The Fit Finder: How to Choose the Seminary that is Right for You

09/30/2016 12:56 am ET
Bethany Theological Seminary
Bethany Theological Seminary
Bethany Theological Seminary

There are a lot of misconceptions about seminary. One is that all schools are essentially the same. I’m asked with some regularity whether “seminary is seminary.” In fact, seminaries are as unique as the students who attend them.

Another misconception I encounter is that the prestige of a name is what matters.

I was talking to a recent seminary grad the other day about this issue. She told me that when she was looking at programs, her college advisor told her to “go Ivy or don’t go.” It’s true that Harvard and Yale (the only two "Ivy League" Universities that have divinity schools) are excellent schools, but to advise someone that they are the only two worth considering is, well, bad advice. Seminaries and Divinity schools offer a richness of diversity not found elsewhere in graduate school education. Schools range from denominationally based to interfaith, conservative to liberal. They can be rural, urban, residential, on line, hybrids, and offer a rage programs from a one year masters to multi-year PhD.

In the world of college admissions, the theory is to apply to a “reach” and a “safety” school, and then choose the one with the highest ranking. This unfortunate practice often fails to take into account a number of important factors that play a role in fit, and should not be repeated when applying to graduate school. It is the reason that Seminaries that Change the World does not "rank" seminaries, but instead lifts up an array of schools with varied reputations and a diversity of admission requirements.

Perhaps the most important question to ask once you’ve stared thinking about seminary is “what is the right fit?” To help you in that process, we’ve provided some insights about what questions you should ask (mostly things we wished we’d asked), and things to look out for. Deciding where to go to seminary is as personal and as important as the decision to consider it. More than likely you, the reader, have already thought of all these questions before. In that case, the "fit finder" is meant to affirm your inquiry and to "second" your feelings of what is right for you.

Don’t just assume a Masters in Divinity (M.Div.) is the right degree For years, that standard bearer for theological education has been the Masters of Divinity, traditionally a three-year full-time residential program. The M.Div. is required for most students seeking ordination in particular denominations.  But it might not be the best fit for everyone. Look at the wide array of master’s programs out there. Don’t chose the M.Div. because you think you should or because of its "prestige.”

Consider a joint-degree In recent years, many schools have developed joint degrees with programs including law (J.D.), business (MBA), non-profit management, public policy, and social work, to name a few. In a world of unpredictable economies and job markets, having a joint degree may well provide you with the unique kind of job skills and open opportunities you were looking and working for.

Know what you care about, and pursue your social justice issue If you are involved or deeply interested in a particular social issue (prison reform, immigration, environmental stewardship, domestic violence, etc.) inquire as to what courses, programs and connections exist that relate to that issue. Can you do your field education placement at a non-profit that deals with this issue? Does the school or its affiliates offer courses that deal with theological or pastoral responses to the issue? Is the school partnered with any organizations dedicated to the issue? Working with non-profits and other community organizations can also help with your discernment and develop skills that aren’t necessarily focused on in traditional seminary curriculum, but that could prove crucial in your post-seminary job search.

Look at a school’s Field Education programs One of the best things about theological education is the commitment to integrate study and practice. Field education (also known as contextual education) can and should be a rewarding and defining experience. Take a good look at the opportunities that a school offers in this area. Does the school offer internships with organizations or causes you care about? Can you tailor your experience to the path you plan to take after seminary? Will you have the opportunity to intern/serve in a variety of contexts (think non-profit, church, community organization)?

Consider Geography Basing your decision about where to go to seminary on location is a legitimate thing to do. Schools are not merely located in communities; they are part of the community. When you become a student, you also become a neighbor. If location is driving your school choice because of the activity that is going on in the community, make sure that the school either has strong ties with community partners, or is prepared to support you in building them.

Interfaith and Intercultural Competencies Whatever your theology and politics, whether you’re interested in traditional parish ministry, chaplaincy, social work or non-profit management, interfaith and intercultural awareness and competencies are important. Research what courses there are about other religions and cultures. Ask how your education will prepare you to live, serve and lead in a multi faith world. Ask: Does the school invite leaders of other faiths and beliefs to speak and teach? Does it serve communities of people of different faiths, race and culture other than your own? Is there January terms, study trips, or other opportunities for you to learn and develop meaningful relationships in a cross-cultural setting?

Feel out the culture Every seminary has its own unique culture. Culture is influenced by things like where students live, eat, study, and work. Do you want a residential campus where there is robust campus life? Or do you see your self commuting in and out and focusing your community life elsewhere?

Check in with current students It might be nice to hear from your college advisors and old alum about what the school as like ten, twenty or thirty years ago, but that won’t mean much as it relates to what you will experience.  It’s more than OK to reach out to current students and recent graduates to ask about their experience. Every seminary student or recent alum I know would welcome an inquiry and will give it to you straight.

If you can, keep your job Increasingly, individuals who are working in the world are seeking programs that offer flexible schedules, online or on-site intensive courses. If you (or your partner/spouse) are already established in a career or ministry that’s enjoyable and pays the bills, think carefully before you uproot and move to a new place to go to school.  It is possible to go to school full time while you are working full time. Explore programs that offer online courses, or allow you to spread your courses out over a longer period of time. It may be possible to have your cake and eat it to … you just may not have time to eat it.

Life after you graduate – i.e.: finding a job Unless you are flush with cash, you are going to need to get a paying job once you graduate from seminary. Ask: What kind of jobs are recent graduates doing? How many students leave school with jobs? Although it is up to you to make your own way, it is worth asking up-front what might come next, rather than waiting until the end and wishing you had.

Beware of debt Debt matters. It is a bad idea to choose a school just because of money, but cost has to be a factor when deciding if and where to go to school. While you shouldn’t go to a school just because it offered you the most money (we’ve met some pretty miserable people who found themselves stuck and uninspired when they chose a school they knew wasn’t the right fit just because it was “free”), you also shouldn’t go to your “dream school” regardless of what it costs. Do the math. Do it again. Don’t take on more debt than you’ll be able to reasonably manage once you’re done. 

Get comfortable with discomfort Just remember, if you go to seminary, you’re not doing it to be comfortable. The goal is to be challenged, to grow, and to better serve the world. If that is not what you are looking for, don’t go. 

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