Who Should Go to Seminary?

I was once asked a good and important question: who should go to seminary? The answer to this question is in two parts: anyone, but not everyone.

First, anyone may go to seminary. Since I teach at a seminary (Westminster Seminary California), and I know how we operate, I will 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 presbyteries/classes (the regional gathering of elders and ministers), or synods/general assemblies (the national gathering of elders and ministers). We do not call people to ministry or to mission fields. We do not 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 (Master of Divinity) program which prepares qualified men to serve (mainly) confessional Reformed and Presbyterian congregations. We also offer three MA (Master of Arts) degrees for enrollment (in Biblical Studies, Theological Studies, or Historical Theology), which are open to men and women. These degree programs are designed to prepare students to fulfill a variety of vocations. Our MA graduates are teaching in Christian schools, serving as missionaries, counselors, earning Ph.D.’s or other graduate/post-graduate degrees, or serving as elders in local congregations.

Let us talk about the two types of callings involved in pastoral ministry, internal and external. If you are 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 have not, since, if you are 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 are 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 are an undergraduate student and you never skip 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 have finished your undergraduate degree and are in business and if you are good at what you do but you have had a nagging sense that you are doing the wrong thing, that you should be spending your life for Christ in his church but you are afraid to take the plunge because you do not know how it will work out: you are 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 are working in a para-ecclesiastical organization or in congregational college ministry and you realize that you are not really prepared for the work you have 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 did not 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 yourself, your gifts, and your circumstances. These three gifts are relatively rare. Congregations and para-church groups are often reluctant to turn good people loose and this reluctance may color their evaluation of your situation. Of course, if wisdom were easy to get, we would not need large chunks of holy Scripture or the Holy Spirit, would we? It is not 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, especially when you are young and do not 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 have 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 do not 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 is not always—remember seminary is a school, a training ground, a place to test one’s calling and gifts. It is not a place merely to confirm them—that testing and confirmation must come during seminary. In any event, our extensive and extended internship requirements provide the 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, in a Christian education program, or as a writer). 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 we will answer the question: who should not go to seminary?

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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One comment

  1. I am grateful for good seminaries and the pastors they produce–like the two at my church.

    However, there is also a crying need for Christian businessmen in the secular world. People who will never, ever darken the door of a church need the gospel as well. And if they have to deal with us over, say, marketing campaigns or budgets or customer contacts, then they have no choice to come into contact with the gospel as we live it out and tell them about it.

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