Applying for just about anythingcollege, a job, a mortgagecan be intimidating. Anything that requires being evaluated by others invites apprehension, even when one is following a God-given path to seminary.
"Everyone has performance anxiety," says Ric Walston, president of Columbia Evangelical Seminary, a distance-learning school in Buckley, Washington. "No one is immune."
Prospective students worry over academic transcripts, prior experience, their own discernment of God's will, and more. Some count themselves out prematurely. The message from admissions officers is clear: Don't.
Myths about applying to seminary abound. Here are five that admissions officers would debunk.
1. Seminary is only for pastors and missionaries. Fifty years ago, most seminarians were training for pastoral or chaplaincy ministries and missions. In the following decades, however, the definition of ministry has widened considerably, and seminary programs have expanded in step.
"There are a variety of vocations that our alumni/ae pursue," says Kimberly Catlin, director of admissions at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. "Alumni/ae entering fields that are not typical ministry settings still seek to use their contexts for ministry."
2. A degree in biblical studies is a prerequisite for seminary. Just as people come to seminary for all sorts of reasons, they also come from every background. Recent decades have seen a steady rise in the enrollment of "second-career" students who are leaving fields unrelated to ministry or want to integrate theological education into their professions. Catlin observes, "A majority of our students come from large, secular universities or from a Christian university with a non-Bible major. While having a bachelor's degree in a related field can put you ahead, it is certainly not a requirement."
3. You need to know your life plan before you enroll. Discernment is an important step in any major undertaking. However, the expectation that one's path should or can be fully mapped out in advance is unrealistic.
"James 4:13-17 warns against being too confident about future plans. We should make plans, but have to entrust details to the Lord," says W. Bingham Hunter, vice president and academic dean of Phoenix Seminary in Arizona. "Some students don't yet have clarity about where God wants them in the future. They come with a strong desire to serve the Lord and to know more about him. It's common for seminary to function as a catalyst for discerning God's will."
The application process itself frequently aids discernment. "We realize that many of our applicants are coming to terms with God's calling. During the admissions process, we provide counseling and assist students in choosing the most appropriate program," says Wendy Wakeman, vice president for enrollment management at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Fuller also has campuses throughout California, in the Pacific Northwest, Colorado, Texas, and online. "Fuller has 23 programs, and often we can suggest a program or joint program between two of our three schools that the prospective student had not considered. Applicants often become excited when they see new possibilities."
4. The admissions process weeds out all but the most highly qualified applicants. This myth is especially rooted in performance anxiety, and anticipates an adversarial relationship with admissions officers. But this, seminary personnel agree, is a false representation.
Scott Davis, director of recruiting and admissions at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, encourages prospective students to build valuable relationships. "The main assignment of these individuals is to be of assistance to you and provide you timely counsel," he says. "Our staff consists of men and women whose task is to serve the servants of our great God."
Janelle Vernon, director of admissions at Asbury Theological Seminary, takes a similar view: "The admissions team serves as the applicant's advocate, helping that person demonstrate his or her ability to succeed at graduate studies.
Applicants help themselves by working with the admissions team in the formation of their application files."
Determining the suitability of a seminary degree at a particular time involves evaluation of where an applicant has been, where he or she hopes to go, and the best way to get there. Most seminaries take a holistic approach to that assessment rather than check off items on a list, says Fuller's Wakeman. "We consider prior academic coursework, work and volunteer experience, religious autobiography, reasons for desiring to attend seminary, professional and personal goals, and references." Then, she says, "A committee prayerfully reviews the complete application file."
In general, theological schools examine criteria in three categories: academic achievement, Christian character, and commitment to ministry or other Christian service. Assessment may be based on numerous sources: transcripts, essays, personal statements describing participation in the church and discernment of a call to ministry, and pastoral recommendations. Tests such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or Miller Analogies Test (MAT) may also be considered.
An applicant's reflections on his or her journey are weighed carefully, as are the insights of others. "We find that if a person is spoken well of by others and has godly self-understanding of themselves in Christ, they are likely to do well in seminary," says Phoenix's Bingham Hunter. At Denver Seminary in Littleton, Colorado, "All students are required to submit a statement of their spiritual journey that includes their assessment of their spiritual gifts, an endorsement from their church that affirms a call, and four references, one of which must be from a pastor," says Nathan Lamb, director of admissions.
A school's particularities can determine criteria as well. At Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, admissions officers look for a commitment to full-time studies (9-16 credit hours per semester). "Students should plan to be on campus three to four days per week," says Burch Barger, director of admissions. According to Beeson's website, the school asks for a commitment to full-time study because it helps students complete their degrees on time, and because "full-time students help to make Beeson a stronger community." Beeson offers an endowed scholarship program for full-time students: in 2008-2009, all students are eligible for a minimum scholarship of $4,250, nearly half of the $9,690 tuition. Nearly two-thirds of Beeson's full-time students will receive merit scholarships that will reduce or cover tuition.
At Columbia Evangelical, students and faculty work together to design programs that help students achieve their goals. Admission criteria are similarly flexible. "Each applicant is considered on a case-by-case basis," Walston says. "We look at a person's academic background to be sure that he or she has the prerequisites to do the kind of work required. However, this 'academic background' is not simply a matter of formal education. While we typically expect a person to have the prerequisite studies before enrolling, we also allow persons without a formal academic background to enroll if they have full-time ministry experience comparable to the prerequisite academic studies."
A "solid grasp" of the English language is particularly essential at CES, given the distance-learning format. "We require all CES students to take our writing class," Walston says. "We do not expect students to enter into our programs as excellent writers, but we strive to help them achieve that status by the time they graduate."
For Master of Divinity (M.Div.) and Master of Arts (MA) degrees, applicants are expected to have an undergraduate degree from an accredited institution, with a cumulative grade point average of at least 2.5. GPA requirements for counseling and academic degrees are typically higher, 3.0 to 3.5. "It is in the best interests of the student and the seminary to ensure that students have the ability and opportunity to succeed. We have found that prior academic work and test scores do play a part in predicting whether a student has the ability to perform successfully," says Denver's Nathan Lamb. That said, he adds, "Our admissions office can work with students who do not meet our minimum requirements but who do have strengths in other relevant areas. Communication really is the key for us to help them reach their goals."
Depending on the program, the admissions process may vary in other ways as well. At Gordon-Conwell, while the M.Div. program does not require a specific academic background, applicants to the MA in counseling should have 20 semester hours of psychology or related coursework, and the MA in biblical languages requires prior completion of one year of Greek or Hebrew. At Denver, "Students desiring to go into pastoral ministry should have a strong reference from their pastor, as well as a church endorsement that affirms a call into vocational ministry and other references that indicate appropriate gifts and graces for that type of ministry," Lamb says. "For students applying for admission into our counseling program, we look at their references for insight related to their personality and spiritual gifts."
Concentrations sometimes require specialized submissions. Fuller Seminary's Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts degrees require the additional submission of personal statements, supporting materials, and, for the Worship and Music Ministry degree, completion of a music theory test.
While seminaries rely on academic histories to assess aptitude, admissions counselors will consider applicants who evidence other strengths that mitigate a weak academic record. Beeson encourages discussion of academics within the context of an applicant's gifts, beginning with the question, "Do you feel that your academic record provides an accurate index of your scholastic abilities?" This, Barger says, "gives our applicants an open platform for emphasizing strengths and abilities not captured within an academic transcript."
For admission into its M.Div. and professional MA programs, Asbury offers flexibility. To be admitted requires an accredited baccalaureate with a 2.75 GPA, but students may also be admitted with reduced load standing (2.5) or probation status (below 2.5). "These admission statuses restrict academic load for a designated period to ensure the student is able to successfully manage coursework," Vernon says. She notes that Asbury offers other options "to enhance the applicant's ability to demonstrate ability to succeed in graduate studies," including the completion of one semester's baccalaureate coursework in the humanities or submission of a MAT or GRE score.
Following admission, schools also help students get the most out of their studies. At Asbury, Vernon notes that academic advisers and faculty work closely with students to monitor their progress. All newly admitted students develop both a degree-completion plan and a Christian formation plan with their advisers. "Ministry, vocation, and academy are addressed by academic advisers and faculty with the goal of helping each student graduate having maximized an Asbury education," she says.
5. Attending seminary will negatively impact your faith/is not necessary for ministry. "We find that these preconceived ideas are not true for most people," says Denver's Lamb. "Seminary is about preparing people for effective ministry. Some of that includes thinking and knowledge, but a balanced seminary will also look at the development of character, integrity, competence, and experience in it's students."
Tina Pugel, director of communications at Asbury, agrees. "Asbury encourages each student to be completely transformed. We assert this through corporate worship, spiritual formation sessions with faculty, small-group studies, and shared meals," she says.
The command to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength is not a multiple-choice question, argues Southern's Scott Davis. "In a world of increasing moral confusion, the responsibility to learn to think, teach, and preach in a Christ-centered manner is much more important. While we affirm the practical training a local church environment can provide, God has similarly granted certain individuals tremendous insight and teaching ability in order to train betterprepared ministers of the gospel," he says. "The opportunity to sharpen your mind
will prove to be one of the best investments you can make for a Godglorifying ministry."
Ensuring spiritual growth has two sides, says Phoenix's Hunter: the school's commitment to biblical orthodoxy and the students' attention to both academic and heart issues. Graduate theological study "is better seen as obedience to Jesus' 'greatest commandment,'" he says. "My advice to prospective seminarians is to guard and cultivate your personal time with our Lord. Once you substitute class assignments for daily time with our Savior, you have started down a dangerous path."
Lamb encourages prospective students to talk to the people who know them. "Seeking wise counsel can do a lot to alleviate apprehension. Those who have been through seminary can provide a lot of insight into the workloads one can expect, the benefits that a theological education provides, and answers to many other questions or doubts a prospective student may have."
Most importantly, he adds, "we always encourage students to seek God's will for their lives in this process. If he wants someone to attend seminary, he will provide the means, the courage, and the ability to do so."
Kathy Furlong a freelance writer living in Philadelphia, PA.