There should be a compelling reason anyone would opt to spend more money on a graduate education when in many cases a good undergraduate degree can get you started off in a promising career. This is especially true for someone like myself, who managed to graduate college with zero debt by never taking out a student loan. However, eight years later, I now find myself laden with size-able, but not outrageous student loans to pay off.
In addition to the financial concerns tied to a graduate education, there should be an even more compelling reason to pursue the particular degree I pursued. Unlike a typical Master of the Arts degree (around 45-60 credit hours), the Master of Theology is 120 hours plus an internship and a thesis. In other words, it was four more years of school at an even harder level than undergraduate studies.
So, why did I go to seminary?
The short answer is I went to seminary because I knew I needed to pursue a specific call to develop my mind theologically and use that to build up the church once I left. In a certain sense, I didn’t go to seminary to get a degree to get a job, but went because it was the next step in my development as a disciple of Christ. Similarly, as I’m thinking of pursuing a Ph.D in the coming years, I’m also not necessarily doing so in order to get a better job but because it is the next step in my fulfilling my calling to develop my mind theologically and serve the church better.
That’s the short answer. Now, for the longer reflections.
When deciding whether or not to go to seminary, it is important to think through whether you’re going for personal development or job credentials. I primarily went for the former, but wanted the latter in order to teach, but not necessarily be a pastor. I learned on the other side of seminary though that on the job experience tends to trump degrees in the current church market, especially if we’re talking Acts 29. Networking plays a bigger part than I anticipated, and if I had it to do over, I would have tried to work in a local church the entire time I was in seminary.
Qualifications can actually be a double-edged sword. A couple of years ago I was exploring job options outside of the classroom and interviewed at a few churches. In both cases, being seminary trained worked against me. In one case, the head pastor wasn’t seminary trained and didn’t feel like he could work with someone like me (as in, someone who he felt knew more and might be divisive with that knowledge). In the other, I had the experience working with youth, and could clearly teach the Bible to them, but wasn’t “goofy” enough to be a youth pastor and there was a sense in which I’d be over-qualified for working with teenagers.
I say all this to point out the counterintuitive nature of many churches today where being seminary trained can almost be a liability rather than an asset. I think some of this might be a pendulum swing in reaction to prioritizing hiring pastors who had seminary credentials, but not necessarily 1 Timothy 3 credentials in character. My impression within our neck of the woods in Acts 29 is that existential 1 Timothy 3 credentials are more important than having a degree from seminary. That may very well be true, but it would be better to prioritize both instead of privileging one over the other.
Having said all this, I think the best practice would be to go to seminary for reasons like I did (it’s the next step in your discipleship) but have a plan for vocational issues on the other side. Going to seminary might not terminate in getting a job at a church, but if you feel that God is calling you to develop yourself in that way, it’s the right choice to make. You are preparing yourself better for full-time ministry one way or the other. By that I mean, as a Christian, you’re called to full-time ministry in the sense that you’re always a disciple on mission. However, you may not be doing that full-time ministry as a job. Some people will participate in full-time ministry as a means of supporting their family. Some people will support their family by other means, and in the process, continue to be a disciple on mission in their workplace and beyond. Seminary could prepare you well for either path, but it’s not as essential for those working outside the church or parachurch.
The trick then, is trying to figure out on the front end whether you’re ultimately pursuing vocational (paid) or non-vocational ministry. If it’s the latter, I would count the cost much more seriously. Or at the very least, it could be something you do by distance while continuing to work your full-time job. That brings us into a different question, “should I go to seminary?” which I’ll answer in the next post. I think I laid out well why I ended up going. And full disclosure, I don’t work at a church, and while I do teach, I didn’t need the Th.M to do so. It helps tremendously, but I would have been qualified to teach with just the bachelors degree that I have. There are some perks that come with being somewhat overprepared, but I’ll save that for a later post. In the meantime, I’d encourage you to think through why you want to go to seminary, and see if it is more pragmatic (I need the degree to get the job I want) or existential (I need to do this because I want to grow theologically). They are both good reasons, but you should know which one is you as you count the cost.