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 ministrybe it pastoral, missionary, counseling, social work, or teachingmost 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
Virtually 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 themselvesoften for the first timepersonal 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."