There are a lot of things that you must think through when choosing a seminary for your ministry preparation. I will attempt to cover them here.
Type of Seminary
There are three types of seminaries you need to be aware of:
1. University – These are those that are connected to a larger university and sometimes are simply a department within the institution (e.g. “Department of Divinity”). The spectrum of education will be very broad, ranging from conservative to liberal. Sometimes it will just depend on the professor. The advantages here normally include the broadness of the education provided and the lack of conservative and traditional assumptions. The disadvantage will be that many times these type of seminaries have as their purpose to deconstruct with no intention of reconstructing. In other words, there will be a greater chance the purpose of your education will be to produce a confused student (which is a construction itself).
If your purpose is to be prepared for ministry by godly leaders, you will find university-type seminaries and divinity schools to be weaker than the other options as the standards of belief and commitment to the historic Christian faith will be very loose. Some of the professors might even be atheists!
In my opinion, Duke and Notre Dame stand out above the rest here.
2. Denominational or Traditional – These are those seminaries that are connected to a particular denomination or Christian tradition. Their primary purpose is to establish the student in the dogmas and doctrines associated with their tradition. Baptist schools will train up Baptist leaders, Presbyterians schools will prepare Presbyterians, Reformed schools hope to produce Reformed graduates, and so on. Many times there is overlap with this type of seminary and the university as some universities are sponsored by a particular tradition (e.g. Baylor; Notre Dame). The advantage here is that you will be trained and educated in a way that will fit the needs of a said tradition. The disadvantage is that the outcome of your education is more predetermined.
3. Independent – These are those seminaries that don’t neatly fit into either of the previous categories. They are usually independent Evangelical training institutions that are representative of a movement or idea. They are often thought of as the tertium quid (“third way” or “middle ground”) between the denominational or university types. However, this is a little simplistic as many independent seminaries have just as much of an predetermined plan as the other two. The advantage here is that you may be able to get a broader education than the denominational-type while maintaining the ministry focus. This is especially the case with Evangelical seminaries who, at least in theory, fit under the broad umbrella of Evangelicalism.
Field of Study
There are also issues that involve particular fields of study. Some seminaries are going to have a stellar language department, but lack in theology. Others are going to be strong in preaching, but weak in apologetics. Others will be known for their Christian counseling, but void of worship (music) ministries. If you already know your passion, you should find a seminary that is going to serve that passion well.
However, many of you are going into seminary not knowing anything other than that you want to serve the Lord full-time. Therefore, this criteria is not going to be as useful. So many of you will discover your calling while engaged in a broader training environment. This is okay.
Size of the School
You must also consider the size of the school and the advantages and disadvantages this offers. Small schools will provide more intimacy with both students and professors. It is a wonderful thing to build this type of community. However, the larger schools will be able to draw the more well-known professors for every department (and most of the time they are well-known for a reason!). This will provide a more balanced and robust education all around. Larger schools will also be able to provide you with more opportunities as the placement department will be larger (see below).
Accreditation and Notoriety
Most seminaries will be accredited by an official accrediting organization such as The Association of Theological Schools (ATS). You want to check into this. Accreditation not only evidences that the school is up to par on time-tested standards, but gives them notoriety. If your school has notoriety, then your degree will share the same.
This is normally one that you don’t think about or appreciate until its too late. But you must consider the placement department. Placement departments are responsible for opening doors of opportunity for you upon graduation. Some seminaries may not even have placement departments, therefore it is up to you to find a place of service upon graduation. Others have very large placement departments who can hardly keep up with the demand of ministries and churches in need. When a seminary has a good reputation, this is the first place that many will look to fill a vacancy.
In the end, your choice for seminary must be guided by your purpose. Are you seeking to be a Baptist pastor? Then your best bet is to go to a Baptist school whose candidates are chosen from the placement offices of these schools. Are you looking to be a professor at a university? Then you will be presented with the most opportunity by attended a university-type seminary. Is your desire to be involved in a non-denominational Evangelical church or parachurch ministry? Then you should look to one of the independent seminaries.
One thing that you must understand is that education is not the goal of a seminary. Preparation is. Education will always be involved, but often there must be some practition that moves beyond languages, systematics, and doctrine. You can train with the most intelligent professors who have the best information. You can train with the professors with the most wisdom who can see things others cannot see. You can train with those who have a great deal of experience in pastoral care who will help you understand what it will be like when you are in the pastor’s office. You can train under those who have a passion for truth who will challenge your assumptions. Or you can train under those who are passionate about Christ and are completely focused on him. In my opinion, it is ideal to have all of these together in one place!
Critical studies: While I believe that a seminary should be understood as preparation for Christian ministry, this should not mean that your education is simply an exercise in confirming your prejudice. Your most dearly held beliefs—even the most fundamental beliefs—need to be challenged. This is the advantage of university-type seminaries. They usually (though not always) have more academic freedom to challenge and be challenged. In the end, you want your beliefs to have intellectual integrity. If the education is nothing more than indoctrination, then the seminary is not doing its job. This is why I don’t normally prefer denominational or traditional seminaries.
Faithful professors: While there is a lot to learn from unbelievers and those who are not committed to the historic Christian faith, most people who go to seminary are preparing for ministry. A student will eventually be like his teacher. If the professor does not have much faith or conviction, his teaching will have the same result. You want professors who are committed to that which they teach and therefore teach with conviction. If the seminary does not produce those who are convinced of the truth of historic Christianity, I would have a hard time truly classifying them as seminaries. This is going to be the weakness of the university-type seminaries. (As a side-note, I think for those going into ministry that the university-type seminaries are best for PhDs, not Masters.)
Correction: You don’t want to attend schooling where the professors are intelligent and godly, but too nice to tell you when you are wrong. While we all need affirmation, we all need correction just as much. The professor is there to shape and change you. This is not going to happen without the professor being seriously committed to sometimes “wounding his friends.” The best way to find this out is to talk to current students. In high school you used to take only the classes where the teacher would give you an “A” for doing nothing more than making paper airplanes. Seminary is much more serious than that. Make sure the professor is willing to fail you.
In the end, one of the best ways to choose a good seminary is to look at its graduates. Who do you admire most? Who do you feel has the best training and balance? Who comes out of their education more deeply committed than they were when the went in? Find out where they went and go there.
By the way, if I could do it all over again, while there are so many good seminaries that I love and respect, I would go back to Dallas Theological Seminary.
For those of you who have been to seminary:
- How did you choose?
- Are you happy with your choice?
- What advice to you have for the person who asks you how to choose a good seminary?