By Daniel Roberts,
“When did you know you were called to seminary?” This was the question my brother asked me half way through my seminary education. I explained to him that I did not have this overwhelming and mysterious feeling that I should attend seminary. After being involved in ministry as a volunteer and sharing my faith with patients at my job, I knew that I had discovered a unique ability to engage people’s difficult questions with meaningful responses. However, if I was sincere about my desire to serve people and their difficult questions, I would need to foster and refine my abilities. But where was I supposed to go to gain such training? Seminary was for pastors, or at least that was what I believed. I never thought that I would end up in a seminary, but despite my best efforts to avoid it, I enrolled.
However, I did not come to this conclusion after a Chipotle burrito, several cups of coffee, and meditating to Hillsong United. Instead, my wife and I discussed our thoughts on the matter, we consulted with friends, family, and mentors, and we prayed for God to open the doors necessary to go. During this time, I was asked very specific questions that helped me solidify my decision to attend seminary. I hope that these questions will do the same for you. Further, I am at the tail end of my education, and with the conclusion of any journey, reflection makes you realize you could have done things better had you asked a few more questions. Therefore, I have included additional questions that I didn’t ask, but wish I had. My hope is that prospective students will ask these questions of themselves and contemplate their answers before moving forward with their seminary education.
(1) Do you like to read, write, and present publicly?
Prior to attending Seminary, I knew that I would have to invest my time in all three of these disciplines. However, there was one problem: I thought that I was a natural at all three. This could not have been farther from the truth. Sure, I had led the occasional Bible Study, written the occasional B+ paper for my undergrad English class, and even found myself engrossed in a book or two throughout my life. Seminary was just going to be like this, but more books, writing, and speaking, right? Wrong. I quickly learned that reading C.S. Lewis’ writings were not on the same level as the writings of Augustine, Plato, Aquinas, Aristotle, or any of the Church Fathers, let alone some of the more challenging commentaries on the Bible. My undergrad was a Bachelor of Science degree, which means that the art of writing and reading was sorely lacking in my education. When you attend Seminary, you must realize that you will be required to read and write a lot, and this does not include the reading you will have to do to get an “A” on your research paper. But, don’t let this discourage you. I have successfully made it through seminary, despite the lack of liberal arts in my previous education. I can assure you that early on in my studies, no one would have ever guessed that I would have become the academic I am today; just ask my wife 😀 .
(2) How do you handle criticism of your theology?
Recently, I had a discussion with a friend about the difference between studying on your own and attending seminary. The primary difference being, that in seminary you are told when you’re wrong. You cannot not just read your books and jot down the first thought that comes into your head. This not only holds in your theological studies, but in your studies of other world-views. For example, SES offers a course in Contemporary Atheism. During this course, I was reading George Smith’s Atheism: The Case Against God, and I was convinced that I had a knock-down argument against his position. I was so excited that I went to one of my professors, Dr. J. T. Bridges, and said, “Check this out!” I proceeded to present my argument. After I finished, he said “That doesn’t work. [George Smith] could respond this way…” Dr. Bridges proceeded to explain to me the weaknesses of my “superior” argument, effectively implying that I needed to return to my studies in order to better my understanding of the subject. At SES, there is little concern about whether or not you feel vindicated in your theology or your arguments; at SES, we care about the truth of your ideas, not how they make you feel.
(3) How will attending seminary impact your finances?
One theology professor said, “If you are going to study theology for the money, then you’re not smart enough to study theology.”While I did not intend to make millions off of my “superior theological intellect,” I did not realize how much financial security can benefit you in your education, as well as in your ministry. Truth be told, I probably enrolled a little too early. I should have established myself in a more secure career path before enrolling, but I was excited to start learning and I decided to dive headfirst into classes. This is not to say that you need to be wealthy to attend seminary. Certainly, God has provided for every need I have had throughout my schooling. But, that was because of his mercy, not because of my wisdom. Even with the grace and mercy I experienced from friends, family, professors, and fellow classmates during my education, I can’t help but think that I might have gleaned more from my education had I started my studies with more financial security. Again, it is not that God does not provide; He does. But, extended times of difficulty can and did take an emotional and mental toll on my studies.
(4) Do you have a support network?
Depending on how you answered question number 3, this will be even more significant. As I mentioned, I experienced the grace of many individuals supporting my wife and family through seminary. This was not just “we’re praying for you” kind of support. This was through babysitting, being there for my wife when I was at the library late into the night, making sure that when we had twins they would visit and afford us extra rest. This not only ensured that my grades would not suffer, it also preserved my family and my relationship with my wife. In short, a support network can bring much spiritual value through prayer, but in order to survive seminary it must provide some level of pragmatic support, even if you are financially stable. Money can’t buy you time, and it definitely can’t buy you quality time with friends that your family will need. There are many stories of seminarians walking across the platform to receive their diplomas, only to be met by their ex-spouse with a second set of papers (hint: these papers are not congratulatory cards on a job well done in seminary). My relationship with my wife and kids has remained strong throughout my seminary education, not because of my efforts alone, but because of the love and grace from those who provided me the support necessary to do school work and spend time with my family. Those people know who they are, and I am indebted to them for their help, both emotionally and financially. Seminary is hard, but it is only for a season. However, it is a season that you must be prepared for or you may graduate with more scars than blessings.
(5) Are you prepared to suffer?
This is not a superstitious type of suffering, but a refining through suffering. Becoming a teacher of truth requires you to not only be able to communicate difficult concepts to a wide variety of people, but it also requires character qualities that are necessary to lead and to serve. This point hit home during two chapel messages early in my seminary education. One was from Dr. Barry Leventhal on how God uses suffering to purge the sin in our lives so that we can be used for his glory. The second was from Dr. Elmore regarding the struggles many seminarians have with feeling “unqualified” to lead. Both messages put God right at the center of struggles in seminary. God will refine you in seminary, and this will often times be a painful process. But, it is through these difficulties that God develops you for his service. All of my classmates, regardless of their financial stability, have had unique obstacles to overcome during seminary. Each challenge uniquely suited to our weakness to ensure that we knew that we were weak, but he is strong (2 Cor. 12:7-9; 3:4-6).
(6) If God didn’t allow you to attend seminary, how would you live your life differently?
One of the most important questions came from my dad. I was sitting on the computer vigorously researching seminaries and application procedures. To ensure that my zeal was genuine, my dad asked me, “What will you do, if God shuts the door to attend seminary?” Without skipping a beat, I said “I would continue to study on my own to the best of my ability, and attempt to get involved in a church to teach Sunday school.” I could tell my dad was surprised by my candid response. At that point he said, “Well you should continue to pursue seminary…” Truth be told, I was as surprised by my answer as my dad was, but my response made me realize that I had a desire that I didn’t know I had, “to know God and to make him known.”
(7) Are you prepared to live the life of a seminary graduate?
There are two authors that changed my perspective on my seminary education. The reality is that your seminary education is just the beginning of what some have titled the “Intellectual Life. In his book, The Intellectual Life, A. G. Sertillanges addresses the practical and spiritual aspects of what it means to live a life of study. He writes,
“The life of study is austere and imposes grave obligations. It pays, it pays richly; but it exacts an initial outlay that few are capable of. The athletes of the mind, like those of the playing field, must be prepared for privations, long training, a sometimes superhuman tenacity. We must give ourselves from the heart, if truth is to give itself to us. Truth serves only its slaves.” — (Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life, 4)
Thus, the seminary life is an arduous one. But, what about life after seminary? In his convocation addresses contained in the book Scholarship, Abraham Kuyper says this,
“To have the opportunity of studying is such an inestimable privilege…A single educated man in a humble village is for that village the hub of a higher life. A scholar’s mission in life should be to serve and not to be served. Our maxim will always be: ‘Freely ye have received, freely give.’” — (Kuyper, Scholarship, 7; 13)
Thus, the final question you must contemplate is this. How hard are you willing to work, and are you willing to continue that work long after seminary? If not, then you may want to consider other pursuits. The seminary life is not for the faint of heart; it is for those tenacious servants that recognize their desire must be tempered with humility through the teaching and equipping that comes from men and women more learned than them.
Daniel is Web Content and Social Media Manager for SES. He is also the Managing Editor for SES’ blog. Daniel is an SES Student pursuing an M.A. in Philosophy at Southern Evangelical Seminary.
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*Nuggets of wisdom from my dad and my mom.
Kuyper, Abraham. Scholarship: Two Convocation Addresses on University Life. Translated by Harry Van Dyke. Grand Rapids, MI: Christians Library Press, 2014.
Sertillanges, A. G. The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, and Methods. Translated by Mary Ryan. Washington D.C.: Catholic Univ. of American Press, repr. 1987.
Smith, George. Atheism: The Case Against God. New York, NY: Prometheus Books, 1989.