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?

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    21 replies to "Six Characteristics to Look for in a Seminary"

    • Rey

      I had a dream of almost a mandatory seminary education in churches that’s respected Churchwide and allows a person to go from in the Workplace to become fulltime pastorate without concern for salary being enough to cover the costs of their seminary education. Like the Theology Program but not for simply making theologically astute lay-people but pastors unhindered by the need of X Congregation meeting Y salary to pay back $$$ loans.

      Maybe in the millennium. =)

    • C Michael Patton

      Maybe it was a prophetic dream Rey. 🙂

    • Rey

      I’m enough of a soft-cessationist to both believe that and spend several hours doubting it.

    • Stormin

      What are your thoughts about online seminaries? Also, accrediation vrs nonaccrediation. Is there really a drop in the quality of the educaton when nonaccrediation is the issue?

      Thanks for your input!

    • Lisa R

      Great list. Where would I find such a school? 🙂

      How about these add-ons:

      #8) It fosters your spiritual life

      #9) It encourages humility in service, learning and training

    • Aaron C. Rathburn

      Great layout. The “balanced” theology department is a difficult minefield to navigate. The scriptures command to defend sound doctrine (what we *believe* to be sound), so that is a tough one (because everyone *believes* they are sound =).

      I’m not sure if I would rather be tought, for example, Open Theism by an Open Theist, or from a Reformed theologian. I guess it depends on the student. If one is theologically acute, then learning the material from its proponent is fine- you can discern. But for the theologically inept, I would propose that it would be preferred to learn about a subject with a critical eye.

      Speaking only from my own past Bible college experience, students are just little sponges and will drink up anything without realizing what it is.


    • Crazyupstart

      Good list. I am also interested in your thoughts on online schools. I certainly don’t think that online distance learning can cover all the basis because of the relational aspect of any ministry. You need to have a some sort of ethical/relational training I would think (Like point 6).

      Also, is a seminary degree necessary for people in ministry? Is one not qualified to teach if he’s read all the right books and done a lifetime of study but is not “ordained?” Is one unable to “sheppherd his flock” from his own life experience (as we all do) if he doesn’t have a pastoral “sheppherding” ordination?

      Enjoy your stuff, keep it up. 🙂

    • Luke

      My list:

      Denver Seminary
      Fuller Seminary
      Dallas Theological Seminary
      Asbury Seminary
      Duke Divinity

      Places I wouldn’t really consider:

      Southern Seminary
      Southwestern Seminary
      Westminster (especially post-Enns)
      Southeastern Seminary

      What I look for:

      Honest scholarship
      Scholars not afraid to go against the party-line
      Emphasis on exegesis and biblical theology (not systematics)
      Profs interested in students
      Love for people, love for God
      No gay rules like we’re still in high school
      Practical and incarnational
      No dichotomy between orthodoxy and orthopraxy

    • Aaron C. Rathburn

      Hahaha! Luke, my list is a 100% perfect inversion of yours.

    • Luke

      Sweet! I guess we’ll never go to the same school then!

      Even though some may see my list as somewhat progressive and liberal, I still tried to keep it evangelical (maybe with the exception of Duke, who I basically added because I like Hauerwas and Hays and b/c out of all the more liberal divinity schools they are the most involved and caring about the health of the church).

    • Mike H

      You see Dallas Theological as liberal? I would never have come up with that.

    • Aaron C. Rathburn

      Dallas is the hotbead of dispensationalism. Depending on how you define “liberal,” dispensationalism has only been around for 180 years ;-).

    • Luke

      I was speaking of my list as a whole, not each individual institution mentioned. I don’t see Denver as “liberal” either. However, in comparison to SBTS or RTS, then DTS or Denver would be considered more progressive.

      People view DTS as some staunchly conservative dispensational institution. This may be the DTS of the 80s, but it is hardly the case today. There is no way some professors there could teach at other conservative institutions. This isn’t evident in the literature I assume because of the pressure the school has to maintain it’s “conservative” status, but if you speak with certain students there, then you would know what I speak of. They’re not liberal in the sense of denying essentials or buying into all the higher criticism stuff (JEDP, deutero-Isaiah, etc), but many professors have beliefs, interpretations, and hermeneutics you wouldn’t hear in a southern baptist church. Personally, I view this as a good thing, but I believe the general public thinks of DTS as if it were still in the 80s, which it is clearly not (nearly everyone I know thinks it’s some staunchly conservative, classical-dispensational, and fundamentalist school….trust me, it’s not).

    • Rutledge Kuhn

      I wish people would stop using “fundamentalist,” I don’t
      know what people mean by the word unless they us it in the
      context of Islam.

      Ph.D. is good for someone that takes an academic route for
      a career, but it isn’t necessary for the pulpit. And, on the
      same note, most guys that take a Th.M. don’t really know
      the Bible until they are out of school for a few decades.

      Most theology people that we encounter that operates our churches
      work from template concepts they learned in any
      screwall. Most of the time the degrees and schools are
      chosen and taken for resume enhancement.

    • Anonomus

      Luke, Aaron, et al.,

      Would any of you care to share how you come to your lists?

      Evaluating seminaries and obtaining honest objective information form their admissions office can be difficult to say the least.

      How can one know the leaning and core of a seminary without knowing many (if any) graduates from there?



    • Lisa R

      Hi Adam,

      My list was very short btw. I started looking at Gordon Conwell (Boston campus) but quickly realized they didn’t quite offer the foundation in Bible exposition that I was seeking. So I started using DTS as a curriculum gauge as I explored, never really thinking that I would actually go there. But when I met with my pastor, a DTS grad, he encouraged me to consider where else? Which is where I am now. My 2nd choice was Talbot.

      So just a couple of thoughts. Maybe consider what area of ministry you are interested in. I would say follow the leading figures in that area and see where either they teach, have taught or are affiliated with in some way, like speaking engagements.

      Also, examine the doctrinal statement and make sure its one you are comfortable with. Some may be too lax in a key area or too and some may be to rigid. Curriculum is a consideration also. For me, I knew I wanted a strong foundation in bible exposition and exegesis in original languages in context of dispensationalism so my choices were a bit easy.

      If you’ve already come up with a list, maybe scan publications from faculty and see what they’re saying and their theological positioning.

      Anyway, just some thoughts. Hope it helps.

    • Aaron C. Rathburn

      Hi Adam,

      I would echo what Luke said. Look up the authors, theologians, and teachers that you like. Then, check what schools they attended, what schools they teach at, what schools are associated with them, etc.

      Also, most schools have some kind of affiliation. I am presently at Calvin College, which is obviously Reformed. Westminster Theological Seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Southern Theological Seminary are of this ilk.

      Dallas is the mainstay of Dispensational teaching, which is why I would never consider it. As Luke pointed out, his list is considered much more liberal, “progressive,” and some schools aren’t evangelical. Denver is also more free to differ with tradition.

      Here’s the thing: It’s okay to be broad and progressive. But it’s another thing entirely to go against the orthodox, catholic teaching of the corporate church for the past 2,000 years (lower-case “o”rthodox, “c”atholic). For example, Westminster Theological Seminary is heralded as one of the greatest schools, and one reason is because it simultaneously upholds Reformed tradition, while further exploring its implications deeper and deeper.

      For a great post on this subject that is fresh off the press, James K. A. Smith (theologian, philosopher) just put a blog post up about secular colleges, Christian colleges, and the idea of “education”: should it be cultivation of free thinking, or formation of correct thinking?



    • Adaway

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    • Capricorn Forum ·

      well, i was enrolled at an online school and the curriculum is quite great *

    • This has to be one of my favorite posts! And on top of thats its also very useful topic for newbies. cheers a lot for the info!

    • Amy

      For those of you who are concerned about cost, I thought you might want to know that Gordon-Conwell has a Partnership Program, which provides a full-tuition scholarship and biblical stewardship training. Here is a video of people in the program talking about it.

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