Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a bad seminary experience. In 1930, Bonhoeffer left Germany to spend a year studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He had already earned a doctorate from Berlin University, so he was free to study what he wanted and use his free time exploring the culture of the city.
At that time, Union was a well-respected, highly influential theological school in America, but the experience was a big let-down for Bonhoeffer. Reflecting on his time at Union, Bonhoeffer wrote: “There is no theology here. . . . The students – on the average twenty-five to thirty years old – are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are unfamiliar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level” (quoted in Eric Metaxes, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, p. 101).
Have you ever wondered if seminary is worth the time, money, and effort it takes to attend?
Maybe you’re a part-time youth pastor today and you’re curious to know if a seminary degree will help you land a full-time position at a church in the future. Or, maybe you’re thinking that going to seminary might help you move from being a volunteer youth worker to a paid youth pastor. Or, perhaps you’re perfectly happy where you are and just want to know if taking seminary classes can help you grow your personal faith and ministry skills.
You don’t want to waste your time, money, and energy on something that won’t make you better or open up better opportunities for you. But you also don’t want to miss out on something that could provide you with valuable experiences and growth.
So, the question remains: Is seminary worth it?
My short answer is yes, it’s worth it. But to help you answer that question for yourself, I want to look at three topics with you. First, I’ll explain why I decided to enroll in seminary. Second, I’ll tell you what I think are the biggest benefits of seminary. Then, third, I’ll suggest a few things you should look for when choosing a seminary to ensure you find a good fit.
Why I Enrolled in Seminary
I didn’t grow up in a religious family. We didn’t talk about religion or the Bible. We didn’t go to church, not even on Christmas or Easter. My dad’s view seemed to be, “I don’t believe any of that stuff any other days of the year; I’m not going to pretend to believe it on those two days.” I respect him for that. At least he was being consistent.
When I became a Christian as a senior in high school, I was hungry to learn more about Christianity and understand more about the Bible. After visiting a few churches in my town, I started attending a Baptist church because, honestly, it was the one where it seemed like the pastor actually believed what he was saying mattered. Maybe that’s shallow and emotional, but that’s how it came across to me at the time.
I quickly became involved with the youth group at that church, going to Bible studies and attending events. I felt like I had found where I belonged! We went to a summer camp that year, and the camp speaker (Clayton King) talked about feeling called to ministry. I wasn’t completely sure what that meant, but I was committed to letting Christ direct my steps and felt like my life could be used to make a difference in the lives of others.
I went to college, where I played on the baseball team and majored in Business Administration. But I never forgot about the possibility that God had called me to ministry. While my friends secured summer internships at businesses, I worked as an intern at churches. Inevitably, as graduation approached, the question of what I would do after I graduated was asked with greater frequency.
I came across a quote by Billy Graham that talked about the impact coaches can make on people’s lives, and I was struck with the thought of becoming a college baseball coach. To coach at the college level, I needed a master’s degree. Why not get my master’s degree in Religion? Liberty University had a master’s program and an NCAA Division I sports program, so I applied and became a graduate-assistant baseball coach for the team. The Bible knowledge that I gained during my time there would only be a bonus, or so I thought.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I didn’t like coaching baseball as much as I thought I would. Being a coach is different from being a player, and I could see that my future was down a different path. I had started helping at a local church, teaching a Sunday School class for high school guys. Things were going well, and then I received an offer to become a youth pastor at a church about 45 minutes away. I accepted.
For the next few years, I took classes, led that ministry, and learned the difference between academic theories and practical applications. Plus, I met my wife at Liberty. I wouldn’t trade that time for anything! Eventually, I graduated and moved on from there, but seminary was a vital and valuable step in my process of development.
The Biggest Benefits of Seminary
Enrolling in seminary is a big step, and it shouldn’t be taken without first considering your intentions. You have to be clear about what you hope to gain from your seminary experience. Is a seminary degree required to get a job as a youth pastor? No. I worked at a large, contemporary church where only a few staff members had seminary degrees. Most of the staff didn’t. However, I would say that a seminary degree can help you stand out from other candidates who apply for the roles you’re applying for.
Beyond helping you stand out from other candidates in the hiring process, seminary can help you in other ways both personally and professionally.
1. Encouragement from Community
At seminary, you’ll meet like-minded people and participate in an environment of exploration and encouragement. The people I met at seminary left a lasting mark on my life. From friends to faculty members, conversations ranged from interpreting the Bible to leading change in a church. It was a dynamic community of amateurs and experts, coming together to talk about the things that mattered most to us.
We had the time, space, and freedom to ask hard questions, think about deep topics, and genuinely enjoy each other’s company. I still talk with some of those people, and some of them have even helped me land a job or two along the way. I believe that the conversations, community, and connections are a major benefit of the seminary experience.
2. Exposure to Different Ideas
Through conversations and time in the classroom, students at seminary are exposed to different ideas and interpretations. Some people feel threatened by that, but they shouldn’t be. Illuminating differences both stretches and sharpens your thinking about matters of faith and practice.
Whether it happens in class discussions or through assigned readings, you will be exposed to ideas that you probably have never heard of or don’t agree with. That’s a good thing because it forces you to articulate why you don’t agree and what you think is true instead. As a result, your understanding will grow both deeper and wider than before. You will develop a stronger sense of competence and confidence when you’re called on to talk about those things in your church in the future.
I think of seminary like hiring a personal trainer for your spiritual life. A personal trainer at the gym will push you to try different exercises and train with more consistency and effort than you would on your own. In the same way, at seminary you’ll be required to read, write, and think more than you would if you weren’t enrolled. You will have some late nights and tight deadlines, but, in the end, you’ll be better for having done it.
3. Experience with Different Opportunities
Sometimes your practical ministry classes will ask you to do things that you haven’t done before. An evangelism class might ask you to share the gospel with someone. A preaching class will likely require you to write and deliver a sermon. In a worship class, you might be asked to join a choir. A class on small groups might ask you to listen to a sermon and try to come up with good discussion questions that a group could use. A class on spiritual formation might ask you to participate in a silent retreat. In a pastoral care class, you might be asked to visit a senior-living home or a hospital.
In all of these ways, you will likely be asked to do things that might be unfamiliar or even uncomfortable for you. That is a good thing. We’re often limited by what we don’t know about or haven’t experienced personally. There might be something that you really love to do that you don’t even know about yet because you haven’t tried it. By requiring you to be involved in different aspects of ministry, seminary will push against the limitations of your current experiences and expand your thinking about what is possible for your future.
What to Look for in a Seminary
If you think you could benefit from those things, then you’re ready to research which seminary is right for you. There are many options available to you, so you need to consider a few things to narrow your search.
1. What do they offer?
Seminaries offer different programs of study. If you want a degree in youth ministry, then you’ll need to find out which schools offer that. If you’re more interested in theology, then you might want to look at a school that offers an M.A. in Theology. Thinking about a school’s programs will help you focus your efforts.
2. Is the school accredited?
Accreditation is a form of quality control for educational institutions. Some schools are not accredited (or have an accreditation that is not recognized by other institutions). That doesn’t mean those schools are bad, but a degree from an unaccredited or under-accredited school might not open many doors for you. If I were you, I would look for a school that has received accreditation from the ATS (The Association of Theological Schools).
3. How long will it take?
This is a practical question that requires you to consider your stage of life and how much time (and money) you can reasonably give toward your education in the next few years. A Master of Divinity degree typically requires at least 90 hours of coursework, while a Master of Arts in Religion requires significantly less than that.
4. Will you fit?
This is an important question to consider. If you are a staunch conservative, you probably want to avoid certain schools that lean in a more progressive direction. Likewise, if you’re an opinionated progressive, you might not have the best experience at a more conservative school. We all benefit from good, healthy dialogue, but I’m not sure you’ll find what you’re looking for in a place that stands at a polar opposite position from your own.
However, if you fall somewhere in-between those two poles and are prepared to be challenged and enlightened by some give-and-take in either direction, then you will have an easier time fitting in at most schools. At seminary, your goal should be to learn and grow from the experience, not to change your professors’ minds. Choose a school that allows you to accomplish that goal.
As for me, I have completed programs of study at three very different schools: Liberty University, Princeton Theological Seminary, and McAfee School of Theology. At each of those schools, I was taught some things that I agree with and other things I disagree with. In each of those programs, I met students who were open-minded and kind, as well as others who were closed-minded and rude. I’m convinced that your experience in most places will be what you make of it, even if you don’t agree with everything that’s said or done.
Is seminary worth it? I think it is, but each person has to decide that for themselves. I first went to seminary because I didn’t grow up going to church and sensed a lack of knowledge about the Bible. I felt called to make a difference and needed a master’s degree to become a college baseball coach. Even though I didn’t stay on that initial track, I still benefited from the investment.
I think the main benefits of seminary are the sense of community and encouragement, and the exposure to different ideas and experiences. Like I said earlier, it’s like having a personal trainer for your spiritual life.
So, I would encourage anyone who is involved with youth ministry to honestly consider enrolling in a seminary program. If you want help weighing your options, let’s chat about it in the comments below.
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