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    Answering the Call

    But receiving a call to the ministry is the only step you don't have a choice about.

    by Kathy Furlong

    It can happen to a college student or recent graduate. It can happen to someone who's worked for a corporation or non-profit for decades. God starts tugging at the heart, preparing that person for something else: a new direction, a deeper level of understanding.

    Once someone discerns a call to ministry—be it pastoral, missionary, counseling, social work, or teaching—most people look to a seminary, divinity or graduate school for their preparation. But with hundreds of these schools in the United States alone, deciding which one to attend can be a daunting task.

    Finding the right fit

    answering God's call to ministry and going into seminaryVirtually all schools survey their incoming students to find out why they enrolled and what their priorities were in the decisionmaking process. One of the top factors many students cite is the theological perspective or commitments of the school. In other words, does the seminary uphold what I consider to be core values about God or Jesus Christ or the Bible?

    Other top factors, are the quality of the academic programs and the reputation of the faculty. Many students cite distinctive features they perceive in the seminaries they choose to attend. At Phoenix Seminary, students are attracted to the spirituality of the school. "Spirituality is important to students because there are so many stories of men and women who have gone off to seminary with hearts filled with passion for the Lord, only to have their hearts broken and their passion dissolved in a sea of confusion and apathy," says enrollment counselor Lee Richards, who is also a student. "Our concern is not just that our students grow in knowledge about the Bible or ministry, but that they grow more intimate in their knowledge of the Lord Jesus."

    According to Robert Ferris, associate provost at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina, students embrace the academic programs of Columbia Biblical Seminary and School of Missions because of the core values that under gird them. "First," he says, "a Great Commission focus permeates the seminary's entire curriculum. Second, the seminary is transdenominational, embracing the full spectrum of evangelical theological traditions." Columbia's programs and community, Ferris notes, also stress the authority of Scripture in every area of life, growth in holiness and Christlikeness, and cultivating a life of prayer and faith.

    Some students are drawn to seminaries that stretch the boundaries of mainstream theological education by offering distance learning or unconventional degree programs. Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle offers curricula that integrate understanding the biblical text, the human soul, and cultural context. This effort includes a radically revised master of divinity program. According to Mars Hill's surveys, "Students and applicants perceive us as having a 'relevant' or 'unique' philosophy or approach, and as engaging with postmodernity and today's church," says Zach Brittle, director of recruitment. Ron Carucci, chief operating officer, says "Our programs are uniquely practitioner-friendly, taught by experienced and current practitioners. And our approach to a truly dialogical engagement with our students enable those who commonly seek to be agents of change to experience for themselves—often for the first time—personal and deep transformation."

    Many students also consider the dynamics of the seminary community. "The size of Beeson Divinity School provides a community environment that is distinct from many theological schools," says Burch Barger, Beeson's student recruitment and admissions officer. "Beeson has an enrollment ceiling of 180 students receiving scholarships, which results in smaller classes, more access to professors, and friendships with fellow students. We encourage these relationships through corporate worship, faculty-led mentoring groups, and shared meals."

    As many schools find their student bodies trending toward part-time study, they cultivate community life through faculty-student and student-student relationships, regular times for worship, days of prayer, and other community events. Some schools are finding that location is playing an increased role in their students' decisions. This is true especially for older and "second career" students who are preparing for ministry after laying down roots in a particular city or region. "As the average age of seminary students increases, students make their decision largely based upon how seminary will impact the rest of their lives," observes Dallas Lenear, director of graduate admissions at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, in Grand Rapids. "Now, the choice to embark upon graduate theological education will oftentimes affect career, spouse, children, and even aging parents."

    Building disciples

    Clearly, there's no formula for choosing the right seminary or graduate school. Making that decision is a highly individualized process, taking into account students' sense of call, their priorities, and any limitations they must contend with. Still, seminary admission officers and others are well equipped to offer guidance along the way.

    Seminary admissions counselors help people discern what they should do with God's call on their lives, a ministry that goes beyond promoting the particular school they represent. "Our institution caters primarily to those preparing for pastoral ministry positions or missional positions," says Penny Rader, admissions counselor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Portland, Oregon. "I'm pretty frank with students depending on their interests. If we offer what they need, great; if not, I direct them on to a school that would be more suitable." Rader speaks for many admissions officers who would rather help students figure out what's best for them than try to force a potentially bad fit.

    Concurring with students' instincts, seminary officials stress the importance of evaluating academic offerings and theological commitments, including whether the faculty support and evidence those commitments. "Carefully consider the faculty," says Columbia's Ferris. "Recognize that the Luke 6:40 principle is universally true: you will become like the people with whom you study. If your calling is to Kingdom expansion, choose a seminary where the faculty bring ministry and missions experience as well as scholarship to the classroom."

    At The Master's Seminary in Sun Valley, California, expository preaching in the local church and a commitment to biblical inerrancy are primary curricular emphases. "We train men to faithfully handle and communicate God's Word for God's glory in the context of the local church, with an emphasis on taking the gospel to the ends of the earth and to every creature," says Richard Mayhue, senior vice president and dean. He urges students to examine the teaching and character of the faculty, asking questions such as: "Is the faculty unified on the doctrinal statement and purpose of the seminary?" "Does the faculty model the appropriate content of godly character, scholastic excellence, and ministry commitment?"

    Discovering for yourself

    Admissions officers generally agree that understanding one's call is paramount. A student should work to discern with some certainty where God is leading. At Beeson, "The admission committee places significant emphasis on each applicant's written and verbal articulation of his or her call to Christian ministry," says Barger. "We advise students to prayerfully seek God's will when considering divinity school and to use his guidance as their primary reason for applying."

    "We encourage students to carefully consider the total cost of their education," says Roy Allinson, director of graduate admissions for Biola University and Biola's Talbot School of Theology. "This obviously includes the financial aspect, but in addition we ask them to consider if they are able to balance the requirements of their schoolwork, family needs, spiritual needs, and physical needs in order to make an accurate assessment of their capabilities." Phoenix's Richards concurs. "We try to help students count the cost first, so that when they face difficulties, they can look back on their calling and know that the Lord will see them through their studies and development," he says.

    Another key, says Clive Cowell, admissions counselor at Multnomah, is to seek godly counsel. "Having a word of wisdom from an elder can provide good judgment in terms of timing, the type of program, and the place of education," he says. Cowell also urges applicants to consider the question: What does Jesus value? "The key idea here is to challenge and encourage the student to read through the Bible with this question in mind and to see if the prospective student is open to being impacted by God's values," he says. "This is, I find, much more informative than simply telling the student, 'Well, pray about it and the Lord will lead.'"

    Students should also approach seminary with some idea of how they want the experience to impact them personally. "We ask students to consider what kind of person they want to be when they finish their education," says Talbot's Allinson. "We find that our students value their character development as well as their education after they graduate."

    Indeed, spiritual formation or character development is integral to a well-rounded theological education, and students are encouraged to seek schools that will challenge and nurture them intellectually and spiritually. "Seminary is more than earning a degree," says Janelle Vernon, director of admission at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky and Orlando, Florida. "Students benefit from making sure of their theological fit and discerning if the community is one that will allow them to mature."

    One of the best ways to answer these questions is to pay the school a visit, something virtually all admissions counselors urge prospective students to do. "After investigating academic offerings and theological stance, we encourage prospective students to talk to alums, visit the campus, attend chapel, and prayerfully evaluate their enrollment decision," Vernon says. Indeed, paying a visit often illuminates the seminary experience in ways no catalog can. Phoenix's Richards says, "A school can say the all the right things in a catalog or on a website, but it is through interacting with faculty and students that those considering seminary can get the most accurate picture of what the experience will be like."

    All students who are preparing for ministry, but particularly those who plan to enroll in a master of divinity program, should investigate the seminary's offerings in the practice of ministry. "While theological schools provide an exercise in intellectual inquiry, they are also professional schools that provide students with the practical skills needed for ministry and beyond," says Shonda R. Jones, assistant dean of admissions and financial aid at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, in Atlanta. "When prospective students are considering Candler, we not only advise them about the Candler community and theological education, but also about the task of theological inquiry and the practices of ministry and service."

    Master of divinity programs typically include a field education or supervised ministry component. This experience provides students with a variety of internship-style opportunities as well as class time to reflect with faculty and fellow students, and integrate their field experience with their studies. In Candler's Contextual Education program students encounter a range of ministry experiences. In the first year, students work in social clinical settings in and around Atlanta. These could be medical facilities, children's homes or various community ministries. The following year, Candler students practice ministry in a local church, rotating through five areas of responsibility: administration, worship, pastoral care, mission and outreach, and teaching. "Theological education is a life-altering endeavor. Making the decision to attend a seminary, divinity school or school of theology should always include consideration of academic rigor alongside practical preparation for a lifetime of service to the church and world," Jones says.

    Finally, it pays to find out if the seminary or graduate school under consideration is accredited. While it would be unfair to make assumptions based on accreditation, issues may arise that students should be alert to. Says Penny Rader, of Multnomah, "We've had students transfer to our school after attending non-accredited schools, expecting credits to be granted for their previous coursework. Instead, they often end up starting out from the beginning of a program." (For more on the ins and outs of accreditation, see page 102.)

    Regardless of what school, program, or ministry is under consideration, these guidelines are good places to start the decision making process. "All students should include prayer, consideration of alums, examination of denomination or career educational requirements, and a review of faculty reputations and course offerings," says Asbury's Janelle Vernon.

    "We recommend that every student build on their past education and prepare for their future vocational direction, with specific emphasis on equipping them for what they believe to be God's appointed duties," says The Master's Seminary's Richard Mayhue. College students who are already thinking about seminary can plan their undergraduate coursework with future studies in mind, says Burch Barger, of Beeson Divinity School. Older students, however, are certainly able to draw on past education and experience to prepare for their futures as well. "Our counselors review each student's application from both academic and spiritual dimensions, on a case-by-case basis," a process that includes consideration of potential career paths as well as "long term skill sets," says Talbot's Roy Allinson. A required thirty units of Bible instruction "provides a strong foundation for the spiritual dimension of our students' study," he says. "Then, depending on which path the student desires to take, the selection of courses and program of study are advised that will best prepare them for their future."

    In the end, however, the most important factor remains discerning God's call and remaining open to his guidance. "Understanding his will is the most important element in the decision, regardless of which program a student is considering," says Lee Richards, of Phoenix. "Simply adding initials after your name does no good if the Lord has not led you to pursue seminary education."

    Kathy Furlong a freelance writer living in Philadelphia, PA.
    A Change of Heart

    Alvin Ung, Regent College (BC)

    When Alvin Ung decided to pursue theological study, he knew what he was looking for: a first-rate faculty, a broad, integrative theological program, a lively community, opportunities for creative writing, and a return to North America from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he and his thenfiancée lived and worked.

    "Most of all, I was looking for a place that would equip me for future ministry," Ung says. He applied to Regent College, in Vancouver, British Columbia and enrolled in the Master of Christian Studies program, with a concentration in Applied Theology. After his graduation, Alvin and Fern will return to Malaysia with several possibilities for ministry, including writing, a business start-up, and local church service.

    The Ungs loved Regent, but Alvin was soon struggling with his own expectations. "I came to Regent thinking that I wanted to learn how to change people," he says. "Now, I realize that God's the one who changes people, and he wants to start with me. This thought pierced the shadowy corners of my life like a floodlight.

    We believe that the school should vindicate our chosen criteria and goals. In all honesty, I did not come with an agenda to gain a deeper knowledge of my sin, a renewed sense of God's grace, a fresh desire to pray, or a rekindled love for Jesus Christ and his people. These are God's most precious gifts for me, unbidden and unasked, mediated through the Regent College experience."

    Christ for Culture

    Kathryn Allen, Knox Theological Seminary (FL)

    While working as a congressional aide on Capitol Hill, "I was constantly confronted with the need for wisdom in how to impact culture with Christ's truths," says Kathryn Allen, a student at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. When she discovered the seminary's Master of Arts in Christianity and Culture, Allen knew she'd found the seminary education she was looking for.

    At Knox, Allen has appreciated her professors' approach to education. "The professors have strategically sought to make the redemption romance come alive to us, opening our eyes to the glory of our hope and calling as heirs of Christ," she says. In addition, the entire seminary community has become like a family and were especially supportive in her first year, when she commuted weekly from Washington, DC.

    Allen is a conference speaker, writer, and the founder of Polished Pillars Ministries, which aims to "positively impact young women with the message of trusting God through suffering and with the joy of embracing the purpose, power, and passion of what it means to be a princess of the King," she says. "God has used what I have been learning at seminary to teach my heart to dance to a greater song of his love. When I graduate, not only will I leave with a degree in hand, but I will walk into the rest of my life with greater awe at the life-transforming hand of God."

    A Soldier of God

    Eric Leetch, Knox Theological Seminary (FL)

    A West Point graduate and a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army from 1995 to 2005, Eric Leetch investigated several Reformed seminaries before enrolling in Knox Theological Seminary's Master of Divinity program. "Above all else, I was concerned with finding an institution that was committed to the principles of historic Reformed theology as expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith," he says. "When I say committed, I mean more than simply stating so in their charter or academic catalog. I wanted to study in an institution and under men who were as passionate about these principles as their seminary's founding vision would lead you to believe."

    In getting to know Knox, Leetch felt confident that the seminary's faculty and administrative board shared this commitment and decided to enroll. "In the end," he adds, "it turned out that my first choice was also by far the most economical for my family."

    Upon completion of his M.Div. studies, Leetch intends to return to the Army as a chaplain of the Presbyterian Church in America. His seminary experience, he says, has been "extraordinarily positive." The faculty "do not make it their aim to teach their students what they are to think," he says. "Rather, they are diligent in training each individual student how to think, study, and learn in order to arrive at the truths of our faith on our own."

    Worship and Theology

    Stacey Gleddie, Regent College (BC)

    Stacey Gleddie knew she wanted to study the theology of worship. Through friends, "I knew of the academic excellence provided at Regent College, so although they did not offer a theology of worship program, I began to research their programs in addition to those of other schools," she says. "I was also looking for an education that would allow me to cross denominational lines, encourage women in leadership, and provide a strong community network of staff, faculty, and students." Gleddie found that Regent met these criteria, so she enrolled in the Master of Divinity program with a concentration in Christianity and the Arts, figuring that the school's integrative approach would give her some flexibility in shaping her studies.

    "If I had gone to a school with a more specific [worship] program, I don't think I would have been pushed as hard to define my own theology of worship," Gleddie says. "As I pursue the variety of courses required for my degree, I am challenged to develop my own view of how worship, as the central act of the church, is integrated in a given subject area." In addition, she has found a very diverse and supportive community at Regent, providing a variety of perspectives in a caring and respectful environment.

    In the future, Gleddie hopes to teach theology of worship in church and college settings. "The education I have received at Regent has been foundational," she says. "I truly feel I am being equipped here to equip others in whatever context I might find myself in."

    Kathy Furlong is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.