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Finding the Right Seminary

Staci Imes knew she wanted to study at a seminary with a strong commitment to social justice.  She knew she wanted a program focused on training ministers, rather than scholars.  And while she’s committed to her denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), she relishes the idea of studying with people from different traditions. But which seminary was for her?

To Melissa Wiginton, vice president for ministry programs and planning at the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE), Imes is ahead of her game. Staci has grasped Wiginton’s first bit of advice for would-be seminary students: Know thyself.

“It’s important to be as clear as you can be about why you’re going, what you want the experience to be and how you plan to finance your education without taking on too much debt,” said Wiginton, who created the FTE Guide to Theological Education as a resource to students considering seminary.  Strategies for how to pay for a theological education are particularly important in the current economy, and a new FTE Guide—coming online May 2010—offers tips for navigating costs and finding support. Potential students also have a valuable tool in "Student Loans and Seminary Costs: How to Keep from Mortgaging Your Future" published by the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education.

Wiginton advises prospective seminary students to ask themselves: What is my signature interest? Is it general parish ministry, social justice, spiritual formation, the academic study of theology? Some schools have particular gifts for forming students in each of those areas.

For Imes, 27, the answer was obvious. As a volunteer with BorderLinks, a binational nonprofit organization dedicated to social and economic justice education on the border, she has been leading trips to Mexican border towns from her home base in Tucson.

Social justice is such a passion for her, she ruled out one Presbyterian school — San Francisco Theological Seminary — because it was located in the tiny San Anselmo suburb.

Still, even for Imes, it took 10 months of investigating before she settled on Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif.

She hadn’t even heard of the school until the last month of her search. But its mission statement said it all. The school is “committed to serving God by equipping historic and emerging faith communities for ministries of compassion and justice in a changing world.”

“When I read that description something clicked in my brain,” she said.

And that’s another bit of advice Wiginton likes to share with prospective seminary students: “Look around.”

“A lot of people know two or three seminaries,” said Wiginton. “But there are 250 schools accredited by the Association of Theological Schools.  You may surprise yourself with what you find.”

Other factors to consider:

Cost: Most first-year ministers earn less than $40,000 a year, so it may be worthwhile to seek out every dollar of financial assistance available. Those include scholarships offered by the seminary, but also by denominations and other private sources. The FTE offers several fellowships for seminary students pursuing degrees in both master of divinity and doctoral programs. “Get your nerve up and ask,” said Wiginton.

Denomination: Attending a seminary affiliated with a denomination offers lots of benefits, including financial aid. But many students, even those secure in their denominational identity, may want to pursue their studies in a more diverse environment, such as a divinity school. “It’s becoming more common to say, ‘I’m a Lutheran, and I’m going to be a Lutheran for the rest of my life. I’m not going to a Lutheran school,’” said Wiginton. The downside? Students may have to complete additional courses elsewhere to qualify for a position within their denomination.

Campus life: Increasingly, schools are offering off-site or distance learning options. While that may be tempting for students unable to relocate because of a family or a job, it may also mean fewer options for socializing and networking with like-minded students.

Students who have gone through the process recommend investigating all the options.

“When you’re starting out, it doesn’t matter where you visit,” advised Imes. “It’s important to be there and talk to students there.”

Finally, the process of finding the right seminary may be stressful. Sometimes it challenges people to rethink their call. Sticking with a local church and seeking support from its members is vital.

Nicholas Detweiler-Stoddard of Harrisonburg, Va., found that out in the two years since he graduated from college.

The 24-year-old Mennonite said he experienced doubt about his calling after working in the secular world, first with terminally ill people, then with children with behavioral problems. Fortunately, he was heavily involved in a church community. Detweiler-Stoddard, like Imes, received a fellowship and support from FTE for exploring his call to ministry.

“It’s very valuable to continue participating in the life of the faith community despite these doubts,” he said.

Hearing the words of affirmation offered by his fellow congregants, he said, got him going again. He’s currently studying at Eastern Mennonite Seminary.

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