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Admissions Blog

Considering seminary? Ask yourself these questions

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Right about now, my inbox starts to fill up with inquiries about seminary.

Here’s what I usually tell people who are in the seminary discernment process. It’s true what they say: What you get out of seminary depends mostly on what you put into it. There are superb faculty—and superb students—in every seminary in the country.

By Kenda Creasy Dean

Kendra Creasy DeanDiscernment has more to do with fit. Don’t narrow the field too quickly; there are practical issues, such as GPA and finances, which must be considered midway through the process, but start by casting a wide net. You never know when God might show up and part the waters.

Still discerning the next faithful step? Here are questions and tips to help you see if seminary is in your future. Vaya con Dios!

The Big Question:

Most ministry doesn’t require a theological degree, so ask yourself why you want to get one. In the end, there is one—and only one—good reason to go to seminary: because God won’t leave you alone until you do.

Preliminary Questions: What to ask before you hunt for schools

  • Is God calling me to a ministry that seminary will help prepare me for?
  • Do I want to be ordained? What are the ordination requirements specific to my tradition? Whose approval do I need to go to seminary or start the ordination process?
  • What faith tradition do I represent? (Hint: Almost no one is theologically non-denominational; we all have a perspective through which we see Scripture, the church, how God acts in the world, etc. The sooner you own up to an “orienting theological tradition”—even if you want to move away from it—the easier seminary will be. You can always change your mind once you get there.)
  • Do I want to be formed with others from the same faith tradition (for instance, by going to a denominational seminary)? Or do I want to be formed alongside people from a variety of traditions?
  • With whom do I need/want credibility? Pastors? Academics? Youth ministers? Mainlines? Evangelicals? People inside or outside the U.S.? All of the above? Different schools tend to have different “audiences.” Which “audiences” do I want to serve?
  • Are there certain schools I should rule out for vocational or theological reasons? For instance: Does this school prepare people like me for ordination? Does my denomination recognize this school as “legit”? Does the school have the academic program I need? Are there additional requirements if I go to a school outside my denomination? Does this school have a good reputation with the people who might want to hire me?

 

How to Search for a School that “Fits”:

  • Go to the people you most admire in ministry. How did they get to be the kind of ministers they are? Where did they go to seminary?
  • Get your degree in a person, not a program. This is the single best advice anyone gave me about graduate school—and the further you go in graduate school, the more important it becomes. Find someone whose way of being in the world and looking at ministry resonate deeply with your soul—and then go study with them. Become a disciple of a disciple you want to emulate.
  • Visit the campus. You get more information out of one visit than a lifetime on the Internet. If the school has “prospective student weekends,” take advantage; the school will be on its best behavior, and you’ll learn a lot in a condensed period.
  • Imagine yourself living in the school’s community. You have a life to live, and not just a degree to get. If you can’t envision your life in this place, cross the school off your list.
  • Talk to students who are already there. Faculty members won’t hide information from you, but students know more. What is the program like that you want to be in? What do they wish they had known when they were applying? Who are their faculty mentors? What does campus life look like for students like you (married, single, second career, straight out of college, etc.)? What churches in the area might you consider for worship or work? Do most students want to be pastors or something else?

 

Deal-Breaker Questions to Ask Yourself:

  • Is the school’s theological vision compatible, but not identical, with mine? Will it stretch me—and am I willing to be stretched—beyond where I already am?
  • How will I be prepared for “the Church of 10 Years from Now”?
  • Can I imagine myself among the students I have met here? Do I want to be one of them? Do I want to take a long trip with them? Or do I feel like the odd relative at a family reunion?
  • How much debt will I incur? Will my family be able to breathe financially once I’m in ministry?
  • How much do I like school? What happens to my stomach when I think about being a student again? Do I get excited or am I bracing myself for “more school”? Hint: If the latter . . . run away.
  • How easy is the “academic game” for me? Hint: If you struggle with courses that involve lots of reading and writing, don’t sign up for the dual degree program or other extended courses of study.
  • Do I need a structured program of spiritual growth? Some schools provide lots of support in spiritual as well as academic formation; others leave spiritual formation up to the student. Hint: If you’re looking for a setting where people sit around and talk about their feelings, go to camp, not seminary.
  • Will I have support systems in place while I’m in seminary? Hint: If not, wait to come to seminary until you do. Seminary is designed to challenge you more than support you.
  • If I am married or in a serious relationship: Does my spouse/significant other think this school will be good for us? Will s/he be happy here? Is there a community for him/her to plug into? Can s/he pursue some of his or her own dreams while I’m in seminary?

Because if your spouse isn’t happy, nobody’s happy.

Dr. Dean is a UM ordained elder and professor of youth, church and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. She’s the author of Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church.

Vocation

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An excerpt from Rev. Victor Aloyo Jr.’s Discerning Your Vocation

Ministry is the active response to God’s call. Christian ministry is more than simply doing good. Rather, it is something that Christ does in and through us and that we do in and through Christ. We act not on our own, but on the authority of God who calls us. Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last…” (John 15:16)

The word “ministry” comes from the same root as the word “minus,” which means “less.” Jesus asked, “For who is greater: the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:27) All Christians are called to minister both to one another and to those around them by participating in God’s work in the world. Ministry occurs in innumerable forms, some of which require ordination. Genuine ministry involves both giving and receiving; reciprocity is essential. Ministry “to” is patronizing, for it fails to acknowledge our own need, nor does it recognize the mutual nurturing experienced when we are brought to Christ through the people we serve.

The word “vocation” comes from the Latin word vocare, which means “to call.” “Vocation” can be understood in different ways. For instance, it can signify the work you do from a strong, inner conviction over a long period of time. A Christian vocation is a response to God’s call, acting out your conviction. Webster defines it thus:

A call, summons, or impulsion to perform a certain function or enter a certain career, especially a religious one…

Biblical figures receive their summonses in a variety of ways, depending on their unique personalities and contexts: some through dreams and visions, some by contact with significant people, some through tumultuous inner experiences. Some are receptive to the summons, and others very resistant. To understand the flavor of the differences among them, read the commissioning of Moses (Exodus 3:1–4:17), of Gideon (Judges 6:11–24), of Samuel (I Samuel 3:1–21), of Deborah (Judges 4:4–10), and of Ruth (Ruth 1:16–18). All of them and many more became convinced that speaking and living God’s Word was the most important journey they could take, though some doubted their ability.

God gave me the privilege of being the pastor of a multilingual, multicultural congregation in the East Brooklyn area of New York City for ten years. There I witnessed a variety of challenges in parish ministry, and was embraced by marvelous relationships. I believe that God still calls people to particular functions for particular moments in history. For all the joys and inspirations of a full-time, professional ministry, there are also plenty of headaches and setbacks. Professional ministers and church workers, however, serve in some of the most dynamic, world-changing, and globally minded settings found anywhere in the world. Can you picture yourself teaching in Zimbabwe? Visiting the elderly in Cleveland? Interviewing bishops in Europe for a church newspaper? Cultivating “shalom zones” in a riot-torn area of Los Angeles or Chicago? Bringing laughter to children in an Alabama orphanage in their very first vacation church school?

As you reflect on the abilities and interests that God has given you and wrestle with issues of the day, and as you consider vocational opportunities, realize that your years at seminary are an opportunity for you to test your call. Testing a call means reviewing your life as a whole before God. Ask yourself questions like, Where have I come from? Who am I? Where am I going? What are my strengths and weaknesses? How do my relationships with other people, at work and at home, reveal my personality and character? Toward what destination is my life headed at the moment? How can my gifts and my limitations be best used in the service of Christ and humanity?

After serving ten years in a parish setting, I can tell you that not all these questions are easy to answer. For we are on a great adventure, a journey of exploration. As a former student here at Princeton, and as an alumnus, I can say that seminary is not a place with many definitive answers to specific or even universal questions, and that it is not possible to prepare people to face every situation in life and ministry. This view of seminary is flawed in both its anthropology and its theology. To view humanity as static and civilization as unchanging is unrealistic; we can only expect to be prepared for all situations if things never change and if tomorrow is predictably like yesterday. This flawed anthropology says that we are not influenced by the world around us in new ways every day and that there is nothing new under the sun. It is also flawed theologically; it forgets the lesson that God alone is omniscient.

Theological education is part of the journey. The metaphor of a journey is a beloved one in the Judeo-Christian heritage because it is so representative of the truth about our lives and our relationship with God. To be alive is to be always changing, developing, and growing; to be spiritually alive is to be continually deepening one’s relationship with the Transcendent and with God’s good creation, and at the same time to be shaped by these relationships. Princeton provides an opportunity for serious theological reflection, corporate worship, spiritual reflection, community-building, and partnership development, in order to facilitate the journey.

I urge you to understand yourself as being on a journey with God in which you will discover who you are and where God is leading you. Know that with God’s help you will gain clarity about the nature of the ministry to which you are being called, whether ordained or lay. Allow yourself to lean on God and your community and receive from both the encouragement and insight that you will need to make decisions about your life.

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