5 Common Misconceptions about Seminary
Since starting seminary about year and a half ago, I’ve picked up on some common misperceptions people have about it. For whatever reason, the ones I’ve encountered repeatedly started running through my mind recently…and I realized that it was worth writing about, in hopes of dispelling some of these widely believed myths.
Misconception #1: Everyone who goes to seminary wants to be a “preacher.”
This is probably the response I hear the most often when someone hears about what I’m studying. The conversation usually goes something like this:
“Oh, what are you in grad school for?”
“Well, I’m in seminary…”
And before I even have the chance to elaborate comes the reply,
“Oh! You want to be a preacher?!”
Then I take a few minutes to clarify the different capacities in which one can serve and minister, depending on which particular seminary degree one chooses to pursue. This preacher response cracks me up – first of all, because “preacher” isn’t a term I tend to use. I usually say “pastor,” “speaker,” “minister,” etc. Not that anything is wrong with saying “preacher.” It’s just never been a term that I’ve used. I do think the term is too narrow of a description of what various ministers actually do. Preaching/speaking might be a regular part of their ministry, but studying, writing, serving people in tons of practical ways, counseling, administration, and many other tasks are also important parts of ministry.
Among my seminary classmates, there are equal numbers of people pursuing teaching, writing, and general ministry with their seminary degrees as there are people pursuing the stereotypical pastor (“preacher”) role. I happen to fall into the teaching-writing-general ministry category. God might surprise me, but I personally have no aspirations of being a pastor or even associate pastor of a church. My heart is in the college sector. I am very drawn to college chaplaincy, teaching on the college level, and writing in general. I also know some seminary students who are pursuing their degrees simply for a deeper understanding of their faith and in order to be better equipped to engage in effective conversation with non-Christians in their spheres of influence.
All of these various aspirations are valid, well-represented reasons for attending seminary.
Misconception #2: Women don’t belong in seminary.
I won’t go into my full treatise here. 🙂 In a nutshell, women holding leadership roles in the church and in ministry in general is a precedent set in both the Old and New Testaments. In fact, one of the most emphatic statements about God’s heart toward women leaders/ministers is found in John 20:11-18. The Resurrected Christ chose to reveal Himself FIRST to a woman – and in a culture that kept women in an extremely subordinate role to men. If this weren’t enough already, He also instructed her to go tell His brothers (the MALE disciples) the good news of His resurrection. The Resurrected Christ is the message of the Gospel; Jesus entrusted that universe-shaking message first to a woman and instructed her to share it with others, namely, men. This eliminates any room for a mindset that will allow women a tiny morsel of ministry opportunity (bake sales and stuffing newsletters) but asserts that they can’t teach or preach (or if they do, it can only be to children or other women…it’s amazing the rules people come up with!).
The fuller treatment of this topic is in my paper, but bottom line: women absolutely have a place in seminary. This is part of the reason why I chose to pursue my seminary education at Gordon-Conwell. It’s an interdenominational school that recognizes the important leadership roles women play in ministry. Most seminaries are full of white, middle class men. One that I considered before Gordon-Conwell fit this description precisely. But at Gordon-Conwell, women have a strong presence. And not just white women. African Americans, Asians, and many other nationalities and ethnicities are well represented. I absolutely LOVE that! It’s a picture of what heaven is going to be like: a beautifully diverse assembly of the redeemed – with none of these man-made, arbitrary segregations that so often plague earthly institutions.
Misconception #3: Seminary is like an ongoing church service or Bible study and is not academically demanding.
This one makes me laugh every time! No one would actually say this out loud, but over time it’s become easy to tell when this is someone’s perception of seminary. Half of the general population has no idea what seminary is; and most of the ones who have a roundabout idea of what it is picture us constantly praying over one another, singing songs, and talking about what a Scripture “spoke to our heart.”
[Insert the Family Feud buzzer sound here!] That is not at all what seminary is like! While we (and I can only speak for GC) do stress our individual relationships with God, prayer, and encouragement, we also are constantly being pushed out of our comfort zone academically. Master of Divinity students in our program spend five semesters on Greek and five on Hebrew. That alone is practically a full time job. Learning ancient languages isn’t quite like singing a worship song. And the ten semesters (four of which can overlap) spent on ancient languages is just one part of the M. Div program. We are also being trained in the areas of theology, world religions, practical ministry issues, leadership, church history, missions, social class-related issues, primary source research (what I’m diving into this summer) for Old and New Testaments, exegesis of the Scriptures, and the list goes on and on and on. And besides writing papers, etc., each course has an average of 2,000 pages of reading per semester.
I list all of these things simply to illustrate the point that three classes per semester is easily a forty hour a week job. So when some people have looked at me with a puzzled face when I say that I transitioned out of full time work to do seminary, it’s obvious to me that they have no idea how demanding it is. I am a rare seminary student in that I am, for the most part, solely focusing on full time school. Most of my classmates have children and full time jobs, besides ministry responsibilities. Those students tend to take between five and ten years to finish an M. Div degree (which is a three year degree if you take a full load year-round). I am tremendously blessed to be in the position I am – having a completely supportive husband, no children, and the freedom to pursue school full time.
Misconception #4: Seminary is THE qualifying factor for ministry – anyone without an accredited seminary degree would be a second-tier minister.
Nothing could be further from the truth! Above all, a pure and passionate heart for God is the central “qualifier” for ministry. Seminary definitely has its place, and I would encourage every believer to pursue theological education of some sort. But seminary can’t anoint someone for ministry any more than listening to Hillsong everyday can make someone an awesome worship leader. These types of gifts and callings are birthed through a living, breathing relationship with God, not through academic degrees. An academic degree can sharpen gifts that are already present and can establish a firm foundation of knowledge to better equip one for ministry. In increasing a person’s knowledge base, it can also increase his/her validity and influence in non-Christian academic conversations, as well as among other Christians who simply can’t articulate their faith the way the educated person can. Clearly, seminary can be a huge asset to a person whose heart is already on fire for God. It adds knowledge to his/her zeal (Proverbs 19:2).
But if someone enters seminary without passion for God, they probably won’t have passion once they graduate either. If they enter as a terrible speaker, they will probably still be a terrible speaker when they finish. If their fire wasn’t burning for God before they started, it isn’t going to magically ignite while they attend classes. The call to ministry is about the heart and about one’s ongoing connection to God. It is for this very reason that so many “seminary graduate” pastors are as dead as a door nail. You can have all the degrees you want and still be unable to hear God’s voice, still not have any revelation of the Father’s heart, and still live with a hard heart. I’ve seen people like this. It’s very sad. And what is sadder is that lots of churches would still pick the person with the degree over the person with the right heart.
On the flip side, there is also a stream within the church that sees seminary as dubious altogether. These people are on the opposite end of the spectrum from the degree-obsessed Christians. Those who look on seminary with suspicion are often the flaky Pentecostal type. They say things like “Don’t go to seminary. You’ll lose the anointing.” The reason they probably say this is because of the phenomenon I was talking about earlier: seminary educated ministers who have completely intellectualized their faith and give every indication that they are spiritually dead. While there are certainly “dead” seminary graduates out there, there are also passionately alive ones. The being dead or being alive goes back to the heart, not to seminary. So I certainly don’t agree with this opposite take on seminary education, either.
Misconception #5: You can check your discernment at the door in seminary; any good, Christian school is going to teach sound Biblical truth.
Yikes! It’s alarming to me how many Christians drink freely from any well they come across that calls itself “Christian.” Here’s a newsflash: only God gets it right 100% of the time. Any leader we ever listen to and any writer we ever read sees IN PART (I Cor. 13:9). That means that everything our pastor says needs to be weighed in with God’s Word, and every book we read needs to be read with alertness. God didn’t tell us to guard our hearts and our minds for no reason! We must be on guard because we are constantly being exposed to “second hand” information about God. Why would it be any different in seminary? It doesn’t matter how well a professor knows an ancient language; he does NOT have the monopoly on Truth!
I am so thankful that I went into seminary with this guardedness. It has served me well. I have had more than one experience in which I intentionally disengaged with what a professor was saying because I knew it to be untrue of God’s character. One such example had to do with sickness. This particular professor is a serious Calvinist (not to say that all Calvinists would agree with him on this point) and, to be quite honest, has a very twisted understanding of God’s goodness and how it manifests. He believes that God intentionally gives people sicknesses to accomplish purposes such as teaching them something, getting glory in some mysterious way, etc. People of his mind love to go to the scripture in Isaiah that says His ways are not our ways, as if that verse leads to an inevitable conclusion that “good” completely loses its meaning and actually means “terrible,” “sick,” or “evil” as it relates to God’s “goodness.” This kind of theology makes me sick to my stomach! An underlying message is sent, in discussions like this one, that God does not delight in doing good, joyous things in and through our lives – rather, He just wants to put us through trials to teach and humble us. He does not delight in victories or breakthroughs in our lives, or in anything else that brings us joy for that matter; He basically just wants to give everyone cancer or at least put them in their place through correction of some sort. This does not at all reflect the God revealed in the Bible! In seminary, as in every other place in this fallen world, we need to be armed with Spirit-led discernment. Chew up the meat; spit out the bones!