So you know how it goes—you hear an infomercial about the latest device that can chop pecans faster than any other pecan chopper on the market, and then you’re hanging out with friends and you discover you’re the only one who doesn’t have a pecan chopper; or, you sit down to listen to your favorite podcast and hear someone use a word you’ve never heard before and then you hear people using it all day long. Where have you been that you didn’t learn about the latest pecan chopper or this word everyone is using? Such was the case when I began considering how (or if) I would pursue religious education. Consistently avoiding answering a call to ordained ministry, I knew about several schools of higher education, but I didn’t pay much attention. Not for me. I had been a church musician and youth director for several years, but when I graduated from college it was all going to stop. I was going to get a real job. So I thought.
Gathered in the sanctuary of First United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas, for a service celebrating the ordination of elders in the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, the congregation began to sing the hymn, “Lord, You Give the Great Commission.” As a musician, gathered with more than a thousand other regular churchgoers who all think it is their duty to sing louder than the Christian on their right, I emphatically began singing these words: “Lord, you give the great commission: ‘Heal the sick and preach the Word.’ Lest the church neglect its mission, and the Gospel go unheard … With the Spirit’s gifts empower us for the work of ministry.” At some point, I stopped singing these words and began listening to the voices around me. No longer could I run from a call to ministry. Surrounded by more than a thousand voices, I could no longer run faster than the call to ministry. God’s Call was rounding the corner, and it was time to pass the baton on to the next portion of the race … seminary.
Should you consider joining the race, there are several things to think about related to religious education. Before we get specific, understand there are many different names used to describe institutions of religious education—seminaries, divinity schools, schools of theology, Bible colleges and others. Don’t let the name of a school put a hold on pursuing education. As Dr. Elaine A. Robinson, Academic Dean at St. Paul School of Theology at Oklahoma City University, recently pointed out to me, “Don’t split hairs!” Now that we’ve taken this trip down Nomenclature Avenue, here are some things to think about:
Consider your call. Our calls to ministry are presented in many forms. While some are called to order the daily life of the congregation and serve in a broad fashion as the principle leader of a congregation, others are called to specific areas of mission and service. For some, it will be important to receive extended study in areas like Bible, theology, evangelism and church administration. Others will find it necessary to complete a course of study specific to the ministry to which they are called. Either way, education will prove to be beneficial to the effectiveness of ministry. Many denominations have specific requirements for those who seek to be licensed or ordained to ministry within the church.
Denominational requirements. While some mainline Protesant denominations have rigorous requirements for those who seek to be licensed or ordained to ministry, some of the more “free” churches leave the choice of education up to you. Either way, there are many churches and denominations highly committed to giving you the opportunity to pursue higher education. As you explore these requirements, you will soon learn about seminaries available to you. Some of these seminaries will be graduate programs, many times offered as a part of the graduate programs offered through a university. Some of these seminaries will be independent schools specifically focused on providing a “Bible” education and oftentimes able to offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees. One of the most important things you will need to do is to research.
As you begin to research a seminary, first find out through which agencies they receive accreditation. You will need to make a decision whether or not you want to receive education from an institution that is accredited or not. Second, you should consider the mission of the school. You should not have to ask to read the mission of the college. Good print material about a seminary will include the mission of the school either explicitly by printing the mission or implicitly through information like pictures and statements from students. Does everyone at this seminary look the same? When they talk about the school, are they all saying the same thing? Does everyone think the same? While in seminary, I came to appreciate the great value in being surrounded by people who didn’t think like me or look like me. As you continue to explore the mission of the school, also determine what area of study for which the seminary is most known. Do they excel at teaching practical skills for ministry? Are they more devoted to teaching the Bible? Is this a seminary that assists with helping students explore a call to ministry and engages students in developing a deep sense of spirituality? Explore the curriculum of the seminary. Ask to see a degree plan and determine if this is a program that is right for you. Last, and of course this is not an exhaustive list of everything to consider, think about the location of the seminary. Will you need to move? Sometimes this can play a large role in choosing a seminary. Will you want to live close? Does the seminary have student housing? All of these are things you can research before you actually visit the seminary, but an actual visit is crucial.
Most schools will immediately invite you to come and visit. They will offer you the opportunity to talk to students and faculty, attend a classroom lecture and sometimes spend an evening if they have seminary student housing. I would suggest requesting to visit the seminary in an extended fashion. If you have the opportunity to spend the evening at the seminary, this will enable you to talk to more than just a few students. This will not only give you the opportunity to see if it’s a diverse community, but you’ll also get to hear some of the challenges they find with the seminary. Warning: If you think you’re going to find a seminary where “everything’s coming up roses,” think again. Seminaries are real institutions full of real people about the work of real reasearch and education. Visit as many people as you can, attend as many lectures as able and don’t be afraid to talk to professors. Think about it: You can’t really embarrass yourself. If you don’t like the school, you won’t have to go back. If you decide to attend, you will have already developed a relationship with a professor.
I remember the Sunday the senior pastor announced to the congregation that I had made the decision to attend seminary. Following church, a great couple in the church cornered me in the narthex and said, “Now when you get there, don’t let them steal your faith!” Steal my faith? Really? Contrary to what folks in the pew may think about seminary, it can be a great place of renewed and deepened faith. For me, this happened as everything I already believed was challenged and I was forced to either defend or widen my understanding. As you decide if you should attend a seminary, it should absolutely be a process grounded in prayer; but the praying doesn’t stop when you choose a seminary. Prayer is a spiritual discipline important to Christian living, and it is a necessity to religious education. Sometimes you will pray with your eyes tightly closed and not making a sound. Sometimes your prayers will be loud as your mind and heart are opened to new understanding. Sometimes your prayers will be expressed through papers written and books read. Hopefully your prayers will be full of movement and friendship as you build faithful relationships with other seminarians and, many times, their families. Whatever you do, pray—without ceasing!
M. Rhett Ansley is the chaplain and director of the School of Church Careers at Lon Morris College in Jacksonville, Texas.