Choosing a seminary is no small decision, because it will be a significant investment of your life. It will take years, it will cost tens of thousands of dollars, and it will be challenging. Take careful time and thought in making your choice.
The first thing to remember is that seminary is not an end in itself. It is a means to prepare you for ministry. So right at the beginning, ask yourself: what kind of ministry will I be doing? Even if you’re not entirely certain, your plans for future ministry will influence which seminary might be the best choice for you.
Here are several factors to consider as you’re choosing a seminary, some much more important (doctrine) than others (special programs).
Denomination. What denomination do you expect to serve in? If you’re committed to serve a particular brand of church, start with their seminaries. Southern Baptist students will probably gravitate to one of the six SBC seminaries. PCA students, to Covenant in St. Louis or RTS in Jackson or Orlando. If you aren’t tied to a particular denomination, or will be working in parachurch movements, you will have more options.
Doctrine. Seminaries vary in their doctrine, so know your seminary’s confessional position before you go. Seminary provides a credential for your resume that will label you as being one of “their kind” of students. It is of course possible to be a liberal student at a conservative school, or vice versa, but if you want to establish conservative credentials, for instance, going to a liberal school might work against you.
Faculty. The quality of instruction at a seminary is directly linked to the quality of the faculty. Some seminaries are loaded with well-known, published scholars. Others have credentialed but unknown professors. Is there someone you absolutely want to study with? Keep in mind, however, that reputation is not an entirely reliable guide. A professor whose academic work is highly respected may be crummy in the classroom. Some of the most able teachers might be people you’ve never heard of.
Culture. Every seminary has its own culture and emphasis. What are the schools you’re considering known for? Academic theology? Apologetics? Mission and evangelism? Social engagement?
Location. One downside of residential seminaries is that often you must move to a new city, and leave the region that you intend to serve in upon graduation. This separation can last for years, disconnecting you from the local culture, ministry network, or family relationships where you live now. Consider local options before you move across the country.
Cost. How much does it cost? This is a critically important consideration, because ministry jobs do not pay very well, and student loans can be a serious financial millstone around your neck. Many prospective seminary students already have significant debt from their undergraduate work.
We called several seminaries and asked them to approximate the expense of earning degree with them. This information turned out to be difficult to find. Websites were unhelpful, and some admissions departments were evasive. Our investigation found that the average tuition for a Master of Divinity from a reputable, accredited, evangelical seminary in 2017 is around $50,000. Some are higher.
The cost of seminary has soared along with all other higher education. Even after adjusting for inflation, that figure is around 40% higher than the same program a generation ago. Keep in mind, too, that this figure is for tuition only—it does not include books, fees or other expenses.
Some denominational seminaries offer large discounts to students from that denomination, as much as 50% or more, which is a significant advantage. A few seminaries with large endowments even offer tuition-free seminary.
Before you rush to apply, however, consider other factors, like the doctrine and culture of the school. In terms of your final ministry goal, a free M.Div from a seminary outside your confession might be an obstacle to hiring rather than a boon. Some of these free programs come from declining denominations desperate for a new generation of leaders. Also, some free “seminary” programs are not accredited. They may not meet the same academic standards, and may not be recognized as a legitimate credential. Investigate carefully before enrolling.
Special programs. Some seminaries may offer special concentrations not available in other places: urban ministry, cross-cultural missions, women’s ministry, leadership, etc.
Availability of jobs. A seminary in a small town may not provide the kind of employment opportunities you need to support yourself as easily as other locations. Ask if your seminary has any special relationships with local employers.
Online seminary or distance options. Nearly every seminary has online or distance options now. Some seminaries have regional satellite locations where you can attend class without moving, or offer modular courses where you only go to campus for one or two week intensives. Online classes can be a good choice, if you have the kind of discipline necessary to study where you are. Some students do better when they are in the physical environment of seminary.
Online or distance options open up more employment possibilities, too. You might be able to earn more money at a local business or church ministry position than working part-time at UPS or Starbucks in a new town. Online seminary can also move with you from town to town. If you have a job that requires travel, or are doing ministry already in a remote location, online seminary might be a good choice.
Alternatives to seminary. Look for local churches that have residency programs for pastors or church planters. Though these can’t be found just anywhere, seminaries are increasingly partnering with churches to provide credit for church-based ministry training. These programs can cost significantly less than residential seminaries.
Pray. “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” Proverbs 16:9. God knows your future far better than you. Ask him. Like a good shepherd, you can expect that he will guide you right. Depend on it.
Mark Warnock is the editor of seminarysurvivalguide.com.
This is a draft chapter from The Complete Seminary Survival Guide, forthcoming Fall of 2017.