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    A Roadmap to the Right Fit

    Factors to consider when choosing a graduate theological institution.

    Kathy Furlong

    Academic reputation. Professional expertise. Spiritual formation. Programs. Financial aid. Location. Core values. Scheduling options. Community. Of all the things to consider when exploring a seminary or graduate school, what's most important?

    carefully considering God's will before choosing a seminary graduate schoolThe truth is, admissions counselors advise prospective students to take them all into account. But, most would agree, a careful consideration of God's leading is an excellent place to start.

    Even before comparing institutions, "It is important for future seminarians to see the selection process as a season of formation in itself. They cannot spend enough time on their knees as they seek God's will throughout the process," says Luke McFadden, Admissions Counselor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. "The objective is not merely to end up in the right community, but also to steward the selection process well by remaining aware of the ways in which God is working before transitioning to seminary."

    Questions about one's vocation require an examination of both "the internal movement of the Spirit in apparent gifts and abilities and external confirmation by pastors, other leaders, friends and one's spouse, if married," says Jeremy Kicklighter, Director of Admissions at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. Dr. Dennis P. Hollinger, President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, agrees. "Part of the call to ministry," he says, "is a call of the church itself as it discerns the gifts of potential pastors, missionaries and leaders."

    Answering this question "lays the groundwork for many of the other factors," Kicklighter says. "For example, all students are concerned about finances and want to trust the Lord to provide for them. Being sent gives a reasonable basis for faith that the Lord will provide for you in every area while you are studying."

    At Wheaton College Graduate School in Wheaton, Illinois, Julie Huebner, Director of Graduate Admissions, says she invests considerable time in getting to know prospective students in order help them discern God's leading. "I don't offer a pat 1-2-3 process because each person is different," she says. But, in general, "I would say to prospective students, 'Know yourself and who God has created you to be; seek input and affirmation from the body of Christ: parents, pastors, faculty, mentors, etc.; and trust God for discernment.'"

    As prospective students move from discerning the nature of their call to figuring out where and how to pursue it, admissions counselors generally advise them to examine several criteria.

    Core values. Although denominational affiliation matters much less than it once did, the culture of the learning community and its doctrinal commitments do play a critical role in how a student evaluates the education he or she is receiving. "The questions we receive concerning doctrinal issues show that our prospective students want to learn in an environment in which their theological and denominational traditions are represented," says Trinity's McFadden. Trinity "welcomes students and professors from a wide variety of denominations [and is] committed to representing theological diversity within the context of orthodoxy." This concern goes beyond one's level of agreement on various issues, says Cindy Aalders, Director of Admissions at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. Asking the question, "Is it a place conducive to constructive dialogue?" she points out, should also receive careful consideration.

    Academics. "Preparing well for full-time Christian service requires the right balance of study, supervised ministry and mentorship," McFadden says. "Therefore, it is important to consider the level of academic rigor at each institution and to determine whether the course work stretches students to attain expertise in areas that will allow them to serve well in ministry. It's also helpful to see what practical ministry opportunities are available and how students are mentored as they complete these requirements."

    The pursuit of "academic excellence" in seminary includes—but also exceeds—mastery of biblical studies, languages, theology or any part of the ministry "toolbox." Serving God and people well by applying rigorous study to one's context is, in the end, what preparation for ministry is all about.

    "Prospective students today want to know that there is a connection between the mind, the heart and ministerial training," Hollinger says. "At Gordon-Conwell we give significant attention to holding these three dimensions together." Mentored Ministry, Gordon-Conwell's field education component, is required for all of the school's ministerial degrees. "We encourage [students] to have continuity in these experiences, but at the same time to have varied opportunities to develop and discern their gifts. That could mean that their time may be best spent in one or two churches or organizations over the course of their time at seminary, but working in various kinds of ministries within that church or organization."

    Relevance to the field is carefully addressed in all professional graduate programs. Many of Wheaton's graduate programs—including the Master of Arts (MA) in Teaching degrees, the MA in Intercultural Studies and Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), and the Clinical Psychology programs—include practicum or internship requirements. Prospective students also inquire, Huebner says, about licensing, certification and accreditation issues that may pertain to their fields and, in the case of the clinical psychology programs, the theoretical perspective taught by the faculty. Many students choose Wheaton, she adds, because they are "ministry-minded" in their fields and want a program that offers "a blend of academic challenge and professional preparation."

    "Integration is a high priority," says Roy Allinson, Director of Admissions for the Graduate Schools of Biola University, referring not only to "classroom integration of faith with the class topic, but the integration of a Christian perspective into the student's workplace or area of service. This is especially distinctive of Biola's MA in Organizational Leadership and the MBA programs, though it runs through all of our programs."

    Faculty. Not surprisingly, admissions counselors report a very high level of interest in their schools' faculties: their academic expertise, how adept they are at applying that expertise to ministry, even their accessibility outside of class. "The reputation of professors within the classroom and in the Christian and academic communities" is a key concern, Allinson says. Prospective students "are often interested in what level of personal interaction they can have with professors outside of the classroom." This is particularly true, says Gordon-Conwell's Hollinger, of younger students, who "want faculty members who will be mentors, not just teachers." Recognizing professors' formative influence, schools encourage students to avail themselves of the resources their faculty have to offer.

    "Our faculty members are, as a whole, pastor-scholars," says Stephane Jeanrenaud, Director of Admissions and Alumni Relations at Reformed Theological Seminary's Charlotte campus. "While they are academically leaders in their respective fields, they are also individuals who have worked in the field of ministry, most serving in the pastorate. They know how to communicate biblical truths to the lay person and use this knowledge to train our students to do the same."

    Post-graduation support. Finding the right job can be a source of high anxiety, so it's not surprising that seminaries and graduate schools support their graduates through that process. At Covenant Seminary, "extensive diagnostic evaluation" of graduates' gifts, abilities and understanding of their call complements active consultation with churches and search committees, and evaluation of open positions. "Through the use of these well-researched diagnostics, we are better able to identify when a particular pastor and church are more, or less, likely to match in the key areas of leadership, relationship and communication styles," Kicklighter says. The benefits, he adds, are two-fold: a "high ministerial placement rate in ministry contexts upon graduation, and decrease of the attrition rates among our graduates. Our Alumni Office is then tasked with praying and advocating for, following up with and encouraging young ministers in their first five years of pastoral ministry."

    Many schools have active placement and networking services. Regent College maintains an extensive web-based job board and the Alumni Mosaic, an online networking community. It also provides the Leaving Regent Workshop to help graduates make the transition. Reformed Seminary actively disseminates information on placement opportunities, hosts ministry and church representatives on campus and provides other means of support and counsel through the process.

    In addition to placement services, Gordon-Conwell has invested considerable time and resources into lifelong learning opportunities for graduates. "We attempt to remind our students that their education is not completed the day they graduate," Hollinger says. "Therefore, we have developed major continuing education programs through our Ockenga Institute." These initiatives include the Timothy Project, which brings together alumni in their first ten years of ministry for ministry assessment, small group discussion, worship and fellowship; Pastor's Forums that feature "well-known speakers on timely topics;" and free counseling services for alumni/ae facing crises or transition.

    Ministry Value. "I think a final academic and professional issue that students are wrestling with is whether or not seminary is even valuable to what they are going to do," says Covenant's Kicklighter. "My encouragement to prospective students is that they think through their ministry aims and see how those aims will be best furthered. Moving away from one's home and ministry context is a sacrifice, but it also provides the opportunity to move into a committed community of shared learning … to build friendships for a lifetime of ministry. It also gives them exposure to what the Lord is doing in many different ministry contexts … and to a wider variety of experience and expertise through the faculty."

    Reformed's Jeanrenaud agrees. "If [students] want greater depth and rootedness in their ministry that will both equip and fuel them, they should really consider seminary," he says. "I often encourage students to remember that their passion for the people to whom they minister will wax and wane over the years, and will not be the thing that keeps them on the mission field to which God has called them. Rather, it is the Word of God that will encourage and humble them, providing them with the strength to continue ministering. Seminary equips students to go much deeper into that endless resource of his grace, the Word."

    Spiritual formation and community life. Prospective students "want to know whether they will grow or wilt spiritually during seminary, and whether they will be able to engage in transformational ministry" afterward, Kicklighter says. One way schools answer this concern is to connect campus visitors with current students and encourage them to investigate the ministries of alumni/ae. Biola's Allinson encourages additional questions, such as: "Does a place provide community, such that we can learn to follow Christ and be like him among others who are on the same journey? Does it encourage a healthy level of transparency and honesty in the process of spiritual and academic development? Is it open to the work of the Holy Spirit as a vital part of the process, understanding that God cares about and wants to be involved in our work in a cooperative process with us?" Students, says Reformed's Jeanrenaud, "are often concerned that their seminary training not simply be academic, but be transformative to their own devotional lives and to those to whom they will minister. They want to come out of seminary as men and women who love the Lord more and who have personally grown in their relationship with Christ throughout that time."

    These questions point to the challenge of maintaining a vibrant spiritual life in the midst of the demands of school, employment, relationships and ministry. Schools take this very seriously, cultivating spiritual vitality in their curricula and community life, and encouraging students to take advantage of numerous resources.

    Most seminaries require classes that deal with the issue of spiritual formation for ministry and/or a series of classes devoted to spiritual growth; most classes, naturally, include a component of spiritual reflection in their coursework. In addition, seminaries and Christian graduate schools invariably emphasize participation in chapel services and other opportunities for worship and fellowship to foster spiritual growth and connection. Students are strongly encouraged, if not required, to plug into small groups at school or their churches. They are further encouraged to connect with a spiritual director or use counseling services when needed. At Regent College, students are encouraged to participate in forums on student life, such as time management, writing papers, dealing with depression and other issues of personal import. During new student orientation, "we attempt to provide an overview of the various challenges of graduate school" as well, Aalders says.

    Covenant Seminary "takes great care in helping our students get involved with churches, find suitable housing and connect with other students within what we call their 'hub community:' groups of students who live in geographic proximity to one another," Kicklighter says. "This greatly improves our students' opportunities and ability to integrate a Christ-centered worldview in all of life, not just in the classroom."

    At Gordon-Conwell, Hollinger says, "We attempt to emphasize that the patterns of spiritual formation and spiritual life need to be developed now." Their initiatives include the co-curricular Pierce Center for Disciple-Building which, according to its website, offers a community context in which "we invite one another to prioritize life-long intimacy with Jesus Christ while developing as incarnational disciple-builders," through intentional practice of the spiritual disciplines and cultivation of spiritual friendships and community.

    Spiritual formation and vibrant community life are also cultivated by the best resource schools have: the faculty. "Our theology professors and church historians, for example, give significant attention to the application of classical theological understandings for the spiritual life," Hollinger says. "Students often comment to me about the practical significance they gain from what many would perceive to be a very academic class."

    Graduate school faculties likewise are committed to student formation. "The faculty and academic advisors actually have a great impact on the formation of the student as a whole, through the classroom, through individual appointments and department or degree functions," Wheaton's Julie Huebner says. In addition, "Many faculty make it a point to eat lunch with students on a weekly basis, and in these informal conversations a lot is 'caught.'"

    Jeanrenaud agrees. "First and foremost [in student formation] is the personal involvement of our faculty in the lives of our students. The faculty are accessible and actively look for ways to spend personal time with students. They see themselves as mentors."

    "As many faculty, especially in the ministerial programs, have years of ministry training which often includes a pastoral background, professors naturally care about the spiritual well-being of the students they teach," adds Biola's Allinson.

    Financial considerations. "Nobody goes to seminary with the expectation of increasing their earnings potential, so many are especially fearful of accruing debt," Trinity's McFadden says. As does every school, Trinity offers "a variety of scholarships and grants to help students pay for their theological educations, but we also remind them that the financial aspect of the seminary selection process should not be the primary factor. Nobody should foolishly launch themselves into a degree program that will bury them in debt, but it is also foolish to expect that seminary will not require students and their spouses to make sacrifices as they work to pay for their education." Many schools report that the recent economic downtown has heightened concerns. "I do think the cost of graduate education remains a great concern to those who are planning to enter full-time ministry or work in a non-profit organization. The salaries these kinds of jobs provide are not often generous enough to handle large student loan indebtedness," Wheaton's Huebner says.

    To help mitigate the burden of financing one's education, seminaries and graduate schools offer need- and merit-based financial support, casting as wide a net as possible through grants, awards, partial and even full scholarships. "Almost 20% of our operating budget is devoted to financial aid, giving the majority of our Master of Divinity students at least a 50% scholarship," says Covenant's Kicklighter. He notes that Covenant also provides on-campus housing for 40 families—including 85 children—and 40 single students, plus housing for an additional 45 families nearby.

    In addition to numerous program-specific scholarships, fellowships and merit-based awards, Wheaton offers the need-based Wheaton Grant, for which 80 to 85% of its MA students qualify, Huebner says, noting that the average award is $5,200.

    "Certainly, given the financial struggles we have dealt with as a nation, students are struggling more than ever with financial and employment concerns. As an institution, Reformed Seminary has developed some new scholarships in addition to the generous scholarships and grants already established," Jeanrenaud says. "Further, RTS staff assist students and their spouses in looking for employment and with their transition to the area, and help students get connected with vibrant worship communities in the various campus locations."

    Logistics. In addition to finances, other practical issues—including location, scheduling and managing priorities—"do pose greater challenges nowadays as opposed to, say, 20-25 years ago," Cindy Aalders, of Regent College, says. Her sense is that this is indicative not only of the current economic climate, but also the fact that, increasingly, students pursue graduate education "concurrent [with] other professional or personal goals." In addition to offering financial aid and flexible scheduling, she says, "We advise students regarding permit issues, schooling for children [and] locating housing," among other things. Given the school's location in Vancouver, "Regent also offers assistance and information regarding all aspects of making an international move."

    Location is an important consideration, Aalders says, because "You're likely to spend two to four years of your life in a graduate program." It helps to ask oneself, she says, "Where do you want to be located? Does the school's location match your desired ministry involvement during your study time? Does it fit well with your extracurricular interests?"

    Increasingly, schools have several campuses with distinct characteristics. "With multiple campuses [Gordon-Conwell] attempts to address the need for contextual forms of education. Thus, at the South Hamilton campus, we talk a great deal about how to be a Christian and do ministry in the secularized, pluralistic context in which we find ourselves," Hollinger says. "At our Boston campus, the focus is on doing ministry and living out the Gospel in the struggles of urban realities. At our Charlotte campus, significant attention is given to developing spiritual depth in the midst of a very churched area."

    To help students manage their time and priorities well, Covenant Seminary's Director of Student Life "intentionally meets with first year M.Div. students to counsel and equip them in these family and life issues," Kicklighter says. "In addition to this, we work to provide opportunities for family growth such as free childcare every week of the semester so spouses can attend classes or run errands, and a parents' night out once a month so the student and spouse can go on a date. We encourage spouses to take courses by offering them 100% scholarships. Furthermore, all Covenant students are able to receive free counseling on-campus to work through spiritual and emotional issues that arise during their time and would affect their lives and ministries greatly if not dealt with."

    The various issues prospective students bring to the table—from the big picture to the nuts and bolts—are questions "regarding both the nature of the institution and the 'fit' between prospective student and institution," Biola's Roy Allinson says. "Far beyond simply seeking increasing enrollments we are concerned that students find the place where they can best be educated, challenged and nurtured in preparation for or enhancement of the ministry to which God has called them."

    Kathy Furlong is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia, PA.