I graduated from seminary almost four years ago now. I still live in the city where my seminary is, and I even work full-time at the school. Because of this, I’m able to talk with a lot of current students and my fellow alumni. I’ve noticed some common threads that weave through these discussions and have come to a few observations. These are solely mine and may not all be true across the board for every seminarian. Also, while I’m not writing this to discourage someone from entering seminary (though it hopefully might deter a few), these are my particular warnings to, if nothing else, prepare oneself for the challenges theological education sometimes presents.
Seminary can breed disillusionment.
If I were to pick one word that describes my seminary experience and, unfortunately, that of many friends, disillusionment would be a good contender. Part of that has to do with our expectations of a seminary going in. It isn’t a magic turn-you-into-a-pastor school. Schools can’t do that, but see my second point for that discussion. Part of it is also involves choosing a school that might have a different reality than it publicizes. That isn’t to say that there is nothing to gain from seminary, but there is a cloud of cynicism that hangs over many of us when we speak about our time there.
In all honesty, would I recommend someone go to seminary? Maybe. It requires much thought, a lot of self-wrestling, prayer, and consideration. There are challenges in the seminary institution itself that may present more issues than the classes. For instance, some great professors at my school model intellectual virtue with humility and wisdom, and I gained a lot from them. On the other hand, there’s an often toxic culture of arrogance, pretension, and indulgence amongst many in the student body, modeled by some in the administration. This culture doesn’t have to become you, but it can. Those who don’t adopt the dominant culture of the school can just as easily become jaded in reaction to it. Trying to stay spiritually healthy and committed in this kind of atmosphere can be daunting.
Surrounding oneself with community is the key. Being involved in my church preserved me through the tough times in seminary and taught me much more about the ministry than seminary did, and this kind of involvement can go a long way in helping you persevere.
Seminary will not adequately prepare you for ministry.
Seminary may introduce you to theological concepts. Seminary may take you through the Old and New Testaments. Seminary may teach you to read Hebrew and Greek. Some of this you can pretty effectively teach yourself with the right books, even the latter (though you might also learn through your experience that most of our modern English translations are quite good and sufficient). Seminary will try to teach you to evangelize, preach, and counsel well, and do many other things, too. However, the first time you are in one of these situations in the outside world you may realize your more “practical” classes didn’t teach you much.
Calling isn’t always as simple as we try to make it.
A lot of good Christians feel called or are pressured by well-meaning people to go into vocational ministry simply because they are active Christians in a culture where most Christians just aren’t that active. We stand out if we have a real desire to be active in the church and like discussing the Bible and theology, and so we are obviously called to the pastorate. The problem is that it doesn’t work that way. All Christians are called to actively involved themselves in the church and to be seekers of God. That doesn’t mean those who are such need to be pastors. We need solid Christians in all walks of life to be witnesses where pastors would never gain traction.
At the same time, it doesn’t mean these committed Christians shouldn’t be pastors, either. Sometimes someone who doesn’t particularly feel “called” has to step up to the plate because there is a need. One friend’s mentor, whose day job was as a college professor, was asked why he took on the pastorate of a small Congregational church on the side. His response: “If I didn’t, some other jackass would.” Sometimes the whole notion of “If you can imagine being happy doing something other than being a pastor, you should” just doesn’t fit. Sometimes a church needs a pastor who could be happy doing something else but chooses not to for the sake of the gospel.
You will be misinformed and under-informed.
You will have some excellent professors who know a lot, and most of them have the very best of intentions. But nobody knows everything, we all have biases and prejudices, and even these great professors are sometimes misinformed. Lines will be fudged, data relayed improperly, and opinions and theories presented as fact. That’s the way of it.
Always do your homework. Always look into the matter more and do further reading. You are learning about the gospel, but not everything you are learning may be “gospel truth.” You will lack information in certain areas once you are done. I finished seminary with a secondary or even tertiary knowledge of 18th-20th Century theologians from Kierkegaard to Tillich and Barth, along with most major Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theologians. I’ve had a lot of make-up work to do in this area. Students at more liberal Protestant institutions or those of the other Christian branches might likewise skimp on the primary works of Reformers and Puritans. You simply can’t cover everyone, and you will finish undoubtedly with holes in your understanding of Christian history and thought.
Not everyone defines terms the same way.
I quickly found in my seminary experience that I was or was not many different things depending on the perspective of my conversation partner. Christians unfairly caricature each other, partially due to a lack of understanding, and there are nuances of views that get lost for fear of being labeled this or that in the aftermath. As we do that, the perceived differences between views become broader. For instance, I learned that I was and was not a conservative evangelical Christian because I was and was not an inerrantist because of the way I approached the book of Genesis. That’s just a start, but it illustrates my point. I could totally affirm or deny each term depending on how the person with whom I was talking defined those terms.
I fear that these warnings may make seminary seem like a terrible thing. It’s not; at least it doesn’t have to be. At the same time, one should temper their expectations going into it, and choose their method of completion wisely. With a healthy community surrounding you, you have the opportunity to gain powerful knowledge that will help you in your future ministry. It simply won’t be the cure-all to get you there.