Dan Stringer

navigating the convergence of faith, culture and the common good

The one thing seminary will do for you

October 31, 2014

Arol Burns MallSay the word “seminary” and you might evoke strong opinions. To go or not to go? A worthwhile investment or a financial burden? Spiritually enriching or counterproductive? Is seminary an essential preparation step for pastors or has it become obsolete? Is XYZ seminary too liberal or too conservative? 

These are today’s juicy questions about seminary. But on another level, they miss the point. 

It sounds obvious, but seminary is not a surefire guarantee of financial payoff, professional advancement, spiritual growth or effectiveness in ministry. You can gain all of the above without going to seminary, and you may lack all of the above even with a seminary degree (or two).

If only I had a dollar for every time I heard a mock-Freudian slip of the “cemetery, er, seminary” variety. 

As a full-time seminary student who’s been around the church ministry block, I knew these criticisms going in. I didn’t come to seminary assuming it was a guarantee of mega-sized success. Like so many decisions in life, it was a risk.

It could be a total flop. 

So why did our family of four move 2,500 miles away from home for a seminary education? Why be so drastic? Technically speaking, we moved for not one, but two seminary educations (I won’t even pretend to tell my wife’s story). Even so, what was the point of it all? What am I expecting seminary to do for me?

In short, seminary isn’t a guarantee. It’s a season to grow.

I don’t believe God calls every pastor to seminary, but I know he called me here. I don’t believe seminary is the right path for everyone, but it was right for me. I don’t believe seminary delivers everything each student wants, but it’s delivering what I came for. [And I’m not just saying that because Fuller has palm trees.]

There are a million outcomes a seminary education cannot guarantee, but there’s one thing I am confident it does quite well: It takes you further than you would go without it. That’s really it. Personal growth. Seminary takes you further.

Notice I did not say further upward on a church pyramid (which it might), or further outward in your love for others (which it could). You don’t need seminary to climb a professional ladder or faithfully embody the teachings of Jesus. The primary direction seminary will take you is not up or out, but inward.

Quite frankly, the reading, writing, language study, discussion and reflection I’m currently doing would not be happening if I wasn’t a seminary student. I wouldn’t be putting in the time if I wasn’t invested financially, geographically, and vocationally. I’m the kind of person who needs structure to be at my best. Seminary offers that.

Similar to other kinds of school, seminary also helps refine a host of important life skills: critical thinking, time management, developing your own voice, asking good questions, and the list goes on. On top of that, seminary adds the layer of re-examining your deepest assumptions about God, church and the meaning of life.

Seminary is where you wrestle through the beliefs you own and those you don’t. As I said earlier, there’s a risk factor.

It’s not that the external benefits of seminary are insignificant. Credentialing, networking, credibility, and access to resources are all part of the picture.

That said, I believe the greater value of my education lies in what I am learning on the inside: how to think better, write better, listen better. By God’s grace, I’m improving at self care and navigating role conflict. These seeds will product fruit in all kinds of life situations, not just the workplace.

Also notice that I didn’t say seminary would take you further compared to others. There will always be people who accomplish more with less, but therein lies the trouble with making comparisons, especially external ones.

The goal of study isn’t getting ahead of the next person, but increasing your own attentiveness to God’s Spirit working in ways previously off your radar. It’s about knowing your own blind spots and biases so you can go further and deeper than you’ve gone before.

I used to think it was selfish to work on your own personal development and spiritual formation instead of attending to others’ needs. Actually, it’s more selfish to assume I can be helpful to others without first paying attention to my own issues and working to address them.

Going to seminary doesn’t guarantee employment post-graduation. It doesn’t guarantee that your church plant will go mega. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll win friends and influence people.

It doesn’t even guarantee that you’ll figure out your theological stances, denominational identity, or vocational path. Going to seminary certainly does not guarantee greater faith, hope or love.

But it does take you further.