Making the Decision to Go to Seminary: Six Considerations Before Going


They inevitably find their way into my office, excited about God’s calling on their lives. I’ve had several conversations with people wanting advice about attending a seminary (or a similar institution). God has called them to ministry. They feel seminary will add clarity to this calling. 

Perhaps. But before a seminary education can help with a calling, one must have a clear plan for seminary. After working through the spiritual aspect of someone’s calling, I typically offer practical advice. Though each person is different, I’ve summarized the highlights of what to do before deciding to enroll in seminary.

First, a seminary education is helpful but not necessary. You do not need a degree on the wall to minister to others. In fact, a healthy church trains good ministers from within, providing practical ministry experience with a solid theological foundation. Seminary can add to this training, but a formal education need not replace it. There are also other options like Church Answers University, which is a faster, more attainable, and less expensive way to receive theological education and practical ministry training (and your books are included in the price!).

If you still feel led to attend seminary, get a secular degree and a job first. I typically give this advice to young men and women in high school or college. Does God call some straight from high school to a Bible college and then to a church? Sure. Is it better to obtain a secular degree and begin honing relational skills in the workforce? I believe so for most people. Of course, many students balance this approach by getting a secular degree (such as finance) at a Christian university, which is a good option. The hard reality for many without experience in the secular workforce is difficulty connecting with people in the 9 to 5 grind (or is it 5 to 9?). A secular job not only allows someone to work through seminary, but it also forces future church leaders to interact with lost people in a workplace setting. Additionally, secular job experience gives you credibility within your congregation when you counsel them about busy schedules, bad bosses, getting fired, etc.

Regardless of when you attend seminary, start serving a local church immediately. The seminary is not a theological cocoon, slowly developing future leaders into beautiful, delicate pastoral butterflies. Ministering in a local church is messy, complicated, and relational—it involves a lot more time with people than books. You’ll never read your way to becoming a good pastor or church leader. If you’re called, then start serving now. And if you’re not willing to serve now, you’re not called.

Before you sign up for the first semester, understand your financial limitations. Ministry is more rewarding than I ever imagined—just not financially. Do not carry a load of crushing debt into your first (or second, or third) place of service. You will never freely minister while chained to massive student loans. Work days and attend night classes. Swallow your pride and be willing to receive help. It simply does not make sense to commandeer your actual ministry with a debt load that came from your ministry training.

Additionally, weigh your seminary options. With numerous programs, locations, and degrees, most likely, a seminary education exists to benefit your particular calling. Understanding what God has called you to do will help you be efficient in the classes you take. For instance, if you know God is not calling you to teach full-time, then the classes you take will be different from those whom God is leading to be Hebrew scholars.

Lastly, take the path of least resistance with the most challenging professors. Get done quickly. Pick an educational track that best matches your area of calling and can be completed in the shortest time possible. In other words, take as few classes as necessary. But in these classes, select the most challenging professors. It is better to take fewer, more intense classes than it is to fill a bunch of degree hours with easier classes. Your GPA may be lower, but your mind will be sharper.

Posted on August 30, 2023

As President of Church Answers, Sam Rainer wears many hats. From podcast co-host to full-time Pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church, Sam’s heart for ministry and revitalization are evident in all he does.
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  • Bob Myers says on

    Insightful and wise post, Sam. I do wonder about “healthy churches offering practical ministry experience with a solid theological foundation.” It’s a wonderful ideal, but I don’t know that I have seen many churches offering the systematic teaching and reflection one would find in the curriculum of a formal program. I think someone called to ministry needs some sort of formal training – though not necessarily seminary.

    Your idea about getting a secular job first is VERY insightful on many points. I would only add that I have advised many going into ministry to have a “fall-back” career if things go south in your ministry context and you still need to support your family. Having that sort of option will give the minister much more freedom.

    Finally, as with Church Answers University, there are many programs now available virtually/online. You lose something significant if the education is not in-person. But the online options are still very formative and useful – and almost always much more affordable.

    Good advice.

    • Sam Rainer says on

      Bob, you always provide thoughtful insight. Thank you! I completely agree with you about in-person education. CAU and others are there to help fill a gap, not be a complete replacement for a more formal program.

    • Bob, at least in some places in my tradition (Episcopal), there is an evolving path to theological education which includes online classwork during a school year followed by intensive in-person training and practical work. There is a lot one can garner academically online, but ministry is not simply academics. While it isn’t my first choice, I know friends who are pursuing their theological education that way. I really think it works well in some cases.

      Likewise, while I don’t care for the “fall back” distinction, one should always have some skills besides the ones for the current profession/career. As many pastors can attest, institutional ministry can chew a person up and spit them out. But real ministry and life changing happens more frequently in the day-to-day workplace.

      • Bob Myers says on

        In some of the regions of my denomination, American Baptists, there are some programs that provide an alternative pathway to ordination. There is a general curriculum – tracks to run on – but the aspiring minister must pursue those courses within the curriculum (except for a few specific denominational seminars) with other providers. Some sources are seminaries. Church Answers University would be a very good source as well. One person that I mentored through ordination got her courses through a ministry related to Our Daily Bread. The ordination is good within the region and has been especially effective for “second career” ministry candidates. I think we’ll see more and more alternatives to ordination in denominations in the coming years.

        I taught on the undergraduate level in Christian ministry for five years and several other gigs as an adjunct in seminaries. I have always believed that ministry students must have a place of ministry to go along with their academic endeavors. My undergraduate ministry department didn’t formally require it, but every student who took one of my classes were required to have a place of ministry. It is a big mistake not to require hands-on ministry while pursuing studies. Fortunately, I believe most academic institutions understand that principle.

  • David J. McCarty says on

    I have been in Pastoral Ministry for 9 years. I went to the Seminary at 55 and did all of my academics in two years of intense study. After that I was sent into a congregation in Michigan to do a convertible vicarage which entailed Word and Sacrament ministry. I was called by the congregation to stay. I was ordained and then installed as the congregations Pastor. I truly believe my life experiences and 25+ years of experience in church lay ministry helped me considerably over the years as a Pastor.