I am a believer in lifelong learning. I love it. I think it’s incredibly important, and not simply for utilitarian reasons, either. Lifelong learning benefits every aspect of your life, from your finances and relationships to your mental (and possibly even physical) health. That’s a huge part of why I read so much, both fiction and non-fiction. I want to learn about telling better stories. To understand different situations, events, and experiences. To develop new skills and hone existing ones.
Seminary is like that for me. Back in 2015, when I lived in another country, I started seminary via distance education. I started well and got through my first course with a 97% to show for it. But then life got in the way and I couldn’t keep going. Now, seven years later, I’m looking at what to do because I want to keep going with formal education, even if I don’t exactly know what I want to do yet.
I see a lot of this online. Some celebrate the start of one kind of degree program or another. Others lament why they’re doing it at all. And a few who are asking the question: should I really be thinking about this?
Today, I want to offer something to help, and hopefully encourage those people, with three questions to ask before applying for seminary.
Why do I want to apply for seminary at all?
I started seminary in 2015. I put it on hold for two reasons: finances and immigration. After I got to the United States, I had more immigration to deal with, which largely ate up our discretionary income until very recently.
But from 2016 through mid-2020, there was always an external pressure to start back up. A lot of that pressure came from hallway conversations, and performance reviews. None of it was malicious, but it was pressure all the same. But external pressure is a bad reason to go to seminary.
Perhaps you’ve felt that way. Depending on your context, it may be that you’re feeling pressure from coworkers or ministry partners. Maybe it’s coming from inside your local church. Whatever the source, you should examine it. Are they encouraging you because they recognize a gift that will be enhanced with formal education? If so, that may be a good reason to take a next step forward and explore the options. Maybe your examination reveals that it’s a bad idea for you at this stage of life, especially if your family isn’t 100% on board. But if there isn’t a clear answer that goes deeper than everyone else is getting a PhD so you should too, then do not pass go, and do not spend a lot more than $200.
Which leads me to the second question…
Can I afford the tuition?
For those who don’t know, seminary is expensive. Even in seminaries where discounts are offered based on denominational affiliation, it is expensive with a capital E-X-P-E-N-S-I-V-E. (Which is true of all post-secondary options, from what I understand.) Because the cost is high, we need to be mindful in making the decision to move forward. Can we actually afford the tuition without accumulating significant amounts of debt? Do our employers offer some kind of tuition reimbursement program that could help subsidize the cost? Are there scholarships we can apply for based on our stages of life? We have to consider the cost of the tuition. Because while we can and should trust God to provide, he often does that through seemingly ordinary means like those.
How will applying for seminary benefit my ministry to my church?
As far as I’m aware, practically every seminary requires a pastoral referral for students. But this question is different. This is for us to consider how applying for seminary will be a blessing to our churches. Is there a specific ministry that we would best fulfill with a degree—one that we are particularly called to? Will it help us to more effectively be a part of discipling others, and if so, how? Remember, the purpose of seminary—even for getting more advanced degrees—isn’t simply to get letters behind our names or to call ourselves “Dr” if we go the DMin or PhD route.1 It is to help you fulfill your role in the church’s mission of making disciples.
Finding the answers for myself
This isn’t a hypothetical series of questions for me. Right now, it’s where I’m living. There isn’t really any pressure on me to go. My employers are happy for me to do something, but it’s not a mandate. My church isn’t asking me. My family is happy that I’m just present and normal. All of this is liberating. It gives me the space I need to make a real plan.
And one thing I’ve realized is that, yes, I actually do what to apply for seminary. But I want to do it in a sustainable and financially responsible way. In a way that brings life and joy to my family, and benefits my church. And so for now, I’m holding off on pushing the “submit” button on my application.
But I’m looking forward to the day when I get to do it.
- And as a side note, while I recognize that those who have earned a degree have a right to use the title that accompanies it, I have concerns over how I have seen how some people use their titles, which would lead me to avoid using it altogether. Others may and likely will disagree with me on that point.