This fall, I will begin an MDiv at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. The following three part series will explore how I came to decide on both the degree type and the school. Part one will explore why I chose to pursue an MDiv. The second part will explain my thought process when considering which schools would receive my application. The final part will explain why I decided to attend Southeastern. I should say, by way of a disclaimer, that at no point does this series attempt to provide anything like a survey of the state of theological education today, or provide an analysis of the innumerable options available to the aspiring teacher or preacher. I am writing about the way things seem to me now, or the way they seemed at the time I was making my decision. Your experience may, and almost certainly will, differ.
My decision to pursue an MDiv, rather than a strictly academic degree, opened up a whole new range of possibilities. Whereas there were relatively few schools that I felt would give me the scholarly training I desired in an MA type degree, there were many schools which would effectively train me for ministry, each school with its own advantages and drawbacks. What follows is an attempt to retrace the thinking that led to my final choice in submitting applications. As always, the ways in which I characterize the various schools are simply my own thoughts and not an attempt at an objective evaluation of all the options.
As I began to evaluate my options, it made good sense to me that those big name schools that had previously made it on to my short list for a two year academic degree would also serve me well for an MDiv. If it was still my goal to go on to a PhD after my MDiv, then it was important to appraise the academic reputation of the programs under consideration. Looking around at those graduate students enrolled in my school’s PhD program, students who had earned an MDiv rather than an MA type degree tended to earn their degrees from university divinity schools like Candler at Emory, Duke, and Chicago, as well as big name seminaries such as Princeton and Union. The MDiv programs at these schools, then, clearly prepared their students for PhD work.
Nevertheless, academic preparation was no longer my only goal. I also needed an institution that would faithfully train me for the Christian ministry. When viewed with this lens, a couple of the top schools seemed unsuitable for my aims. Among these MDiv programs, there were some offered from an inter-religious perspective (i.e. students prepare for a generically religious ministry, focusing on both their own faith and other traditions). I knew I wanted a thoroughly Christian education, so I crossed those schools which were explicitly non-sectarian off of my list.
The same impulse that led me to desire a Christian MDiv, also led me to question whether or not any of these “top-tier” programs would fulfill my requirements. My primary purpose in seeking an MDiv is to prepare for ministry within a certain context. I am quite theologically conservative (I dislike the term “conservative”, but it is sufficient to convey my meaning here). The churches that I will serve will more likely than not be conservative and Evangelical. While I have no doubt that these highly regarded schools prepare their students well, both academically and for the professional tasks associated with ministry, I began to ask myself if these schools would best prepare me to serve within my own location on that broad spectrum of American Christianity.
I came to think that if my primary purpose in an MDiv was to prepare for ministry, then it simply made good sense to prepare at a school geared toward the context in which I intended to minister. Now, perhaps, it would be useful to provide some more information about my theological location. I am a member of a baptistic, Reformed-leaning, Evangelical church in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention. Although there are a number of options available, I decided that my best option was to take advantage of the resources offered by the SBC. There are six SBC seminaries, each with its own character and focus. The two seminaries closest to me, both theologically and geographically, are The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. In all honesty, the single biggest factor in choosing between the two was proximity. SEBTS is only a couple hours away from where I currently live, and very near to family (a factor important to my son’s grandparents). If all things were equal, I might very well have chosen Southern, but in the end both schools a have the same confession (The Abstract of Principles), the same focus on training ministers to serve in a Southern Baptist context, and the same heart for fulfilling the Great Commission. So then, of the Southern Baptist schools, I decided to apply to SEBTS in North Carolina.
So, in brief, I narrowed the great variety of schools by focusing on programs that would prepare me to serve in a conservative Evangelical context. This process led me to cross some of the high profile, academically focused schools off of my list in favor of schools within my own SBC tradition. There was however, one important exception. As application season commenced, I was quite content to fire off a single application to SEBTS. Even so, several people whose advice I take seriously, urged me to consider Duke Divinity School as a possible fit for my dual requirement of an academically rigorous, yet faithful program. Remarkably, these people all got the idea independently from one another that Duke would be a great fit for me. As I began to explore this option, I couldn’t help but agree with them. First I was very impressed by the PhD students at my school who had earned an MDiv from Duke. They were obviously well prepared for the rigors of PhD study, and they were also good men and faithful, orthodox, Christians. Second, Duke’s program is unique in its high degree of flexibility. Fully half of the required credits are electives, a feature which allows students to tailor the program to their specific requirements. The final element that convinced me to apply was my visit to the campus. My wife and I absolutely loved it. It seemed like a Christian community thoroughly devoted to faithful and rigorous study.
So, in conclusion, I decided to apply to only two schools. Southeastern was plan A. It offers an affordable, faithful education for those preparing to be pastors. Duke on the other hand, offered something of a compromise between my academic and ministerial aspirations, the best of both worlds. I was content in deciding to apply to these schools. In the end, I would be perfectly happy to go the SEBTS, but if Duke worked out, then that might be the best fit.
It is my hope that this has given some insight into how I narrowed down my list of schools. My next post will deal with the results of my applications for admission. It will also address how made my final decision regarding which school I would attend.