Who Should Go to Seminary? (1)

Dan writes to ask this question. It’s a good and important question and the answer is in two parts: anyone but not everyone.

First, anyone may go to seminary. Since I teach at a seminary and I know how we operate, I’ll write about WSC.

First, the faculty at WSC are ministers and we are each called by our congregations or presbyteries to the work we do here on behalf of the churches. Nevertheless, WSC is a school, not the visible, institutional church. We do not presume to do the work of consistories/sessions (the local elders and ministers), or presbytries/classes (the regional gathering of elders and ministers), or synods/general assemblies (the national gathering of elders and ministers). We don’t call people to ministry or to mission fields. We don’t send people to congregations or mission fields.

As a school, our vocation is to work closely with and for the visible church to educate, prepare, and train men for pastoral ministry and to train and prepare other students for other vocations. About 70% of our students are in the MDiv program which prepares qualified men to serve (mainly) confessional Reformed and Presbyterian congregations. We also offer three MA degrees enrollment (in Biblical Studies, Theological Studies, or Historical Theology) in which is open to men and women. These degree programs are designed to prepare student to fulfill a variety of vocations. Our MA graduates are teaching in Christian school, serving as missionaries, counselors, earning PhD’s or other graduate/post-graduate degrees, or serving as elders in local congregations. 

Let’s talk about two degree tracks, MDiv and MA and two types of callings, internal and external. First the MDiv and calling. If you’re thinking of pastoral ministry, if you have or are developing a strong desire to study, teach, and/or preach the Word, if you would love to be able to read God’s Word in the original languages and to explain it to other people, those may be indicators that you have an internal calling to pastoral ministry. Must you have seen visions, heard voices from God or other supernatural phenomena? No, in fact, we generally prefer if you haven’t since, if you’re currently receiving divine revelation it makes our job as teachers more difficult. Why would you want to listen to a mere historian when you can hear directly from God? I should think that sitting in a seminary classroom, watching mere mortals work through the difficulties of theology, piety, and practice would be exceeding boring when you’re hearing directly from God. What you need is a good secretary to write down these revelations, so you should call that temp agency right away! 

If, however, you are a mere ordinary Christian who struggles to be consistent in his prayer life, who believes but doubts, who struggles with sin, whose experience of the presence of God ebbs and flows, who loves the church, the means of grace, the people of God, the lost, and most especially the Lord of the church, then you might be a good candidate for ministry and a for seminary. If you’re an undergraduate student and you never miss the college fellowship, if you find yourself with opportunities to teach or lead bible studies, then you might be a good candidate for seminary. If you’ve finished your undergraduate degree and are in business and If you’re good at what you do but you’ve had a nagging sense that you’re doing the wrong thing, that you should be spending your life for Christ in his church but you’re afraid to take the plunge because you don’t know how it will work out: you’re not alone. Come on in, the water is fine. Trust the Lord to provide for you (and your family). People do it every day here. If you’re working in a para-ecclesiastical organization or in congregational college ministry and you realize that you’re not really prepared for the work you’ve been asked to do, you should think and pray about real seminary where you can get real, face-to-face preparation. 

Pray? Yes, absolutely, I didn’t say that you should pray for extra-canonical revelation. Pray for wisdom (godly skill in understanding reality and applying God’s Word to it), pray for self-knowledge, pray for godly advisors (e.g. elders or pastors) who will tell you the truth about your self, your gifts, and your circumstances. These three gifts are relatively rare. Congregations and para-church groups are often reluctant to turn loose of good people and this reluctance may color their evaluation of your situation. Of course, if wisdom were easy to get we wouldn’t need large chunks of holy Scripture or the Holy Spirit would we? It isn’t easy to “get a heart of wisdom,” and we do need the Spirit to illumine Scripture and to enlighten our minds, hearts, and wills. Reality is a remarkably slippery thing. Self knowledge is a lot harder to come by than it might seem and especially when you’re young and don’t have a track record by which to judge. If God graces you with these three things then you are blessed indeed and on the path to the sort of maturity needed for pastoral ministry.

The second part of the call is external. The external call operates on two levels, informal and formal. if your local congregation has identified certain gifts for teaching, preaching, and/or leadership in you, then you should think seriously about seminary. If, when you teach, the elders and the congregation are edified, then you should think about seminary. The formal aspect of the process occurs when you appear before your consistory/session to ask for their blessing to attend seminary, when you come “under care” of a presbytery/classis (depending upon the situation).

Of course, this presumes that the candidate is in a confessionally sound Reformed congregation. If not, then this process becomes a little more difficult. I’ve seen cases where students begin to become Reformed outside of a recognizably Reformed congregation and the elders/pastors worked against the student! There are cases where ostensibly confessional congregations are beset with either the Quest for Illegitimate Certainty or the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience and thus the view of ministry is skewed by revivalism, pietism, fundamentalism, or moralism. These things can all make the external call more complicated. Some students don’t come from congregations that are recognizably Protestant and that makes the external aspect of the call more difficult.

In such cases or in cases where the external call has not been clearly defined before seminary–and it isn’t always, remember seminary is a school, a training ground, a place to test one’s calling and gifts not a place merely to confirm them–then that testing and confirmation must come during seminary. In any event our extensive and extended internship requirements provide opportunity for such testing and evaluation.

Our MA programs provide opportunity for preparation and testing for non-pastoral ecclesiastical service (e.g., as a ruling elder or deacon or in a Christian education program). We regularly send a small number of well-qualified graduates to doctoral programs in North America and overseas. Our MA students find a variety of ways to be useful in the church and in extra-ecclesiastical service (e.g. Christian school teachers, counselors, administrators).

With all that said, not everyone should go to seminary. Next time an answer to the question: who should not go to seminary?

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  1. Dr. Clark

    I’ve been trying to discern the inward call for a couple of years. I’m a working professional, but I’m in my element when I can open the Word and teach others the beautiful truths of Christ and His gospel. Thanks for this timely post…it makes my struggle more pressing!

  2. That’s the best thing I’ve read on the subject. I considered the ministry in my early 20s but was put off in the larger part after reading Lloyd Jones and Spurgeon on ‘the call to ministry’. The whole nebulous ‘call of the Spirit’ coupled with the argument ‘if you can do something else do it’ contributed to my decision to become a mathematics teacher!

  3. I don’t think that we should become pentecostals in order to discover whether we should go to seminary to become cessationist Reformed folk.

    It one of the most frequent problems we face here. Students want a direct revelation, even when they know it’s wrong. They want it because they’ve been told they should have it. I always tell them: stop it. The same goes for taking a call from a congregation.

  4. Dr. Clark,

    Thankyou for this post…..im a a 22 recent graduate from Northern Ireland and for the past year I have been feeling a strong internal call or “prompting” to go into pastoral ministry…..and for some reason WCAL has been the place I have been drawn to for the past 7 months….. I cant explain or give an answer why though! I’m a member of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (Hamilton Road Pres, Bangor) and have spent the last year seeking to discern whether or not God is calling me……..but as you say in your post I have this intense struggle as to my capabilites and worthiness for such a task and I certainly do not want to be an impostor in Christ’s church….. can i ask you a question though?

    Is it wrong for one, having mulled over it for some time, sought prayer and counsel with his pastors, and recognised reflections of himself and his own situation in writings on the genuine call to ministry (without wanting that to sound like false humility/arrogance)….to be confident in taking the decision to go for it, that is for candidacy? Not that he believes he is worthy or capable of it, but that he wants to obedient to God and choose His will instead of his own?

    I am hoping to attend a pre-seminary course called Cornhill (Proclamation Trust UK) to test the waters but obv because I live in Northern Ireland and moving to WCAL (if accepted for 2010) would be such a major move, plenty of pre-planning obv needs to be done…. and with my family being non-Christian there is very much an element of swimming against the tide so-to-speak with regards to support etc……. I hope this makes sense and I apologise for the long-response and appreciate you are most likely too busy to respond….either way any help would be great….if not though thankyou again for the post!

    Many Thanks

  5. Seems to me that God, as He often does, uses means. I believe his ordinary means of calling comes through the local church, which should always be discerning the gifts of young people, testing them and encouraging them where appropriate. Paul didn’t tell Titus to go into the towns and sit in the square and sit and wait and then wait some more and then someone might eventually come along and say ‘I’ve been called’. I think he was told to appoint elders. Too much that is said about calling is quasi-mystical nonsense. I’m not denying that God may call someone that way, but it is not the norm. I have belonged to churches that take this responsibility seriously and they send many into gospel ministries of various kinds.

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