Even though it’s been almost 5 years since I finally chose a seminary, I remember those agonizing days well. I spent way too much time googling the internet’s opinion about a particular town, school, faculty member, doctrine. I spent hours in prayer, trying to listen extra hard for the faintest signpost. But the worst part of all was the never-ending questions in my mind about each individual school I was considering.
Who’s the head of the department I’m most interested in?
Is this a denominational school? If so, are they welcoming of those outside of that particular denomination?
Can I afford to eat if I move across the US?
Does the school require ancient languages?
Will the institution’s name hold weight when its time to apply for jobs?
Can I really handle a New England/Colorado/Canadian winter or Texas/Mississippi summers?
All of these questions are important, but in retrospect some are more important than others. I’ve narrowed down three topics that were the most important to me when choosing a seminary (outside of the standard prerequisites of prayer, calling, and passion).
1. Type of Education
What kind of education is necessary for your career and/or educational goals? If you want to pastor in a specific denomination, look at your requirements for ordination. For example, the United Methodist Church has a list of approved seminaries for the UMC ordination process. The PC(USA) requires an M.Div from their own seminaries or a seminary approved by that presbytery (e.g., Fuller, GCTS, etc.).
Other denominations are more flexible. The Assemblies of God, several Baptist denominations, and congregational churches in particular are rather lenient in this regard.
If you’re considering missions, check with your denomination to see if they have a recommended seminary. If not, the power is yours! If you wish to pursue academia, make sure your potential school is a) connected to a local theological consortium (e.g. Boston Theological Institute) and b) interacting outside the denominational and/or Christian world. This is very important, especially when you begin the PhD application process.
Sometimes this decision is simple. If you’re a Presbyterian and want to be ordained, your path is made smaller for you. As a Baptist, my path was wide open. In the end, I wanted that denominational variety that comes with an inter-denominational school. At GCTS, we have at least 91 denominations represented in our student body, so I was blessed to experience a diverse denominational landscape which has challenged me in ways that a denominational school never would have.
2. Quality of Education
First and foremost, be sure to understand your particular denominational requirements before applying to schools. Stop reading this and check out the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) member schools. If a school is not accredited by ATS, it doesn’t matter how many other agencies accredit it–it means nothing. This means your degree might only be of any value if your denomination doesn’t care. Chances are extremely high that your denomination definitely cares, and you need to go to an accredited school.
On the practical side, it’s very difficult if not impossible to get these courses to transfer to an accredited school. Be especially sure to check out the school’s accreditation before enrolling in that cheap online degree program. I cannot overstate this. Many online degrees and/or Bible Institutes are not accredited by ATS and are essentially worthless to many, many students who only learn of the accreditation status upon transfer evaluations. If you want to pursue a career in teaching, chaplaincy, or pastoral ministry in most major denominations, you MUST attend an ATS member school. Failure to attend an ATS accredited school could set you back several years and thousands of dollars! Save your money and attend an accredited school if it fits your career choice.
Outside of career choices, accreditation is important since it holds the school to certain standards, most importantly the academic, admissions, and pedagogical standards. An unaccredited school often will not meet this criteria. However, an unaccredited school may be appropriate for those who want to learn and have no desire to pursue pastoral or an academic career, but why not just attend a school that is accredited to ensure a quality education? Or, better yet, take advantage of the massive amounts of free, excellent quality classes online.
The idea of “fit” is thrown around a lot, but it really does matter. To determine fit, you really need to figure out #1 and #2 first. For example, my thought process that led me to Gordon-Conwell went something like this:
- Is there an emphasis on languages? Diversity (theological, social, cultural, etc.)?
- Is it clearly an academic institution? Does it maintain practical and spiritual emphasis within the academic emphasis?
- Do the professors have PhD’s from universities, seminaries, or the same institution where they teach? Side note: Although where the professor’s received their degree doesn’t mean they are exceptional professors, a university (e.g., Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Boston U) PhD shows work outside the Christian/denominational bubble. If the majority of the professors have degrees from the institution where they teach, it should be a red-flag for those looking to continue to academia. For others, it might be a great sign for networking within a denomination/institution.
- Could I see myself living in this area of the country for several years?
Your thought process will look a bit different, but trying to figure out “fit” is trying to figure out if your passion and the school’s passion intersect. Abstract and vague, yes, but your undergrad professors (who will probably write your recommendations) will know you well and can help you navigate the crazy, ever-changing terrain.