Choosing a Seminary

Assuming you've reached the point were you know seminary is the right direction for you (I might even go so far as to say you're called to something that requires a seminary education), it's now time to select a seminary.  For some, this is an easy choice because of denominational ties, location, or something else; for others this decision is not so easy.  In what follows, I'd like to offer a discussion on some of the many factors that go into finding the right seminary for you.

I should probably get my biased background out of the way first.  At the time of this post, I am 9 classes away from graduation with an M.Div from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary.  I am not a member of a Baptist denomination and I'm going through the Distance Learning Program (DLP).  I'll get into more details as we move through some of the various aspects of the decision making process, and I'll discuss some of my experiences; but in no way should these influence your decision.  In fact, I encourage you to carefully weigh out the choice before you, seek guidance in prayer, and attend the seminary that's the best fit for you.

There are many seminaries. They are not all the same nor are they all equal, but they each serve a specific purpose, uniquely fulfilling a role.  Finding the one that will best move you in the direction you need to go is an important step in your educational process.

Theology and doctrinal beliefs.  Obviously, you should attend a seminary that shares the doctrinal views to which you hold.  Some seminaries hold extensive doctrinal positions and require complete agreement by all faculty and students. Other schools only provide loose boundaries and students need only agree with "a majority" of the doctrinal statement.  Some schools only identify requirements regarding specific major doctrines, leaving the minors up to the students--e.g., charismatic gifts or the means of baptism.  When I was applying for seminary at Liberty, I was required a to sign a statement stating that I agree with the school's doctrinal statement of faith.  With a couple of points, I was still on the fence and with one I wasn't sure if I could fully agree.  Contacting the seminary, I was able to discuss my positions and write a memo explaining why I could not firmly agree with the nuances of the doctrines which I was still wrestling with.  I was admitted. In addition, they granted me wide room on the matter and I have since wrestled with issues and firmed up my doctrinal positions.  

Seminary will likely shape your theology as well as your philosophy of ministry, so if you attend a school that is in disagreement with your denominational beliefs, you should ask yourself if you are prepared to leave your denomination based on your convictions. You should also be aware of the theological and doctrinal requirements placed upon the faculty.  Some schools require specific beliefs of their professors and other seminaries leave that wide open. These requirements allow for some diversity, but you should have some idea of the extent.  Personally, I would find it extremely difficult to study under professors that hold to a position of open theism, for example, or teach that the Bible is not inspired or trustworthy and contains serious flaws.

Denominational ties. I discussed the important matters of denominational ties above; however, some denominations require that in order for you to receive ordination or even employment with a church of that denomination, you attend specific schools.  This might be worth considering.  For many, this is not an issue.

Focus: academic vs. pastoral.  There are schools that generally produce more academically minded theologians and there are schools that tend to graduate more pastorate minded individuals.  By this I mean some graduates of specific schools typically land in fields where they continue to publish weighty academic material or go on to teach in the academic setting.  These students tend more often to be the authors of commentaries and study bibles. Some become professors.  Other schools produce more graduates that become pastors, chaplains, worship leaders, and missionaries, maybe publishing little or nothing.  And if they do publish, they tend to write for the laymen rather than the academic.  Academic schools often place a greater focus on the biblical languages, theology, and history while the other schools place their focus on things like missions or church planting or counseling.  Most seminaries have a full range of classes, it's just that often schools place more focus in one area over another. This is not to say that there is not cross over, it's simply that the pastors that come from the schools more academically driven, tend to be more academic pastors, and the opposite might be true of the pastoral schools producing professors.  This might be something to think about, especially if you plan to go on to earn a Ph.D or have hopes of teaching at a Bible college or seminary.  If you find academia rather dry and dull, you may want to consider a pastoral-minded seminary, although you still won't escape academic writing and reading, theology and history.  

Reputation.  Seminaries tend to earn some kind of reputation (although there are some schools that nobody has ever heard of).  This reputation could heavily play into your future, especially if you have a desire to go further in your education or if you need to be able to lean on that reputation.  In academia, reputation is extremely important, which is why you see some schools listed after contributor's names in commentaries and study Bibles more than others.  Some schools gain a reputation as "liberal" schools while others are seen as "conservative." It seems the presidents of the Evangelical Theological Society tend to come from specific types of schools, whereas the pastors of mega-churches and church planting networks generally come from others.  If you are called to be a missionary, which schools are producing the best missionaries?  If you're a preacher, which schools produce the kind of preacher you are called to be? Who is generating the leading theologians?

Looking at seminaries, I was concerned about the public reputation of both the school founded by Dr. Jerry Falwell (Liberty University) as well as the man, who was well-known for his cable-news sound bites.  I knew I would find myself under that cloud, but I wasn't sure to what extent.  It comes up from time to time, and on occasion people will make an incorrect assumption about me based on the seminary I attended.  Even as I write this, the president of my seminary is mixed up in something that could be problematic and hurt the reputation of the seminary.  How the president and the school handle it could help or hurt the seminary's reputation in the short and long run.  And at times, the actions of the students and alumni can positively or negatively impact the school's reputation for years.  But I have to remind myself that for most people, the reputation of their seminary is fairly irrelevant shortly after graduation. 

Delivery method. It seems these days, delivery method is rapidly becoming a primary talking point.  Brick-and-mortar or on-line or a combination of both?  Some seminaries now offer a limited selection of Master's degrees entirely on-line.  If you can't move AND if reputation is not a necessity, on-line may be a valid option for you.  This is not to say you should attend a school that only provides education on-line, rather, you might consider a traditional seminary that also delivers its educational instruction on-line.  I selected this option because I work full-time and have a wife and two children.  There is no seminary in my area and a moving was not a good choice given my circumstances.  Liberty's Distance Learning Program (DLP) offers both on-line courses and intensives, that is, courses where the reading is done in advance and then the student goes to the campus to sit in day-long lectures for a straight week. Prior to applying, I researched this program to determine how well it would work.  What is the content delivery system like? Are there lectures and how do I watch or hear them?  How will I test and turn in assignments?  Will there be feedback on my work? Will I interact with other students? Who will teach my courses?  (Please feel free to contact me if you have specific questions about this program.  I'm happy to chat with you.) 

Taking courses on-line, however, is not an exact substitute for attending classes on-campus.  The brick-and-mortar setting has much to offer, and it's still a necessity if you are looking for an academic future.  Each delivery method has its advantages and disadvantages.  You should carefully consider your needs and options before simply jumping into an on-line program or ruling it out.

Location.  Should you desire to attend classes on campus, you aught to consider location.  Are you willing to move if there is not a seminary in your hometown?  Will you have access to library materials?  Will you need to get a job while in seminary, and if so, is the school located in a strong job market?  What is the cost of housing? If you are married or have children, will this move be problematic or positive for your family? Although rather obvious, location is something to consider.

Cost. I'm not sure if I even need to discuss cost.  It was a rather large deciding factor for me, as it probably is for you.  There is a wide range of tuition rates among the seminaries, and it is not always the case that you get what you pay for. 

Accreditation. Accreditation boards exists to ensure that the quality of the education meets a minimum standard.  Schools that meet these standards are considered "accredited."  Various state, regional, and federal departments of education approve and recognize accrediting bodies (or don't). Generally, if a students wishes to transfer credits to another school or pursue a degree beyond the masters he or she earned in seminary, it is important that he or she earned a degree from an accredited seminary.  In addition, many ministry positions such as a military chaplain, missionary, or teacher often require a degree from an accredited school.  There are regional accrediting bodies and national accreditation institutions, as well as discipline-specific accreditation bodies.  The Association of Theological Schools (ATS) is one example, as is the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE). The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) is an example of a regional accreditation body.  It is highly recommended that you attend an accredited seminary. 

You have many things to consider before settling on a seminary, but the time and effort will be well worth it.  Finding the right fit could mean the difference between a successful seminary experience and not.  Best of luck with your selection.  Again, please feel free to contact me if you have questions about Liberty, one-line studies, or anything else. God bless.

If you have specific questions about Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, please check out "LBTS, Post Dr. Jerry Falwell."

*Photo of Dr. Eugene H. Peterson taken by Wikimedia Commons user Clappstar, at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, Washington sponsored by the Seattle Pacific University Image Journal.