Thanks for writing back. I’m very glad to be able to talk more about your growing sense of being called to ministry.
You had a great insight when you said that you are actually feeling called to seminary.
You are right: you still have plenty of time to think about whether you want to seek ordination.
And even if you never work in a church, a deeper knowledge of the Bible, theology, ministry, and mission is a great foundation for all the other ministry your life will hold.
At this point you might expect me to be fanning the flames of your dream, and connecting you with the admissions office at the seminary where I teach.
Not so fast, my friend.
I have seen a lot of people start seminary too soon.
- Some come after a life-changing conversion; they can’t figure how else to be faithful to that new passion.
- More often, long-time Christians come to seminary without some of the most basic kinds of preparation.
Some say that a few generations back seminaries could assume new students would already be well-steeped in Christian teachings and practices.
That is what a lifetime in a healthy church ought to provide, right?
- knowledge of Scripture and the basic shape of the faith
- good habits of prayer and Bible reading
- some growth in Christian character
Now? Not so much. Many Christians begin the journey toward vocational ministry with neither a well-informed faith nor a well-formed discipleship.
Exploring the “why” of all this is a much bigger question, and way off topic.
My point is that you will have a much better experience in seminary if you come with some basic preparation. If you do, you will learn more in seminary, and you will become better prepared for serving in God’s mission.
So imagine that seminary is at least one full year away.
How will you invest that time? I have three suggestions.
1. Read the Bible
Aim to read the Bible cover to cover before you start seminary. Every class you take will connect with the Bible in one way or another. You need, at least once, to see the big picture, the grand sweeping story of God reaching out to solve the biggest problems of humanity. (There are a lot of one-year Bible reading plans out there.)
Without that basic familiarity, theology will be just abstract ideas, preaching will just be setting yourself up as a motivational speaker, and pastoral care will just be amateur psychotherapy.
Don’t feel bad that you don’t already have a strong Bible background. In my denomination our own research shows that most members read the Bible less than once a week.
And don’t think that once you have read the Bible once you are done. Lifelong engagement with the Bible is a core Christian practice, something that God will use to grow your discipleship and nurture your faith.
(If you want a way to build that ongoing practice, try my book Love Your Bible: Finding Your Way to the Presence of God with a 12th Century Monk. Hey, it’s free!)
2. Read some theology
Being prepared for seminary is not just a matter of Bible reading. You should also spend some time reading works by thoughtful Christians who take on serious issues.
We call this “theology” but I’m not saying you need to jump into anything scholarly or academic. If you want a starting point, pick up some books by C.S. Lewis, Eugene Peterson, John R.W. Stott, and Mark Labberton.
It wouldn’t hurt, of course, to also read something like the Heidelberg Catechism or the Westminster Standards, or even the little 1536 first edition of Calvin’s Institutes. These are works that try to summarize and organize biblical teaching to help Christians make sense of their own faith.
Take note, though, that I’m not saying you need to master theology. I’m suggesting you begin to stretch your mind by asking good questions about theology and exploring them in good company.
Nobody enjoys seminary students or ministers who think they have all the answers.
What really helps you prepare for seminary is to have at least asked the questions once.
3. Try some new forms of ministry
My last suggestion for the year ahead is for you to try serving God in some new and unfamiliar ways. You could do several in that time.
- Maybe spend a period exploring the children’s ministry
- Maybe become a temporary member of the worship team
- Maybe volunteer for Habitat for Humanity with the young adult group.
- Maybe your pastor would let you spend an occasional day of “job shadowing.”
What you need is some exposure to what people do to serve God in ministry. Ministry is so many things, and the more possibilities you know and try on, the better equipped you will be to consider your own calling wisely.
I’ll share some other issues that help make a healthy decision about seminary and ordained ministry later. But for now you have my three-part plan. Try it out.
A well-informed disciple is a better-prepared seminarian.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
- If you are considering theological education, what do you want to explore before you go?
- If you have been to seminary, what do you wish you had learned before you went?
To go to the first post in this series, click here. To go to the next post in the series, click here.
To get future posts (plus a free copy of my new book Love Your Bible: Finding Your Way to the Presence of God with a 12th Century Monk) click here.
(By the way, this post contains affiliate links.)
Bob Wollenberg says
Nice article. Now, 25-some years out of seminary, that sounds like solid advice. I might add… make sure your call to ministry isn’t just personal, seek the discernment of the church. Having served on a few Presbytery Ministry Preparation Committees, the thing that causes me to wince the most is when a person expresses their sense of call only in terms of their own personal journey of faith. A call to serve the church as a Teaching Elder ought to come with some sense of call that is discerned within the community of faith. So my advice to potential candidates: God talk to some elders in your church or other people with whom you’ve served in your faith community. Ask them what they think about your call to ministry. Listen closely to what they say. That’s how the Holy Spirit works.
Gary Neal Hansen says
Thanks, Bob. You articulate Calvin’s “external call” very well. Without it the pursuit of ordination can go very much awry.
Gary Panetta says
I enjoyed reading this post.
My opinion is that it is too easy to become an Inquirer. I would make entering the beginning of the process much more difficult. Perhaps your advice might be something that a CPM uses in order to judge whether someone should be an Inquirer at all.
It’s also worth asking how well one has done at a secular job. What does your boss think of you? Co-workers? Feedback from others — even if they are not Christian — can be illuminating for one’s self-knowledge.
Gary Neal Hansen says
Thanks Gary. Personally I think the PC(USA)’s Inquirer stage should be easy to start, but require more to finish. If one thinks that he or she might be hearing God’s call, it is the way to carry on discernment in conversation with the church.
But the Church ought to do more to help good discernment happen–more than letting the person start seminary. It is the church that can make sure basic catechesis has happened, that good formation has begun, and, as Bob pointed out, that the someone besides the inquirer thinks ordained ministry is a fit.
Good advice for discipleship as well, ever for those of us who don’t have that further calling.
What would be your opinion about attending seminary for just growing in faith rather than as preparation for “ministry” (being different from that ministry of all believers)?
Gary Neal Hansen says
Thanks, Claudia. That is exactly the point: these are basic points of growing discipleship, and that in turn is essential for ministry of any kind.
As to seminary for everybody, I think it is a great idea so long as the seminary tunes its offerings to different levels of interest. That is, while the typical seminary here defines M.Div. courses as three credits, someone who has a day job, and a family, and doesn’t want a Master’s degree might want to take smaller bites–the same material could be divided into smaller portions over time.
So here’s the question: what courses would you want to start with? What five classes would you be quickest to sign up for?
Good question. As someone serving as part of the ministry-of-all-believers rather than in “The Ministry” I think I’d first be looking at classes that enhance and deepen those discipleship disciplines. For example something to increase my understanding of the Bible and its context. Ditto with prayer and worship.
Then, looking around me in the pews, there is a need for teaching about the ministry of believers, the worth of the individual Christian, what and how scary words like evangelism and mission looks like out there in the “real world.”
Now thats got me out there having faith conversations, I’ll need some understanding of theology in terms of what Christian understanding is on various dilemmas my neighbours might be struggling with (for example why God allows suffering, controversies around euthanasia or abortion etc), and some history to give context to how the Church came to believe what it does.
And finally some training specific to different lay ministries in the local church like small group leadership, children’s ministry and so forth.
I guess a lot of this stuff can be learned without necessarily signing up for seminary classes, and I’d love to see more churches offering more opportunities for teaching this stuff to their congregations and communities, in a deeper way than what can be covered in Sunday morning sermons. I’m a strong advocate for small study groups (as you know), but sometimes wish I was better equipped.
Fr. Dustin says
“Aim to read the Bible cover to cover before you start seminary.” Amen! Amen! Amen!
Tiffany Garcea says
I greatly appreciate this article! On a different note, I wonder if suggestion #3 “Try Some New Forms of Ministry” shouldn’t be a requirement for pastors every couple of years. Maybe that would help to avoid burnout while at the same time expanding ministerial horizons.
Gary Neal Hansen says
Thanks Tiffany! Means a lot to me.
And that would be a great idea for all of us — keep growing and trying new things, and stay engaged.
Susan Honeycutt says
Love this part: “Lifelong engagement with the Bible is a core Christian practice, something that God will use to grow your discipleship and nurture your faith.” It absolutely floors me how many active “dedicated” Christians do not regularly read their Bible. I pray often for God to give me a hunger for His word. He hasn’t said no yet.
I do like reading some theology and understanding to a degree the differing perspectives on main points within the Christian faith, but truly have no desire to attend seminary.
Gary Neal Hansen says
Thanks Susan. Seminary is not for everyone, but the Scriptures certainly are.
It is amazing at our time in history how little engagement there seems to be with the Bible, at least in its breadth and depth.
Diane Roth says
I am curious about your books, but wonder what denomination you affiliate yourself with. I am Lutheran,
Gary Neal Hansen says
I’m ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and used to teach in a PC(USA) seminary. I’ve done a lot of word in Martin Luther’s theology along the way, and you’ll find a chapter on his approach to prayer in my book “Kneeling with Giants.”
Feel free to contact me by email (just use the “contact” button in the top menu) if I can be of help.