Seminary is Hard

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Editor’s note: This post is the introductory chapter from The Complete Seminary Survival Guide by Mark Warnock.

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Seminary is hard.

Seminary is hard academically. A Master’s level education in theology, biblical studies and ministry is no cake walk. Compared to your undergraduate program, the reading load is heavier, the writing demands are greater, and the thinking required is more difficult and abstract.

Seminary is hard financially. The cost of higher education has skyrocketed in recent decades, and sadly, seminary is no exception. Additionally, most seminary students are young adults. Many are married, and quite a few have kids. Available jobs for seminarians don’t typically pay much, and financial aid is scarce.

Seminary is hard relationally. If you move any distance to start seminary, the chances are that you will arrive with no friends or family nearby. You will be missing a big part of your relational support network. Rebuilding a new support network from scratch will take considerable time—time you are unlikely to have because of the crazy time demands of working while pursuing graduate study. Many seminary students struggle to find time just for the basic stuff of life: time with their spouses and children, time with God, time to just breathe! Where will you find time to building lasting relationships outside of your immediate family?

Seminary is hard spiritually. You come to seminary because you love God and want to serve him. You want to know the Bible better and be equipped. Studying the New Testament for class, however, is different from studying with a campus ministry group. The joy of discovering truth can fade under the weight of technical academic work.

Seminary will probably not be what you expect. Some students expect a three-year spiritual high, like a Passion Conference or revival meeting, and are disappointed when seminary turns out to be spiritually dull at times. Some expect close, fatherly mentoring from attentive professors. A few find that; most don’t. Some expect an intellectual feast, course after course of sumptuous theological fare. It’s a feast all right, but your part is to work like a prep cook in a hot kitchen, not sit at the table and enjoy.

Seminary might be the most demanding season of an aspiring minister’s life.

In 2007, I started SeminarySurvivalGuide.com because there were several young men in my congregation who were called to ministry. My pastor and I had to repeat the same counsel to each of them about calling, ministry preparation, and the ins and outs of seminary. After posting regularly for about three years, I had said what I needed to say, and left the site inactive and almost untouched while I returned to seminary for doctoral study.

Since that time, I have been astonished by the enduring appeal of an inactive site, as each month hundreds of visitors still browse and read through old articles. That interest prompted me to collect the most helpful material, revise it, and put it into book form.

I write as a seminary survivor, having earned both my M.Div. and Ph.D. from highly regarded evangelical seminaries. I loved seminary and greatly benefitted from my time there. My enthusiasm for seminary is tempered, however, by the experience of over twenty years in local church ministry, which, to be honest, has made me something of a pragmatist. I also teach at a Christian college, and train church planters out of a church-based residency program. As a result, I have been able to see seminary from three distinct perspectives: that of a pastor, a professor, and a student. Out of these experiences, I have reflected on how and to what degree seminary really prepares you for ministry.

I am joined in this book by Tyler Wright, coauthor of Millennials and Money. Tyler works in the financial services industry and knows how money works. His four-chapter contribution to this book pulls no punches. Students would be wise to heed his counsel carefully.

Think of this book like a travel guide, a Fodor’s or Lonely Planet handbook to seminary. It points out the highlights and must-see elements, steers you away from dangerous areas, and, most importantly, advises you on how to get the most out of the experience. I intentionally challenge conventional wisdom and take provocative stances, not because my ideas are always right or best, but because I want to challenge your thinking and stir you to find solutions that work for you.

Most of all, however, I want you to survive seminary. The church desperately needs more godly, qualified leaders. Seminary is a daunting hurdle for those preparing for ministry, and is almost never what you expect. I want to help you get through with your ministry, your family, your finances, and your soul intact.

Seminary is a gift, a rare opportunity that many people in the world never get. Make the most of it.

“Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16, NIV).

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