I’m a new seminary graduate. I walked across the stage to receive my diploma just a few months ago. It was a wonderful day. Having that piece of paper on my wall signifies I’ve been formally trained for gospel ministry.
So what was I doing before I graduated? Pastoring a church.
I’ve been in vocational ministry for 12 years, 10 of those as a lead pastor. In this time, I’ve pastored two churches through challenging seasons—building projects, replants, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a couple of contentious political seasons.
I’m odd. For the average pastor in the West, seminary typically follows a sense of call to the ministry. After all, many denominational groups require seminary training before ordination. It’s rare for it to come a decade or more after ministry work has begun.
Why would a young man wait for seminary? Could this ever be a good idea? If you’re considering seminary, or thinking about going back for another degree, here are four reasons it may be worth waiting.
1. Your vision for ministry needs to mature.
I wasn’t a church kid. I was saved as an adult, and I didn’t have a paradigm for how to be a Christian, how church should work, or what pastors do. I began my ministry path on the traditional route by going to Bible college.
I’m odd. For the average pastor in the West, seminary typically follows a sense of call to the ministry. It’s rare for it to come a decade or more after ministry work has begun.
But when I got there, I struggled immensely. I hated it. I couldn’t understand how the seemingly frivolous theological discussions, the seemingly frivolous focus on grades, and the seemingly disconnected lecture material related to peoples’ need to see Christ. As I sat in class, I’d look out the window and think about how few of the people driving by knew Jesus. How will they hear about him while we’re here learning Greek?
I dropped out of Bible college to serve as an intern at a church, and during that time, I was discipled and learned about pastoral ministry. As I met with people and provided counsel and care, I began to see how the truths discussed in the seminary classroom could shine light into the darkness of personal suffering. After “growing up” in ministry work, I was finally able to appreciate the value of formal education for ministry.
2. Your character needs to mature.
Soon after I met Jesus, I moved back to my hometown. I had Christian friends, but I didn’t have deep relationships with pastors who were pouring (and peering) into my life. If they had been, I suspect they’d have told me to wait and mature before jumping into a full-time degree program.
Many aspiring seminarians I’ve met can relate. They’re missing a key piece of their application: a whole-hearted affirmation from their local church that they’re ready for seminary.
Seminary isn’t designed to disciple you in basic Christian maturity; that’s what the local church is for. Before you jump headfirst into higher education, take the time to grow in the local church under mature Christian leaders who can endorse your call and commit to walking with you through your time in school.
3. Your study habits need to grow.
When I was in Bible college, my Old Testament professor pulled me aside after a three-hour lecture and told me, “From now on, you should stand in the back of the class pacing with a stress ball in your hand.” I served in law enforcement before I went back to school, and it had been years since I’d been in a classroom environment. Sitting and listening to a three-hour lecture was rough.
Seminary isn’t designed to disciple you in basic Christian maturity; that’s what the local church is for.
You may love to read and study theology and church history, but a seminary course load can still be difficult to keep up with. When I first downloaded all the tools for Greek vocabulary, church history reading, and other subjects, it overwhelmed me. It was certainly too much for me when I started Bible college. Even later in life, after I’d gotten used to studying more as a pastor, I needed to grow in my capacity before I was ready to be a full-time seminary student.
4. You need to first count the cost for your family and ministry.
I’d planned to go back to school to complete my studies after finishing that internship, but when it was complete, the church called me into a pastoral role. As time passed, church and family responsibilities repeatedly stood in the way of more schooling. It wouldn’t have been right for me to sacrifice my marriage and family responsibilities to add the degree.
You must also count the cost for your church. Seminary is a years-long commitment of several hours of work per week. It’s OK to pump the brakes a bit and wait before committing to such a hectic degree program. It’s OK to admit that pursuing a new degree isn’t possible when you’re also planting, replanting, or dealing with relational difficulties in your church. Challenging ministry seasons require more from pastors and ministry leaders than seasons of normalcy. If you’re in a heavy ministry time, it may not be wise to give your spare time to a seminary degree. Shepherding and caring for your church and family are the higher priority.
Seminary is a good gift from God. If you can go to a biblically faithful seminary for theological and practical ministry training, you should. But first, count the cost. It may be that waiting or taking a nontraditional route by serving in a residency or internship is the best decision. Sometimes it’s better to wait so that you, your family, and the church you serve can get the best out of your seminary experience.