Last weekend, I had the opportunity to address this issue during a prospective student lunch at the Ligonier Fall Conference. Today’s post is adapted from the notes I prepared for that lunch.
How to choose a seminary
I’m sure there are many practical concerns that factor into why people choose the seminaries that they choose. Perhaps it’s the cost of tuition, the distance from home, the popularity of the professors, or the academic prestige of the institution. All of those are reasons why someone might choose a seminary, and some of those reasons involve legitimate considerations.
However, I’m convinced that none of those reasons represent the primary criterion that should be used to choose a seminary. And that’s because seminary is unlike any other educational institution in the world.
Seminary’s exist—or at least they should exist—to train up future pastors for the work of the ministry. And pastoral ministry is serious business. So serious, in fact, that James warns his readers in James 3:1, “Let not many of you become teachers, knowing that as such you will receive a stricter judgment.”
Paul gave Timothy a similar charge in 2 Timothy 4:1–2, “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word.”
The Scottish Reformer John Knox understood this principle. When he learned that he was going to be ordained, he went to his room and wept, because he was so immediately aware of the weighty responsibility with which he was being entrusted.
Pastoral ministry is a serious calling. It is both a great privilege and a great responsibility. And those who aspire to it ought to desire the best training they can possibly receive—because they long to be approved workmen, as Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:15, workmen who are not ashamed because they know how to rightly divide the Word of truth.
When a student comes to seminary, then, he is coming to be trained for the most weighty task that anyone could ever do. So how one chooses a seminary ought to be primarily dependent on which seminary can best equip him for his God-given task.
With that in mind, I believe there are three questions that must be asked in thinking about how to choose a seminary. If we think about seminary training and pastoral ministry from a big-picture perspective – from an eternal point of view – these are questions that ought to be considered.
The first question is this:
1. What does it mean to be successful in ministry?
As those who are considering a life of full-time ministry, it is vitally important to ask this question from the very outset, so that you are aiming at the right target and running for the right prize from the very start of the race. If the purpose of attending seminary is to be trained for future ministry, then it is important to choose a seminary that will train you for future ministry success.
But how should success in ministry be measured?
There are plenty of self-appointed experts today who would love to answer that question by insisting that success in ministry is measured in terms of your personal popularity, your entrepreneurial cleverness, your public image, your knack for organizing programs, and of course, your ability to draw a crowd. For that matter, entire movements are fueled by the notion that numeric church growth is the ultimate standard of a minister’s success.
But that is not how the Word of God defines success in ministry. God does not measure success in terms of popularity or eloquence or academic prestige.
Rather, when we stand before Christ one day to give an account, what is it that we long to hear Him say? It is: Well done, my good and faithful servant.
Notice that it is not: Well done, my good and popular servant. Nor is it: Well done, my good and intellectual servant. Nor is it: Well done, my good and entrepreneurial servant.
No, it is: Well done my good and faithful servant.
The Lord Jesus Christ is the ultimate standard of success. His final approval is all that ultimately matters, and therefore, faithfulness must be the measure of success: faithfulness to Him, to His Word, to His church, to His people, to His calling.
We see this exhibited in Hebrews 11, that great chapter that recounts the lives of Old Testament saints. Sometimes we refer to those individuals as the heroes of the faith, and even to that chapter as the hall of faith.
What was it that characterized their lives such that we might look to them as heroes? From the world’s standpoint, they were not mighty, or wise, or noble. But they were those who operated by faith and whose lives were marked by faithfulness. And so, the author of Hebrews writes, “God is not ashamed to be their God.” They may have been failures in the eyes of the world, but they were true successes in the eyes of God.
So faithfulness to the Lord, then, is the true measure of success in ministry (1 Cor. 4:2).
That brings us to a second question that ought to be considered when choosing a seminary:
2. Understanding that faithfulness to Christ is the goal, what are the major areas in which pastors are called to be faithful?
Now, we could easily produce a whole list of areas in which pastors are called to be faithful, such as the list of pastoral qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 or in Titus 1. But for this discussion, I would like to consider just the broadest and most basic categories.
I think we find these delineated in 1 Timothy 4:16. There Paul tells Timothy, “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching.” Pay close attention (1) to yourself and (2) to your teaching. One translation says it this way: Watch your life and doctrine closely.
As Paul so helpfully summarizes in that verse, there are two basic areas in which pastors are called to be found faithful in how they live and in what they believe and teach.
Sound living and sound doctrine are the basic criteria by which the faithful pastor’s ministry is measured. In fact, throughout both of the epistles to Timothy, Paul marks the contrast between faithful pastors and false teachers along these very lines.
The rest of the New Testament does the same. There is always a moral test and a doctrinal test: how you live and what you teach. And as we said at the beginning, the call to pastoral ministry is a serious calling with a high standard. Faithful pastors are those who pay close attention to their lives and to their teaching.
This brings us, then, to a third and final question regarding how to choose a seminary.
3. What seminary can I choose where I will be (a) discipled in the area of personal character and (b) trained to understand and teach sound doctrine?
If the ultimate measure of success in pastoral ministry is faithfulness to Christ. And if that faithfulness must be displayed in both the areas of personal character and sound teaching. Then, those who want to be best equipped for pastoral ministry ought to choose a seminary that is going (1) to disciple them in the area of personal character and (2) train them to handle the Word of God in a way that is doctrinally sound and exegetically accurate.
There are many places you could go to acquire theological information. But being properly trained as a pastor requires much more than mere head knowledge. And so as you consider choosing a seminary, ask yourself:
Will this school invest in me personally, at a discipleship level, so as to mentor me in the area of Christian character?
Is this school doctrinally sound? And will it give me the tools I need to understand the Scriptures accurately, so that I will be able to handle God’s Word with precision as I preach and teach it to others?
If God is calling you to pay close attention to your life and your teaching, then you ought to find a seminary that is going to mentor you and disciple you along those lines.
Are there other issues to consider in choosing a seminary? Obviously yes. Things like accreditation, tuition costs, and accessibility are all important to consider.
But when we consider this question from an eternal perspective, one in which we recognize that faithfulness to Christ and His Word is our measure of success, it helps keep our priorities in the right order so that we can make a decision that honors the Lord.
So how should someone choose a seminary? Well, I think asking these three questions is a great place to start. So let’s review:
1. What does it mean to be successful in ministry?
The standard of success is Christ Himself – and He calls His servants to pursue faithfulness.
2. What are the major areas in which pastors are called to be faithful?
As Paul told Timothy, “Pay close attention to your life and to your teaching.”
The successful minister is one who faithfully lives for Christ and faithfully teaches sound doctrine as an approved workman who is not ashamed because he rightly divides the Word of God.
3. What seminary can I attend in which I will be specifically equipped for faithfulness in those two areas?
There are obviously many places that you could choose to pursue a post-graduate theological education. My encouragement to you is to choose one that will equip you to do and to be the future pastor that God is calling you to be.
And by His grace, we will one day hear Him say to us, “Well done, My good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of Your Master.”