1. Strong teaching of Scripture: This is of first importance. If the seminary does not graduate students who know the Bible and know it well, then they don’t emphasis its importance or do not have a competent faculty to do so. This usually involves the combined effort of three departments: Biblical Studies, New Testament, and Old Testament. The Biblical Studies department will take one though the entire Bible, book by book. You will not only read through the entirety of Scripture, but you will learn each books purpose, structure, genre characteristics, and argument. In the New and Old Testament departments you will learn how to do “exegesis.” Exegesis involves more detailed interpretive issues including a study of the text in the original languages (Greek for the New Testament, Hebrew for the Old Testament). Without these, can it even be called a seminary?
2. Balanced Theology Department: One of the biggest problems with many seminaries is that they don’t have balance in their presentation of theology. Their agenda is to make you a particular type of theologian. I don’t have too much of a problem with a seminary having a confession or reputation of holding to a particular tradition or sub-tradition (e.g. Reformed, Baptist, Dispensational). The problem arises when their passions for this tradition cause them to skew the theological landscape to their favor. This type of intellectual dishonesty has no place in the training of leaders. The theology department must be confident enough to give people a balanced perspective, representing all relevant views with the clarity of its adherents. By doing so the seminary creates an atmosphere where true learning and true conviction can take place. It also keeps its graduates from becoming unnecessarily divisive over non-essential issues, keeping the focus on the Gospel. The Holy Spirit will create the convictions for his purpose when truth is taught with balance. The seminary needs to trust him enough to do so.
3. Critical Evaluation by Professors: While professors need to be encouraging of students, they need to be such that will critique the students often and constructively. This will indeed hurt the pride of confident students (it did mine), but without it you will not take the study of God word as seriously as you would otherwise. Receiving a failing grade on a sloppy, ill-informed, or irresponsible paper on a parable is much better than a passing grade with an “encouraging” pat on the back. God’s word is too serious to let people by without careful, and often painful, examination.
4. A Pastoral Ministries Department with and Emphasis on Clear Communication: When people are trained in seminary, there are many things that they learn about leadership in the Pastoral Ministries Department. But nothing in leadership training is as important as teaching how to communicate. Whether it is the exposition of God’s word on Sunday morning or presenting the Gospel to a neighbor, people need to be trained to communicate in an effective manner. The seminary needs to have a department of pastoral ministries which is devoted to educating the seminarian on how to contextualize the message without sacrificing the content. There is a fine line here and some walk this line with grace. Unfortunately others do not.
5. Make Sure that not Everyone Gets a Degree: This is related to the third. If there is no one failing at the seminary, this would raise a red flag. It is not about giving people degrees, it is about qualifying people for ministry. Not everyone is fit for ministry in such a way, the seminary needs to have the courage to say so. If the seminary gives a degree to everyone who enters, I don’t think you should necessarily take this as a sign that the seminary has great professors or that the Holy Spirit is more illuminating to that campus, but that the seminary may be compromising in its training to keep itself funded. I understand this temptation, but this cannot be acceptable. Think about it this way: what if a graduate school in medicine graduated all its students because they did not want to discourage anyone or because they needed to keep the school funded? Would you go under the knife of a surgeon trained at such an institution?
6. They Must Have a Strong Internship/Residency Program: Training in theory is one thing, the real world is another. Part of the training of the seminarian must involve real life mentoring and oversight. Toward the end of the studies, the student must be required to get an evaluated and mentored internship (apprenticeship) in their field of ministry. This can help avoid many foolish mistakes that are often made when the seminary student is released into the “real world” of ministry thinking they are qualified because they have training with no experience. Part of the training must involve experience. Make sure the seminary puts a high emphasis on an internship or residency program.
7. They are technologically sound
8. Their graduates make a lot of money
9. They are cheap
10. They use the KJV only
11. They focus primarily on student relationships
How do you check these?
Study the seminary. Find out how detailed the doctrinal statement is. If it is too detailed, they may be unbalanced. If it has no detail, then they may have no reason to exist.
Talk to the professors. Ask for a syllabus. Find out if any of their students fail.
Ask for a philosophy of training. Do they have one? Why do they exist? Are they Gospel focused or issue focused?
Check the seminaries history. Does it have a good reputation?
Most importantly, look at its graduates. Is that how you want to look?