Who Should Go to Seminary? (2)

Part 1Anyone may go to seminary but not every one should go to seminary. 

The second part of the answer is who should not go to seminary.

Before I continue let me say, for the sake of our current students, that I am not thinking of any of our current students. I am generally very impressed with our students. They make a lot of sacrifices to prepare to fulfill their vocations and they are typically quite dedicated to their studies.

That said, I have known students who should not have been in seminary. They come in three kinds.

1. Those who already know everything and are simply seeking confirmation of their prejudices. I’ve seen lots examples of this but one stands out. I recall a student who had not been on campus for a week who submitted a paper (which in itself was legitimate and part of an administrative process) explaining why a certain interpretation of Genesis 1-2 could not be correct and why a certain learned professor (who reads multiple ancient languages) was all wet. Now, to be sure, there may be good reasons why that view is not the best understanding of Genesis 1-2, it’s possible that the prof was all wet, but I doubt that a seminary student who couldn’t read Hebrew to save his life is in a position to to know that and nothing in the paper suggested that he did. It was the work of an amateur. That isn’t the problem. The problem is that the student didn’t realize that he was an amateur. He was arrogant and seemed blissfully unaware of it.

Such an approach to learning establishes a poor basis for future ministry and service. Mature, patient pastoral ministry requires willingness to learn and change. It requires the ability to be wrong—to recognize when one is or has been wrong. It requires humility and the knowledge of what one is not and what one does not know. One who seeks confirmation of his prejudice is not committed to learning (or getting it right) but is only committed to “being right” and ultimately that is about power and not about truth. One who is seeking power is not preparing for ministry. Jesus did not pick up a sword but wrapped himself with a towel.

2. Those who are interested only interested in practica or what they refer to as “ministry” and not in “learning.” The juxtaposition of these disciplines is deadly for the church. This student is the one who asks, “Do we have to know this?” Nothing makes me want to expel a student from a course more quickly than this question. The short answer is, “Yes.” If a student is not interested in learning, if a student is has no genuine intellectual interest, if a student is not willing to read, learn, dig, and research then he will almost certainly be a mediocre preacher and minister. A seminary education is only a beginning. Those who treat it as the terminus of their education are ill-suited to serve a congregation. The Word of God is large collection of multiple literary forms in three languages and multiple contexts and settings. To preach that Word one must become an adept student of the congregation, of the Scriptures, of ancient cultures, of hermeneutics, of grammar, of homiletics, and of theology and history. The student who will not learn and who is not prepared to be a life-long learner will be ill-suited to address new counseling problems or difficult practical and theological problems in the congregation, classis, or synod.

3. The emotionally and spiritually immature. This is not to say that only those who have entire sanctification should attend seminary. In that case the entire faculty, administration, and board should have to resign en masse. Nor is it to say that we should not have young students. I enjoy the energy and enthusiasm of students just out of college. One hopes, however, that seminary students, particularly MDiv students, will understand that whatever sacrifices they are making to be here, many people have sacrificed a great deal to provide them with a place to study, a library, a faculty, and an administration. Donors and supporters made those sacrifices for the sake of the Christ, his gospel, and his church. Thus an MDiv student isn’t there by himself. It’s not a purely personal or private enterprise. He’s carrying the hopes of many others and preparing to serve Christ and Christ’s people. He’s preparing to bring the Word and the sacraments to people he’s never met. He’s preparing to counsel families and catechize children and to speak to people he can’t even imagine right now. He’s preparing to take on the most important vocation in the world. All honorable vocations are good and right before God and should be pursued as such, but there are two kingdoms in this world and only one of them is the kingdom of God with message of salvation from the king of the church. Thus the maturity in view is the sort of maturity that enters into ministerial preparation with joy and a sense of adventure but without self indulgence or narcissism.

Of course no one is mature enough. We all live by grace, but not everyone who lives by grace is ready for seminary. The irony is that it is probably the one who doubts that he is ready for seminary who is more likely to be ready! It’s those who worry if they are really saved who probably believe. It’s the ones who have no consciousness of their sins about whom I worry. Non-Christians don’t worry about such things. It’s the foolish pre-seminarian (or seminarian) who troubles me, who thinks he has everything in hand, who has no awareness of what he’s about to begin who gives me pause.

If one has limited spiritual interests, if one is unwilling to learn, if one simply wants his passport stamped, or, on the other extreme is satisfied to substitute intense religious experience for hard work, if one is not ready or willing to engage prayerfully and thoughtfully difficult questions, if one is unwilling to enter into the discipline of learning the biblical languages, of learning history and theology, the practice of the church and the other disciplines involved, then seminary, and certainly not the MDiv program is not be the place for that one.

This post, however, is not meant to discourage those who are struggling with their sense of call nor is it meant to add to the load of the burdened. It is meant to trouble the foolish, the arrogant, the senseless, and the immature. That’s a relatively small group. Frankly, I see a lot more of this lot on the web propounding the latest fads or their latest brilliant insight into the problem of evil than I do in the classroom but that’s the stuff for another post.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Would you say that those who are in the business world, have a couple of kids, and a mortgage, should shy away from seminary? It does seem better if you have no mortgage, no family to pack up and move to Escondido. I saw my Dad go through seminary at DTS. He got a ThM and it took a long time, since he went part-time and supported a family all along.

  2. Hi Gage,

    No, though it’s obviously more difficult, the older student brings certain strengths to seminary. They tend to be more focused and disciplined. They understand suffering a bit better. The struggle, sometimes, with second career students is to get them to embrace learning and not to treat sem as something to be endured.

    If one has a vocation to preach then, in my view, one has a vocation to seminary training. Yes it’s difficult but so is medical school and law school and we don’t blink at that. We think that’s how it should be. We don’t want to go to a physician who didn’t go to a good school and get the best training. Why shold we want a minister who went to a poor school or no school? It’s not as if handling God’s Word and serving his church is any less important or any less demanding than the work done by lawyers and physicians.

    Most of our 2nd career (and not a few of our 1st career) students take 4 years to get the MDiv. It’s worth it. It’s a one-time commitment on which the minister will build for the rest of his life. It’s much harder to build on a poor foundation.

  3. Thanks Prof. Clark,
    You don’t have to convince me about the need to build on the foundation…the issue for me is simply a question as to the feasability of uprooting family, taking on what looks to me like “extreme debt”. Seems much easier for the younger crowd. I’m 35 a wife, 2 kids a business career and a mortgage. Guess the outward call isn’t much in line with the inward call huh?

  4. Hi Gage,

    It can be done. People do it all the time. We sold everything and took two kids to the UK and that with no reasonable hope of a job on the other end. Humanly speaking, in the ordinary providence of God, our grads have a good likelihood of being called.

    What happens is that students usually bear the brunt of the debt on the front end of the process and the calling church helps them out on the back end of the process. The best way for this to work is for our churches to help students go. Most churches don’t but if they did it would be more feasible. I encourage students to ask their consistory/session for help. Many churches just don’t think about it. They just assume that students pay for seminary magically. There’s no reason why the calling church should have to bear all the burden of paying for a sem student’s education on the back end.

    Not all debt is bad debt. Borrowing for education is usually considered good debt because you get a good return on your investment. It’s not like driving a car off the lot where depreciation sets in the moment you cross a line. Your education grows in value, in a sense, and with the student loan programs available it’s manageable if students work a bit or if they go a little slowly and if they’re conservative. Out here it’s possible to walk/bicycle 12 mos a year. It’s August and we don’t need AC. There’s gentle breeze blowing into the coffee shop. Granted that’s a little unusual, but it’s been amazing for about 3 weeks. Cool evenings, nights, and mornings. There are other ways the cost of living is less than it might seem. Wages are higher too so that proportionally things work out. One cannot look at SD from Memphis and impute Memphis costs and wages to SD. Come on out and take a look.

    There are scholarships too. Call Barbara in our financial aid office at 866 480 8474 and ask her what’s available and possible. Talk to Mark MacVey in our admissions office. We have matching grants and other scholarships.

    My sense is that the finances usually work out. Once you get here help comes from unexpected places. It’s pretty hard to plan on “unexpected” by definition, but people understand that you’re making a sacrifice. There’s a good network of support for sem students here.

  5. Thanks for the comments on seminary. If I could add one thing that I have found as frustrating here at WTS (East) is that the institutional scholarship for tuition is only applyed to students who are full time. Thus, the working student with a family who is part time doesn’t recieve any scholarship help.

    BTW, I lived in San Diego for a couple of years…far better quality of life than Philadelphia – if you have the choice.

  6. Thanks for the question Gage, and responding comments. I am wrestling with that very question myself, and it is very, very difficult to try and see far enough down that road to be sure you’re not allowing hubris to lead you and your family into financial ruin.

  7. My husband just graduated from Westminster in Escondido. He had been teaching for 9 years in the public school and had served in the church in various as deacon, member on the Hispanic outreach committee and prayer team. Our pastor saw his gifts and encouraged him to go to seminary. The council of the church confirmed this too and committed to supporting us while I stayed home. So we uprooted ourselves along with our first born child to move down to Escondido. Even with the support of the church, we still had over and above expenses. The Lord through the provided the scholarship for the tuition and various brothers and sisters in the Lord helped to pay for our living stipend and housing. In the 3 years of seminary, we only ended up borrowing $15K–and we even added to our family while I stayed at home. The Lord God truly did provide.

    And Ruben’s experience as a teacher, as a deacon, as a husband and as a father as well as a licensed exhorter (he continued to exhort at the Spanish church back at home) really all helped to bring the doctrine and faith altogether in his seminary studies. I believe his various other callings helped to refine his gifts and has prepared him for what he is doing today as a pastor-intern at Ontario URC.

    So if the Lord is calling any of the men reading this blog, do have the Lord confirm it through the church (the inward and outer call). And such men willl see how the Lord really glorifies Himself through His church.

  8. Hi Professor Clark,

    I have a question. I fit all your criteria for someone who should go to seminary, but I have one hang-up. I’d LOVE to get the education, and love to study the scriptures. I also love to teach and public speaking, and have a strong desire to help people grow and mature, etc. But for some reason, I just can’t see myself as a pastor. Maybe I have a limited view of what that looks like, I don’t know…but my question is…should someone go to seminary who isn’t convinced he wants to be a pastor? What other vocations are there, and how can I parse this out?


    • Justin,

      About 30% of our students are MA students not headed for pastoral ministry. It may also be that your concept of pastoral ministry will develop. That happens at WSC. Some MA students transfer to the MDiv.

      Call Mark MacVey at 888-480-8474. He’ll be happy to talk.

      It seems as if you might flourish here.

  9. Hi Professor Clark,

    I am a missionary appointee with an evangelical conference of churches. My family has been for the last 4 years raising support (developing financial partnerships) with churches and individuals so that we can church-plant cross culturally. Lately I’ve been wrestling with whether to pursue further graduate work. It started after many recent conversations with wise friends and pastors reminded me of my long put-aside passion to learn more fully how to teach His Word. This passion was put on hold with the intention to finish my training when were in the field.

    The conflict I’m struggling with is my desire to go to grad school vs. my desire to finish the task that we’ve currently committed ourselves to. In a way, I’ve been struggling with seminary as a temptation away from our current task.

    While struggling through this issue, I gave in to a somewhat silly urge this afternoon to google, “should I go to seminary?”

    As I have read both your original posts and the interaction with various parties, I am coming to terms with the fact that I may not be properly trained, and maybe this is a “temptation” that is ok for me to pursue.

    To date I have believed the calling of my local church (along with the appointment with our Conference) to do this work was something of an affirmation of God’s belief in my preparedness.

    I also am married, have 2 children, and have another one on the way in a few months. The idea of supporting my family through full-time or even part time seminary is a daunting one. However, it is one I’ve wanted to do since before we were appointed as missionaries. As I read through the criteria of who should and who shouldn’t attend seminary, I accept that I have been called internally and that calling has been confirmed externally to teach and pastor, specifically as a church-planter.

    I know that I am a stranger asking a really personal question. But you’ve had some good insight into other questions, and I’d be curious to hear what you might have to say about my situation. In particular, do you have any insight into the tension between finishing a task and leaving the task in order to provide better training for the task. Thanks so much for taking the time.


    • Hi Shaun,

      One of the great problems in ministry is that, in its nature, it (almost) never ends. It’s like a long rope. Sometimes it just has to be cut. I can’t say what you should do. Sometimes there are natural breaks in a work, e.g., a major change, a pause of some kind, that provide opportunity for re-direction but other times that “opening” never comes. It just has to be made.

      You should ask yourself, “Should I be in ministry right now?” The issue isn’t the apparent immediate need. If you look only at that then no one would ever get the training needed. The question is the long-term need. Evangelicalism tends to value “doing” over preparation but that’s a very American, very middle-class, culturally conditioned view of ministry.

      FWIW, we have lots of families on campus. Students with families graduate every year. When they came here they didn’t know how they would make it and when they left they couldn’t always say how they did it but God saw them through in surprising ways. You won’t be alone.

      You should call our financial aid coordinator, Barbara. She’s a wiz at helping people figure out how to make it happen.

      USA + 760 + 480 8474.

      You’re welcome to write me off list. My email is c l a r k a t w s c a l d o t e d u

Comments are closed.