By Tom Nelson
July 23, 2012
Tom is the Director of Admissions at Reformed Theological Seminary in Oviedo, FL, where he is “ooohhh so close” to completing a Master of Divinity degree. Tom also serves as a Ruling Elder at River Oaks Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Lake Mary, FL, where he, his wife, Nancy, and their three children can be found on Sunday mornings, usually on the back row, next to Tom’s parents. Tom’s email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a believer in Jesus Christ, you’re called to be a witness for the Gospel, to live your life according to God’s Word and to be ready to share about what God has done in your life. But for some Christians, their calling is also a recognition or understanding that God has planned some specific direction or area of ministry for their life.
In Romans 10: 14-15, the Apostle Paul asks: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” (ESV)
These words have inspired men and women to answer God’s call to ministry ever since. Perhaps you’ve read them, or similar passages in the Bible, and are now considering how you are to respond to God’s call on your life. God is calling men and women of faith to serve as pastors, counselors, missionaries, church planters, teachers, evangelists, church leaders … servants of the Kingdom.
Here are a few steps to help you get on the path to pursuing your call.
Discern Your Call
I often hear the question, “How do I know I’m called to ministry?” First, do you sense a passion for a burning issue to be addressed by the Gospel. For what problem in this world do you sense a burden? Effective ministry is always accompanied by zeal to serve. Second, have you already noticed a gifting in your life for that burden? Does sharing your faith, defending Scripture or the ability to manage and direct a group or an organization come easily to you? Seminary will give you deep, detailed equipping for service, but the basics are probably already evident in your life. Third, do mature believers express that perhaps God is calling you to ministry? It’s not unusual that Godly men and women around you will see this before you do. The first question to consider is, “Is God calling me to ministry?”
Now, for those who didn’t complete their undergraduate degree with the highest of GPAs, you can still continue to pursue seminary. Admissions departments look at sense of call and previous ministry experience as well as past academic achievement.
Or maybe you completed your bachelor’s degree a few years ago, and have always hoped—or perhaps now for the first time hope—to attend seminary. It’s never too late. The wisdom you’ve acquired over the years will translate into good study habits, and your presence will be a blessing to your younger fellow students.
Assess Your Calling
Once you have a sense of call, it’s your Kingdom duty to consider where you might look for help to get started. That may mean additional preparation beyond a bachelor’s degree. So after determining where God has called you to ministry, there’s a second question: “What seminaries should I consider attending?”
If you’re called to become a pastor, the Master of Divinity degree is preparation that’s ideally designed for you, and is required by most denominations. You should also look for an M.Div. that includes study in the original languages: Hebrew and Greek. If you seek to become a counselor, a Master of Arts in Counseling will likely be required for licensure. Some seminaries offer master’s degrees in general areas such as Biblical Studies or Theological Studies, or in specific fields like Missions, Urban Ministry, Youth Ministry or Church Planting.
Ask your pastor or other ministry leaders you know if there are any seminaries they recommend. Pore over the school’s website, paying special attention to the faculty list. Arrange a visit to their campus, or attend the seminary’s preview day. Meet with the seminary representative when they visit your college or your church. Another great way to get to know the seminaries is to listen to the school’s classes, seminars and chapel messages on their website or on iTunesU. Like them on Facebook. Subscribe to their Twitter page. Watch their videos on YouTube. There are plenty of opportunities to find information on seminaries today, and you should take the time to get to know the schools as much as possible.
Make a Commitment
Once you’ve taken the time to consider the options available regarding seminaries, it’s time to take the next step: Contact the school and let them know you’re interested in pursuing a degree. A counselor or an advisor from the school will contact you (hopefully right away), and you and your counselor can begin the dialogue. Ask your counselor specific questions, such as:
How much is tuition per credit hour?
How many hours does my degree program of choice require?
Does your school have proper accreditation?
How successful are graduates in finding a position in their desired field?
The financing of a seminary degree is, above all, a trusting in and a reliance on God’s provision. Students finance their studies through their personal resources, the support of their home church, family and friends, and through the seminary’s financial aid opportunities. If you are worried about how you’ll pay for seminary, remember God has called you to this, and with this calling you must also trust He will provide what you need. Seminaries are collections of hundreds of stories of how God blesses His children as they seek to carry out His will.
At this point, you’re likely ready to begin the application process. Most seminaries now use an online application process, and most applications for admission will ask you to provide an essay, to include an account of your personal relationship to Christ, any previous ministry experience and an articulation of your sense of call and your future ministry plans. The people who approve admissions applications really do read these, as they want to hear your story. They will also use it to assess your academic preparation for graduate-level study, as well as an initial determination about your spiritual maturity and whether your theological views generally line up with the seminary’s theological foundation and framework.
This last point cannot be stressed enough. You will definitely be much more content during your time at seminary and more likely to complete the degree if you and the seminary are in general agreement with particular points of theology. Most seminaries provide instruction that derives from a particular theological point of view, while some choose to offer a very broad view of theology. While schools that fall in the latter category are passionate about their approach, I would hold there is a case to be made for those in the former category. Seminary is a time for training that is very specific. Think of your commitment to a seminary as following a particular discipline, much like an athlete or an artist learns the craft under a particular tutelage or by a particular method.
The application will also usually ask for three references: a pastoral reference, an academic reference and a general reference. Again, admission committees really do read these, too.
Seminaries rely heavily on the pastoral reference, as your pastor should be able to give a clear picture of your spiritual maturity and seminary readiness. In fact, make sure you keep your pastor in the loop throughout the entire process. Let your pastor and other trusted leaders know from the beginning about your sense of call. Keep them informed on your progress and ask for their opinions. Here’s the big question: Does your pastor affirm your sense of call? If yes, then you’re on your way. If the answer is no, you have to find out why. Listen and carefully consider any recommendations. Perhaps you’re not sufficiently articulating a vision for ministry. Perhaps your pastor sees gifting in you that might be better suited for something you haven’t thought about. Or perhaps your pastor has concern about your spiritual maturity or the impact pursuing the call will have on your health, your finances or your family. God will most likely use your pastor as a source of wisdom and discernment.
Engage in Spiritual Disciplines
There are two other important elements to the seminary application process. They’re not really stages, since you should do these all through the process. First, make the process of considering seminary a regular matter of prayer. Seminary is not just graduate school. You are not just making choices here—you are seeking to know God’s will for your life. This cannot be decided by the flip of a coin or choosing the school with the flashiest website or the seminary with the lowest cost per credit hour. You are preparing for service in the Kingdom of God, and you will likely be engaged in this work for the rest of your life. Make it a habit to articulate to God your thoughts, your fears, your needs and your trust in Him, and listen for God to reveal His will by His Spirit.
Second, begin a regular practice of Bible reading now. If you haven’t done so yet, read the Bible all the way from Genesis 1 through Revelation 22. And start looking for recurring themes: Kingdom, Covenant, Trinity, Redemption, Grace. This kind of serious Bible study will deliver you to the steps of your seminary well-prepared, and in the meantime will bless you in immeasurable ways.
Your time at seminary will be some of the best years of your life. Along with your studies, you will make friendships with professors and fellow students that will last a lifetime, enjoying a network of relationships which will be a source of encouragement, comfort and ideas throughout your ministry.