I was actually told “come, be trained, do full time ministry and you’ll run circles around the recent seminary grads.” I may not be doing circles, but I’m so thankful I didnt go right out of college. Seminary has always been a “desire of my heart” so it’s fitting that I write this while in FL at New Staff Training about to begin courses that can be transferred towards a seminary degree.

    I would encourage a student in the same manner as you Tim. The best player doesn’t practice or memorize plays the first three quarters only to play in the fourth. I feel the same about taking the best laborers in their prime off of the harvest field for 3-4 years.

    • Anonymous

      Great thots TMac. Totally agree. I like Thune’s quote:
      “Seminary pulls pastors “off the streets” for 3 or 4 years to isolate them in a sterile academic environment. While this might be great for paper-writing, it’s really bad for missional living.”

      It’s a little harder to find time to squeeze in seminary classes in a busy ministry schedule but I feel that even a little seminary input is multiplied because it’s filtered through the grid of ministry right now. The 4-6 hours I can pick up in a summer give me enough to feed on for a while.

  • Andrew

    Since there are recent comments to this post I want to refer people to my comment down below. I also want to suggest that many of these thoughts are coming from the perspective of pursuing Campus Crusade or college campus ministry, and that the decision whether or not to commit to full time seminary education may look differently depending on vocational goal / calling. Since this is a more specialized vocation it may indeed be best to pursue theological training while you are on the field and not relocate. On the other hand, if you are pursuing a calling to pastoral ministry in the local church, you are responsible for a broader range of tasks to a broader demographic of people in a more comprehensive task of long-term discipleship.

    Also, the idea that committing to full-time seminary education means being removed from actual ministry and being placed in a “sterile academic environment” is extremely misleading. As a full time seminary student, I can testify that all of us are encouraged to pursue our education in the context of service in the church. For me, this currently involves leading a growing community group through my church and overseeing discipleship and developing leaders among them, as well as being on a follow-up team that helps personally connect new contacts to the church.

    There are certainly wrong ways to pursue full-time seminary education, just as there exist pragmatists in full-time campus ministry who are mostly atheological and only take classes because they are required to. So I would say in conclusion before making a decision consider your calling, life situation, and resources, do what seems wise with the motive to glorify God, and whatever you do, don’t separate theology from ministry.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for your comments Andrew – always good to hear from your perspective since you’re a real, live seminarian. My thoughts are mostly along the lines of encouraging graduates to get experience in ministry first before going to seminary (whether headed into the church or into college ministry).

      That’s great to hear your seminary encourages active ministry while in school. Any guess on what percentage of seminary students are doing ministry? Knowing you, I would guess you are one of the more pro-active students.

    • Phillip Watkins

      The follow up discussion is really great! I am writing a paper on whether I should join staff with cru or go to seminary before hand.

  • Randy

    Did Paul not say that all his training in the law ( Pharisee) He counted it as dung ! The Spirit God puts in us will teach us ! I think knowing Christ is the key to ministry and education , the Holy Spirit teaches! I think Paul may have attended the most prestigious school of religion in Israel professor Gamaliel. Just Sayin…..

    • Anonymous

      Randy – thanks for your thoughts.

      Just to clarify – I’m not discounting further study (and seminary). My main point is that you should get ministry experience before going to seminary (or else it will merely be theories that you can’t apply).

      He didn’t count his training as dung. Just his self-righteous trust in his religious activity to justify himself.

  • Steve Shadrach

    Seminary is GREAT–as long as four things align: It must be the right PERSON, going for the right REASON, at the right TIME of their life, to the right SEMINARY. If one of those don’t line up–probably a bad move. If ALL four are ship shape–go for it!

    • timcasteel

      GREAT insights Steve. Thanks for sharing. That’s a good 4 point grid to help students think through.