Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Preparation for Ministry: Choosing a Seminary

The Banner of Truth Trust has released a new paperback that Greenville Seminary believes to be highly useful for men who perceive they are called to the gospel ministry and those who are just beginning such ministry.

Preparation for Ministry, by Australian pastor-scholar Allan Harman, covers a range of important issues relating to the call to Christian ministry, theological training and entry into pastoral work. Harman draws on his own experience as a theological student, pastor and seminary teacher.

Of particular interest to men considering a theological education is Chapter 4, "Choosing a Theological College or Seminary." Harman notes that in the past, a large number of ministerial candidates were trained by a single pastor, but this is no longer the norm.

"The main reasons are that it is better to have a college/seminary with the necessary library facilities, and teachers who are skilled in particular disciplines, rather than depending on one man, with limited library resources, and whose time is restricted for teaching because of congregational commitments," Harman writes. "It also means students are interacting with other students, learning from them, and finding that their lives are being shaped by the community of faith that they have joined."

Greenville Seminary seeks to maintain a middle ground between the historic system and later trends through it adherence to what it calls the "Academy Model."

"Since the Church is the Christ-ordained means for the spiritual growth of God’s people, the Seminary believes it can best serve as an arm of the Church," the GPTS Academic Catalog explains. "As an academy closely related to the local church, the Seminary can assist students’ growth in grace. The Seminary does not view itself as having any ecclesiastical authority over the personal life of the student. That falls under the jurisdiction of the church. This is not to suggest that the Seminary will not be deeply involved in assisting men to grow in grace, but it is the recognition that this growth is properly under the pastoral care of the church. Every student is expected to be a member or at least an associate member of a local church, so that when there are pastoral needs for the students, the governing bodies of the church may be informed."

The seminary also places considerable emphasis on field education during the school year and summer months. It offers a learned faculty with men who are both biblical scholars and experienced pastors and effective preachers. The small student-faculty ratio helps maintain some of the advantages of the historic one-on-one model.

Harman lists five factors prospective students should consider in choosing a seminary:
  1. A right choice is essential. "Care must be taken in the choice of where to study for ministry. A theological course is a deeply influential part of one's life. You are going to to listen day after day to certain lecturers. You are going to interact with students from widely different backgrounds, perhaps very different from your own. All this means that you will be molded by your theological course whether you are conscious of that or not."
  2. Find out as much as you can about the seminary you are considering. "Read literature about them, visit them if possible, ask staff about their emphases and aims, and talk with graduates from them. ... Not all graduates from a particular institution will reflect its ethos, but many will display in their ministries the skills they learned there."
  3. Specifically ask about the doctrinal stance of the seminary to which you are attracted. GPTS believes this factor is among the most critical, and it why it puts such a major emphasis on confessionalism. Says Harman, "You should not have to spend several years in fighting doctrinal wars as a student. It is often very hard for a young student to challenge a lecturer, and there is often a sense of having to conform with the teaching being received. Having said that, don't underestimate the changes that do come to one's thinking during a course."
  4. Pick a seminary that has lecturers with pastoral experience. "This should be a prerequisite, as those teaching should be directing their class teaching towards the work of the pastorate. The teaching should have a focus that is ministry oriented. My own pattern in teaching has been often to stop and say to students: 'How can we use this biblical teaching in our preaching?' I want them to know that I am not teaching esoteric material that, however relevant for academia, is irrelevant for people in the pew."
  5. Candidates within a specific denomination may face hard decisions. "That is because in many denominations it is demanded that students attend the theological education provided by the denomination. That system can work well if the candidate knows that his own convictions are the same as the denomination, and hence can attend a specific seminary institution knowing that the teaching accords with the denomination's doctrinal standard. If that is not so, a critical decision has to be made. Many students of conservative theological convictions have gone to a liberal denominational college only to have their faith undermined by the teaching and their vision of ministry completely altered."
On this last point, Greenville Seminary is not an official arm of any denomination, but maintains close ties to a number of conservative Presbyterian and Reformed bodies. GPTS is governed by its own Board of Trustees representing this variety of denominational backgrounds. It also has a system in place for formal sponsorship and accountability by like-minded churches, regional church bodies and denominations. 
Harman notes that in some cases, "students can train in a non-denominational seminary but gain access to ministry in their own denomination, though they may have to comply with requirements for further study.
"In the main, I think intending students of a denominational college or seminary should assess whether their future lies in that denomination or not. If not, they should go to some other institution for their training," he says. 
To order Preparation for Ministry, go here. Students who apply for admission to GPTS will receive a free copy.

Informal group study session in the GPTS Student Commons — one of the advantages of on-campus studies at a residential institution.