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?
The 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."