"Should I Go to Seminary?"
Seminary could ruin your life. Or, it could be the door that you’ve been meant to open your entire life. Most people who attend seminary don’t make the appropriate considerations. They don’t treat it as a consequential decision. Even though this decision will cost tens of thousands of dollars, take thousands of hours away from your family, and offers no guarantee of employment in an oversaturated and overqualified ministry market, many aspiring pastors throw themselves into debt and into destruction just for the fetish and novelty of it.
If you do attend seminary, you ought to ask the basic questions which will guarantee your ability to extract from the seminary the maximal amount of value. If you follow the advice below, you will have an advantageous head start past most of your seminary peers, and you likewise secure the highest probability of gainful ministry employment afterward.
1. Pre-decide the denomination in which you will pursue ordination credentials. Achieve them as soon as possible.
There are two reasons to have your denomination pre-decided before you go to seminary. First, it if you can be taken “under care” or “sponsored” by your church (the language varies), most worthwhile seminaries will offer you an immediate 50% scholarship. Second, by staying formally connected to your denomination throughout your seminary education, you become a hirable option for them by remaining in their eye. That is a formal reason (financial incentive) and an informal reason (networking incentive) to choose your denomination before you even apply to seminary.
Some seminaries offer special scholarships to denominations affiliated with their seminary. This is the case, for example, with Presbyterian churches at Westminster Theological Seminary, and Evangelical Free churches at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS).
If you fail to become sponsored by your church or denomination before you attend seminary, your chances at gainful employment in full-time ministry after seminary drastically decrease. Moreover, you will likely pay more for your seminary degree.
2. Get your M.Div.
Don’t waste your time with a Masters in Theology or a Th.M. They are wastes of time and money. These degrees mean almost nothing to para-church ministry employers, and if you seek a pastoral position, the hiring committee will ask: “Why didn’t you get your M.Div.?” The M.Div. requires you to train in both biblical languages, counseling, preaching, theology, and church history, and only takes a year longer than a masters degree. If you’re set on going to seminary, there is no reason not to get an M.Div. and every reason to get the M.Div. To achieve anything less would be to needlessly waste your time and money—you might as well just listen to a few good theology podcasts.
More than this, an M.Div. is more valuable to doctoral committees if you plan on pursuing a Ph.D. after seminary. The M.Div. is credibly indicates to prospective doctoral advisors that you are more than a theology egg-head—that you actually have a mind to serve the church and do good in the world. The only reason not to get the M.Div. is if you are only attending seminary to better understand a particular discipline—like apologetics or Hebrew—and employability is not your primary concern. If that’s the case, then the full M.Div. would be a waste of your time.
3. Never pay full price.
If you pay full price for your seminary degree, you have been scammed. There is no reason you shouldn’t qualify for some scholarship—even if you’re a white male. As I mentioned earlier, good seminaries offer scholarships just for being sponsored by a denomination. If you’re not currently sponsored by a denomination, it might be worth the $20,000 you save over 3-4 years of study to wait to go to seminary until you can get sponsored by a denomination that your goal-seminary honors through a scholarship.
And, if the seminary to which you’re applying doesn’t offer such a scholarship, don’t go to that seminary. It’s not worth it. You need to go to a better seminary, because they’re certainly going to charge you money like they were a good seminary. Don’t waste your money on a bad seminary, and one of the ways that you know a seminary is good is that they have a lot of scholarship opportunities for which you can apply. Never pay full price for theological education—ever.
4. Consider the alternative—not getting theological education.
This the moment you may need to muster the strength to make a very difficult decision—seminary might not be right for you. One way to diagnose whether you may not be a fit for seminary is if you’re only seeking to get a degree for vanity’s sake. If you just want to pay $30,000 dollars to get some impressive initials after your name, you should become a chiropractor. Then, you’ll be vain and rich. There are no more worthless letters to have after your name than “M.Div.”
You can make those letters valuable if you use your education the right way and with the right mindset. But an M.Div. is merely an opportunity. It guarantees nothing. It indicates nothing. Any idiot can get their M.Div. You need to deeply wrestle with the question—do I need an M.Div.? The answer might be “Yes.” But you need to be absolutely certain. Otherwise, just become a dentist and retire early.
5. Go to a prestigious seminary.
It may sound vain to suggest that you go to a prestigious seminary, but it is quite the opposite. Prestigious seminaries have more money, and can therefore afford to hire better professors, and thereby offer a higher quality education. In this regard, we might also articulate this advice differently—go to seminary in order to study with a particular professor, and spend all your time annoying the living daylights out of him.
I almost went to Wheaton Graduate school for their biblical exegesis program, but when I met with G. K. Beale, he told me: “I’m moving to Philadelphia next month to teach at Westminster. You should go there and study with me.” So I went to Westminster Theological Seminary in order to study with G. K. Beale and I annoyed the living daylights out of him. I made him earn every penny of my tuition money. And it was 100% worth it. I studied with one of the world’s foremost experts—if not the world’s foremost expert—on the use of the Old Testament by New Testament authors. And I learned that topic better than most doctoral students learned it at other seminaries and universities that didn’t have world experts. And, at the same time, I got to read Van Til, Bavinck, Calvin, Turretin, Vos, and Hodge on the side.
If you go to a seminary that lacks prestige, you will miss out on the opportunity to know as much as you can about the Bible and theology—but you’ll spend the same amount of time and money in the process. Don’t underserve your preparation for the next 40 years of labor because you were willing to settle for a sub-par school so you didn’t have to commute as far. Find a prestigious institution, pick a professor that is a world expert in a topic that captivates you, and do everything you can to study there for free. If you try long enough, and are calculated and strategic enough, it is not difficult to accomplish this.
6. Go to a confessional seminary.
You can tell the difference between students who attend a seminary like TEDS and students who attend a seminary like WTS or SBTS (Even though the theological confession of Southern is technically The Bapist Faith & Message, the school functions since Al Mohler’s presidency like a 1689 school, which is very similar to the way Westminster Theological Seminary functions).
Students from confessional institutions have a certainty in their eyes—an unreplaceable confidence that only comes from working hard through the biblical languages and the original sources of Christian theology. The average evangelical masters-level theological education will essentially give you a first-year bible college education. Institutions like Westminster and Southern can get a bad reputation for being militant—and borderline abusive—but there is no questioning the higher quality students the churn out because students are actually forced to combat or accept a specific viewpoint. The average evangelical degree will take you a mile wide and an inch deep. The few confessional seminaries will take you a mile wide and a mile deep.
There’s a reason that a majority of evangelical professors in America have at least one degree from a confessional school. Without one, it’s highly likely that you won’t be getting your money’s worth from a seminary.
I know a guy who went to Trinity and every year during his four years there, I would ask him what more he knows about God. He could never give me a straight answer. And it’s because the school never pushed him on his heels or gave him a reason to operationalize his theology. It was just in one ear and out the other. And most non-confessional seminary students have that same experience. Their overall operational theological knowledge doesn’t change much during their tenure. That’s a very low value for several tens of thousands of dollars and several committed years of work.
Most people who attend seminary do so without making the appropriate considerations. Don’t waste your time and money. Don’t dishonor what you believe is the call of God on your life through laziness and poor execution. Don’t strap yourself in thousands of dollars of needless and excess debt. Attend seminary strategically. Attend the right seminary. And make it the best conceivable training experience you can for the cheapest dollar amount possible. Anything less is a tragedy of poor planning for which you will pay for the remainder of your life.
This is the phase of goal-setting where you let yourself dream as big as you can, and indulge in as much fantasy as you want. People usually don’t do this. They don’t indulge in fantasy about themselves, because they don’t believe that it’s possible to make it real. And they don’t believe it’s possible to make their dreams real because they’ve never done it before. They’ve never followed through enough to see results on the other side.
Write down what you want. Maybe you want to lose 70 pounds. Maybe you want to have a six pack. Maybe you want to get a raise. Whatever it is, let yourself want it. Let your mind rest for a moment on your particular goal. What do you want? What have you always wanted? What have you never been able to accomplish? Imagine yourself accomplishing that goal.
Don’t let cynicism spoil the party. Cynicism isn’t invited to the dreaming phase. If you let yourself cynically downplay your dreams, you are already guaranteeing your failure. Let yourself want and imagine and dream about the thing. What are the specifics of your dream coming true? What are the numbers? What will you feel? How will that change your year? How will your family react? What will your friends say? How will your enemies feel? Let yourself indulge all of that.
2. Sign Up for a Performance that Represents That Desire
This is, by far, the most neglected and the most important element of achieving what you desire. You will fail to get what you want if you don’t specify a particular performance which represents the achievement of your desire, toward which your goal will be oriented. If you want to get in shape, that performance can be anything from: “I will spend an entire day at the beach with my shirt off,” to “I want to enter a bodybuilding contest.”
As Arnold Schwarzenegger wisely said: “If you’re training for nothing, you’re wasting your time.” Don’t waste your energy, motivation, and focus on a goal that doesn’t have an explicit, actionable measurement in the reasonably near future.
3. Choose the Best Daily Training Plan to Succeed at that Performance
This might be the hardest part of achieving goals, next to the actual execution of the plan. The reason choosing a plan should be hard is because you have to come face to face with what you hate most about yourself. You have to take a long, hard look at yourself. You have to step on the scale. That can be a very, very painful decision. You will want to avoid it. You will want to set a plan for yourself without taking an inventory of the exact weaknesses that you’ll want to improve.
4. Pick a Specific Goal
An achievable goal presupposes an articulated desire (your dream), a performance that publicly manifests that desire, and a training plan. Your goal should be within that training plan. Most people fail at goals because they set their goals before they know what they want, before they know how it will be measured and tested, and before they even have a protocol within which they can test that particular goal. However your training program measures progress, make your goal to achieve a certain measure of progress according to those specific metrics.
Most people live with this persistent sense of lack and failure because most people fail to achieve what they want. This failure can, almost every single time, be boiled down to a lack of specificity regarding the desired goal, or an unrealistic expectation for that goal. So, choose a goal within your training protocol for a performance-oriented event, which manifests your dream. Make it very, very specific.
If you want to lose fat, write the exact number of points and means of measurement.
If you want to get a better job, write exactly what company you want to work for and the position at that company that you desire. Explain who you need to know in order to make certain requests and to become a “known quantity” to the hiring committee. Split the goal of getting a new job up into 20 goals, order them in sequence, and make the first goal your current goal.
If you want a spouse, write exactly what are the most important traits that you desire, and why those traits will facilitate a long and successful marriage. Your training protocol for getting married will depend on your self-assessment of why you’re not married, and what you could do to increase your likelihood of success. Whatever that program is, conceive of goals as small and performance oriented. Try not to get distracted by indirect goals. For example, if you think that your physical shape is a barrier to finding a spouse, don’t make physical improvement a performance per se. Take on one goal at a time—physical improvement and marriage and career are three different goals, so make sure you don’t build an impossible tower of goals, each more impossible than the last. That’s the opposite of what you want to do. Make goals as small and concrete as possible, and make performance commitments as direct and straightforwardly relevant to your goal as possible.
Make your goal specific, and make it small. You don’t have to write thousands of words, but you should have a distinct image in your mind of specifically what you want, specifically how you’ll measure it, and specifically why you want it.
When you write your goal, make sure that you write at least three sentences—what you want, how you’ll measure it, and why you want it.
5. Turn Your Brain Off
Don’t try to make your discipline as pleasurable as possible. Focus your mind. Get into “badass mode.” Become a machine for the duration of your training program. Achieving goals isn’t about short-term pleasure. It’s about long-term satisfaction. Training won’t be pleasurable. You will be hungry, scared, tired, and you will feel incompetent when you hit the heights of your capacity. But that’s the point.
Work hard on your plan. Have focus. Be diligent. Train like you’re trying to be the best in the world, because that performance to which you have committed is coming at you like a freight train, and you will either shamefully fail or victoriously succeed. Train to win. Put aside the self-love for a season and look at your fate dead in the eyes: “I will change you. I will change my destiny. I will change the rails I’ve been running on for the past decade. It’s time to change.”
Don’t overthink your discipline. Don’t overthink your work. Don’t “change” your training program. Finish it. Finish every workout. Finish every training session. Finish every specific time block you’ve set aside to prepare for your dream-manifesting performance. Whatever you need to do, don’t think about it—just do it. Don’t think. Just do. Do your thinking now, because later, your brain is only going to be telling you one thing:
Quit. Quit. Quit.
It’s not worth it.
Go back to bed.
Do something else.
Do LITERALLY ANYTHING ELSE.
Sucks for your brain—it’s not time to think. It’s time to do.
Follow this five-step plan, and I guarantee that you will crush your goals.