What Is a Seminary?

by Clifford Berger, DMin
Director, Portland Seminary doctoral programs

Seminaries are graduate schools that offer theological education with a special focus on preparing people spiritually, professionally, and academically for ministry.

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This article will explore the historical background of seminaries, their evolution over time, and the various disciplines and degrees offered. It will also take a closer look at what life is like for students attending seminary and what they can expect to gain from the experience. Whether you're considering attending seminary yourself or just curious about these unique institutions, read on to learn more.

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Changing Landscape of Theological Education

Since the early church, the training of pastors and spiritual leaders was intentional and comprehensive including studying theology, learning pastoral skills, and spiritually forming candidates. These earliest models were called paideia, because the education was holistic. However, in the 1800s the wissenschaft model changed theological training to a primarily scholarship and research oriented education. Today, many seminaries are shifting back to include an emphasis on spiritual formation and more practical preparation for the skills needed in ministry.

The earliest colleges in America, such as Harvard and Yale, were founded with a primary purpose of educating clergy. However, the study of theology and divinity in these colleges and universities began to wane by the late 19th century.

The role of educating clergy eventually shifted to denominationally-supported private colleges and specialist graduate institutions that have become what we know as “seminaries.” The word “seminary” comes from the Latin word seminarium, which means “seed bed.” The idea is that in a seminary, students are having a seedbed kind of experience, being planted and nurtured, with the goal of bearing fruit in ministry.

By the mid-20th century, the term “seminary” came to mainly describe the graduate schools for ministry and theological study that we know today.

Seminaries As We Know Them Today

Seminaries can be either stand-alone institutions or embedded as a part of a larger college or university. The majority of seminaries are stand-alone institutions, but 43% of seminaries accredited by the Association of Theological Schools are affiliated with a university or college (Table 1.3). Many are supported and funded by a particular denomination, while others are considered non-denominational.

As specialist institutions, seminaries could be compared to medical schools or law schools. As with seminaries, some of those are stand-alone, and many are embedded in a university. In each case, the school focuses on professional development and practice in a certain field (ministry, medicine, law), rather than strictly academic study.

While seminaries and rabbinical schools are found in other religions (Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc.), most North American seminaries are in the Christian tradition. These are the focus of this article. Seminaries are found within many different Christian denominations and traditions, from Roman Catholic and Orthodox, to mainline Protestant, nondenominational or Pentecostal, for educating pastors, priests, ministers, chaplains, etc.

The terms seminary, theological seminary, divinity school, and school of religion are on some levels somewhat interchangeable, as all such graduate institutions focus on preparation for ministry. A case can be made that schools using the term “seminary” tend to prioritize formation and skills for ministry, whereas divinity schools and schools of religion may prioritize academics. It could be considered a matter of emphasis, as most such schools could be considered seminaries in the broad sense. In any case, seminaries and divinity schools have a more professional focus than religion departments in a college or university, which engage primarily in the academic study of religion.

As graduate schools offering masters and doctoral degrees, seminaries are also distinct from Bible colleges and Bible institutes, which most commonly only offer bachelor’s degrees, and may or may not be accredited. Most seminaries require an accredited bachelor’s degree for admission, and two to four years of study to earn a master’s or doctoral degree.

What Do Seminaries Do?

Whether stand-alone or embedded, seminaries typically offer master’s and doctoral degrees and courses in a range and combination of disciplines, such as:

  • Biblical studies
  • Biblical and theological languages (i.e., Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, etc)
  • Theology
  • Church history
  • Spiritual formation
  • Pastoral studies
  • Pastoral counseling
  • Missions
  • Worship and preaching
  • Leadership studies
  • Specialty ministries

Students will engage in practicums, fieldwork, or internships to gain necessary pastoral and leadership skills, alongside the more academic disciplines.

A group of seminary students having a conversation

The flagship degree offered by most seminaries is the Master of Divinity (MDiv), which is required for ordination in many denominations and for chaplaincy. The MDiv is the foundational degree for the Doctor of Ministry degree. Most seminaries offer a range of other master’s and doctoral degrees in relevant fields. The accreditation agency for primarily Christian seminaries in North America is the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). Many seminaries are also regionally accredited, especially those embedded within a college or university.

A group of seminary students having a conversation

What Is Seminary Like?

Seminaries offer more than just the study of religion and ministry skills. Most seminaries desire to provide a personally transformative experience, as well as preparation for ministry, not just the objective study of scripture and theology. Students enroll to learn, but also to grow spiritually and as whole persons. The discipline of study in a seminary often helps students discern their own sense of call in ministry. While some enroll in seminary with a clear sense of vocation and calling, others use the experience to determine if ministry is right for them, or what kind of ministry to which God is leading them.

Because seminaries are graduate institutions, students can expect an appropriately stimulating, graduate-level experience. This will include focused study and critical thinking. It’s not like Sunday School or summer camp! Seminary students will be intellectually stretched and challenged, possibly encountering perspectives that challenge their long-held assumptions. This may come from professors, reading, assignments, and fellow students.

At the same time, most seminaries also provide a supportive and transformative community. Students may experience chapel services, intentional spiritual formation and direction, supportive community, and life-changing service and intern opportunities. A seminary education is meant to help students draw closer to Christ, be life-changing, and prepare for effective ministry inside and outside of the church.

Depending on the degree or program of study in seminary, graduates can go on to various careers or ministry roles, such as pastors, chaplains, missionaries, specialized pastoral roles (e.g., youth or family ministry, executive pastors, etc.), or counselors and spiritual directors. Some may pursue or continue careers in fields such as nonprofit leadership or teaching in higher education. Others apply to seminary for reasons more personal and less vocational, wanting to engage in formational academic study to enrich their faith, broaden their mind, and live more fully and effectively as a person of faith. Any or all of these are good reasons to consider a seminary education.

Related Article: Why Go to Seminary?