Every pastor welcomes a parishioner’s desire for a deeper understanding of God. That desire for greater knowledge can be met in several ways. The Christian education ministries of a local church are a valuable resource, and there is always the opportunity for disciplined self-study. But an increasing number of adults are exploring the viability of formal study in seminary.
While the desire to gain deeper knowledge should always be encouraged, pastors know that seminary is not for everyone. But how does a pastor know when to encourage seminary and when to discourage it? I see three areas of concern: spiritual character, motivation, and intellectual ability.
In the spiritual arena, I want to know first of all, does this person have an authentic testimony of personal conversion to Christ? Is there evidence of genuine spiritual growth, of real hunger to know God intimately? If there is little evidence of true spirituality, there is little value in heading off to seminary. This is not to say that all prospective seminarians must have achieved full spiritual maturity, for this is a life-time quest, but it is critical that there be visible evidence of authentic spiritual life and growth.
Personal motivation also interests me – why does this person desire formal theological study? If the motive for entering seminary is something other than the desire to honor God with one’s life and mind, I do not encourage seminary. A sense of divine call to vocational ministry, a desire to be an effective servant of God in a lay ministry setting – these are worthy motivations. Evidence of positive motivation is likely to be seen in the person’s active involvement in his or her local church. If the longing for seminary is fuelled by a craving to simply accumulate knowledge, and not the hunger to better know and serve God, I discourage seminary. The last thing a church needs is another spiritually-challenged, ego-driven theologue.
My third concern is the person’s ability to succeed in academic study. Not all are equipped to undertake the rigor of seminary studies. If a prospective seminarian is not already a student of the Word who regularly reads theological and ministry-oriented literature, it may indicate a shortage of interest and ability to persevere in seminary. Those not already committed to sustained study on a personal level are unlikely to suddenly discover this commitment upon entering seminary. I would steer that person toward discipling options with the church.
How can a pastor best help potential students expressing interest in formal study and exhibiting the requisite qualities needed to succeed in seminary?
First, be aware of the options. Know about available schools. Be informed about the diversity choices offered by seminaries today – resident programs, modular courses, online offerings, correspondence studies. Schools are continually offering more avenues of education; know what they are in order to wisely counsel potential students.
Those who have been away from formal studies for some time could be encouraged to take one or two courses by correspondence or online. This provides them with a seminary-level study experience while remaining in their own setting – allowing them to explore their ability and commitment to formal study before leaving jobs, moving families, or disrupting the familiar routines of life.
For some, distance education may be the only reasonable option available to them. But it is important to know if the student has the self-discipline to work alone. Not all distance education programs are created equal, so familiarize yourself with several distance education programs in order to provide good counsel.
With a myriad of educational opportunities out there, it is imperative that students understand the implications of accredited versus unaccredited theological studies programs. If the goal is personal enrichment, or greater usefulness in their local churches, accreditation may not be critical, but if postgraduate studies, or profession teaching is a goal, accreditation is critical. A thorough search of available schools will reveal good choices in both the accredited and unaccredited arena.
Finally, be aware of the theological orientation of any school you recommend. Many pastors and congregations have been shocked and disappointed to have a committed member leave for seminary only to return with a doctrinal outlook and philosophy of ministry at odds with his or her local church.
In future posts I will highlight a few options for those wanting to explore avenues of theological education.