By Joel Rainey
In just a few short decades, nearly everything about vocational ministry has experienced radical change, and theological education is no different.
In my early seminary days, there was essentially one way to earn a degree. You’d quit your job, relocate your family, and complete a classical, residential graduate degree.
By the time the ink was dry on my Ph.D., multiple educational delivery systems were beginning to emerge. This opened up the possibility of formal ministry training for a wide range of folks for whom moving wasn’t an option.
I’ve been on all sides of theological education. I’ve been a student, a seminary professor, and a sending pastor. Generally speaking, the changes I’ve witnessed are positive steps toward educating as many as possible for the Lord’s service.
However, these changes prompt many questions from men and women in my congregation who want to further their theological and ministry training.
Is the online approach the best merely because it’s the easiest? Is a hybrid approach best? Should I really pack everything up and move near a physical campus?
My experience makes me partial to the traditional, on-campus delivery system. I can’t say for sure what decision I’d make had the options available today been available to me then.
But I can say I wouldn’t trade anything for the years spent on campus. Nevertheless, I understand both options and the potential of today’s varied approaches to ministry training.
How should leaders advise those seeking vocational ministry training in this age? Each conversation I’ve had is different. However, there are five questions I ask to help each one decide how they should prepare themselves for ministry.
So whether you’re a potential student called to ministry, or a pastor counseling such an individual, I hope you’ll find these questions helpful.
1. What’s Your Goal?
When someone expresses a desire for formal ministry training, I want to know why. The answers will differ, but a common value in those answers should be a desire for greater competency in serving the local church.
One of my undergraduate professors was a local businessman who had no desire or calling to be a pastor. But his life circumstances allowed him the luxury to complete both an M.Div. and a Ph.D.
He did it because, in his own words, “I wanted to be a better Sunday School teacher.” He did, of course, become a better Sunday School teacher—and much more!
When considering your options in theological education, make sure the one you choose matches your goals. But make sure your goals align with tangible service to the church. Neither seminaries nor seminary students have any reason to exist without the church.
2. What’s Your Age and Life Stage?
For the most part, if you’re still in your 20s, unmarried, or married but with no children, my answer is pretty simple—pack up your stuff and move!
I’d say the same thing to an empty-nest couple in their 60s, and for the same reason—you don’t have a lot keeping you where you are. Take advantage of this advantageous stage of life to learn face to face from some of the best Biblical scholars on the continent.
Conversely, the more responsibilities you currently have, the more likely it is that an online or hybrid option might be best. But don’t merely dismiss an on-campus opportunity just because there are other, easier delivery systems.
3. What’s your local church status?
When I first left for seminary, I left behind a congregation I was serving as a staff member. That decision came after almost a year of prayer and conversation with people who loved me—including my senior pastor.
Sometimes, the Lord calls His servants away from congregations and toward an institution of higher learning. Other times, He tells you to stay put because you still have work to do.
Since theological education is first and foremost for the benefit of the church, the local church should always come before the seminary. So spend some time in prayer seeking to discern His will here.
If He tells you to stay, put the people of God ahead of your aspirations. If He releases you, the church will go on without you. And though you may not hold the same position, there’ll be an opportunity to serve another congregation where you’re going.
4. Between isolation and pragmatism, which is your most besetting sin?
Some of the best advice I ever received from a seminary professor shocked me. I’d known this man for many years, was well-acquainted with the caliber of his scholarship and commitment to excellence, and had heard him many times stress the importance of taking that scholarship with you into the pulpit—undergirded by hours of study.
But as I was preparing for my first pastorate, his advice seemed to change course. “Make sure you are ready to preach but spend most of your time in homes, out in gardens helping the older folks bring in their vegetables…spend your time with the people. Make your top priority getting to know them.” He was right.
For some called to ministry, there’s a temptation to stay in the study. If this is you, a three-year sequester on a seminary campus might just ruin your ministry. Not because seminary is bad, but because you’ll be prone to make it into an ivory tower from which you never escape, even when you enter vocational ministry.
For others, pragmatism is the stronger temptation. You love people. You want to serve them, and for you, theological education isn’t important.
The problem is, those people you love are never served well by someone who’s always looking for a way to cut a corner when it comes to preparation. A traditional, on-campus residency program might be what you need to give you an adequate level of discipline.
5. What’s your calling?
Of course, the most important question is, what’s God calling you to do? These questions serve as helpful guides in discerning the Lord’s will, but in the end, there’s no better way than to simply ask the Lord, “What do you want me to do?”
Whatever His answer is to that question, make sure your response is, “Yes!”
JOEL RAINEY (@joelrainey) is Lead Pastor of Covenant Church in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. He’s husband to Amy, father of three, serves on the adjunct faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, is the author of four books, and blogs at Themelios.