Part 1. Anyone 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.