Christopher Chelpka

How to Prepare for Seminary: A Comprehensive Guide

Everything you need o know about how to prepare for seminary.

Not everyone needs to prepare for seminary. Not everyone has the time. But if you are like most students entering seminary, you should find at least some time to prepare. What you’ll discover is that even a little preparation will go a long way to making the most of your seminary education. Not to mention…the same kind of people who choose to attend seminary are the kind of people who will find preparing for seminary fun.

So how do you prepare? It depends on your circumstances. Imagine you want to be a United States Marine, and you’re about to enter Basic Training. How much time do you have left? How strong are your spiritual, academic, and theological muscles? Are you a body builder or a shrimp? A marathon runner or a warm stick of butter? Your pastor can help you determine this and work with you to come up with a realistic, but challenging, plan. The plan I outline below will help you get started.

Overview of the Plan

The following seminary preparation plan is carefully designed to prepare you for seminary. This is different than giving you a taste of seminary or warming up for seminary. The goal is to get ready for your basic (theological) training, not to see what it might be like or to do a few stretches before you get there.

The plan has three steps. Each is a foundation for the next. Under each step, I tell you what to do, why you should do it, and what tools to use. At the end, there is a summary of the steps and recommended resources.

And please, don’t forget to leave your feedback! I’ll use it for future revisions.

Most of you will need to start with the tasks in Step 1. Even if you have only one month left before classes start and only 1.5 hours a day to devote to preparation, start with Step 1. If you have more than 1.5 hours a day, extend your work on exercises 4 and 5 and simultaneously begin your work on Step 2.

 

Step One: Five Essential Tasks

The following exercises are written in order of importance.

Task 1: Read your Bible 10–20 minutes a day, plus book introductions

Martin Luther read the Bible twice each year. Let this be your practice as well. You can do this by reading your Bible 10–20 minutes a day. Easy!

There are two goals for this exercise. The first goal is to learn the habit of daily Bible reading. The second goal is to grow increasing familiar with the Bible. The only way to become well versed in Scripture is to read its verses often, and that doesn’t happen without the habit. So read at a moderately quick pace, and read every day. For the best reading experience, I use the ESV Reader’s Bible. It presents a clean text without notes, cross-references, or verse numbers.

If you are looking for a reading plan, there are many to choose from. My favorite reading plan is Thematic, developed by Craig DesJardins. With this plan, you read two books of the Bible at a time, reading each from beginning to end a few chapters at a time. The only exception are the Psalms, which are scattered throughout the days. Mr. DesJardins has developed a new plan each year, so the match-ups are never the same. I learned about Thematic through the iOS app Reading Plan. Since Thematic is a one-year plan, read two entries a day to complete the plan in a year.

In addition to reading through the Bible twice a year, read the scholarly introductions to each book that you find in either the ESV Study Bible or the Reformation Study Bible. These introductions outline the book and orient you to the most important issues and features, thereby speeding the process of gaining familiarity with the Bible. You can get more detailed introductions in other places, but quality and brevity are what you want need right now.

You can check your growing knowledge of the Bible by having a friend quiz you: What is a theme of Psalm 91? Where are we told to pray for our leaders? In the New Testament, what body part is compared to the rudder of a small ship? Alternatively, let Steve Whitney be your friend. He’s created 161 Bible knowledge tests you can take online or print off. Thanks, Steve!

Task 2: Improve the content of your prayers

When you study to improve the content of your prayers, you will better learn the will of God and how to conform your heart to it. “Prayer is nothing but the promise reversed,” said William Gurnall, it is “God’s Word formed into an argument, and retorted by faith upon God again.”

There is a simple way to do this. First, get a copy of A Method for Prayer: Freedom in the Face of God by Matthew Henry and edited by Ligon Duncan. Next, write out by hand “A Pocket Outline for Scriptural Prayer” by Ligon Duncan, found in the appendices. As you do this, try to commit as much as you can to memory. Then, using the book, write a short prayer for each of the following situations, or come up with your own. Try to write 1–2 prayers a week.

  • before a meal
  • after an answered prayer
  • upon hearing a confession of sin
  • in preparation for worship
  • for a struggling relationship
  • for God to rescue from a difficult situation
  • for a sick person
  • for a dying person
  • for a birth
  • for a birthday
  • for wisdom in a difficult situation
  • for the growth of the church

Task 3: Ask your church leadership for help and for service opportunities

One of your best resources in preparing for seminary will be the pastors, elders, and deacons of your church. So don’t get too far before asking the leaders of your church how they think you should prepare for seminary. First-year seminarians are reasonably capable of managing themselves as Christian adults, but often still struggle in at least one significant way. Share with your church leaders your struggles, your goals, and this plan. Then ask them for help. You want to make sure you’re headed in the right direction and get the help you need.

When you talk with your mentor(s) about preparing for seminary, don’t forget to seek advice on more than your theological and academic needs: consider your material and spiritual needs as well.

Talk about your material needs and the logistics of going to seminary. Do you know how to manage your finances? Do you have a realistic plan to pay for seminary? Will you need a job? What kind of job? Do you know how to get a job? These questions are important: you don’t want your seminary plan to fall apart because you failed to think things through. (This probably deserves a separate post. If you think so, let me know in the comments.)

Talk about your spiritual needs too. Are you enslaved to some sin? Are there things in your life you would be ashamed if people knew? Are you addicted to pornography, alcohol, or possessions? Do you anger easily? Do you lack prudence in choosing friends or using time? Note these sins with deep and sincere regret, confess them, pray for forgiveness, and seek help with the process of repentance. Reading theology is fun and spiritually edifying, but book pages are no better than fig leaves for covering your sin.

You’ll also want to serve in the church as much as time, opportunity, and giftedness allow. Ask your elders about your current level of service. Could you serve more or serve better? Theological knowledge should be used for worship and service. And it’s in the context of the church that this occurs and is learned.

Task 4: Study a biblical language 20–30+ minutes a day

As with Bible reading, it is important that you get in the habit of daily language learning. Even after you learn the languages, you will need to keep them up. So develop this habit now.

The best way to learn a language is immersion. This, of course, is difficult with biblical Greek and Hebrew—though not impossible. But if immersion isn’t ideal for you—maybe you’re a Presbyterian—then sign up for a class; it’s your next best option. If that won’t work either, then study on your own. Because of cost, availability, and time, many will choose this last option. If you choose self-study, then find out what curriculum your future seminary uses and spend 20–30 minutes a day working through the material. You’ll be surprised how much you learn doing only this. At the minimum, you will have developed some language-learning habits and skills. And you will have an easier time the first few weeks of school. Not bad!

If, however, you are able to do more than this, I highly recommend it. Ideally, you would learn at least one biblical language before coming to seminary. If you have already done this, start working on another.

The farther ahead you can get in the languages before coming to seminary the better.There are several reasons this is true.

First, seminaries offer placement exams that allow you to test out of classes, saving you time and money. Second, the best students at seminary are often the ones who knew Greek or Hebrew before coming to seminary. Because of their previous work, when they take a language class, they struggle less and retain more. And because Greek and Hebrew are used in non-language classes as well, these students perform better there too. Third, those unfamiliar with language learning, especially at seminary speed, will find it difficult to prioritize language learning as they should. Seminary language courses move quickly and require a level of intellectual effort and discipline most students are not ready for. And when you have so many good things to read in your other classes, it’s easy to forget about your flashcards. Learning a language beforehand helps avoid a late-night choice between reading Machen’s takedown of liberalism or his lesson on liquid verbs.

That being said, seminaries teach the biblical languages for a reason. You are doing nothing wrong by learning them there. Still, a head start will be to your advantage.

Task 5: Memorize Berkhof’s Summary of Christian Doctrine

In Task 1, I told you that familiarity with Scripture was the goal. Here, in Task 5, strive for doctrinal depth. Start your dive by reading and memorizing Summary of Christian Doctrine by Louis Berkhof.

Louis Berkhof was a systematic theology professor for thirty-eight years at Calvin Theological Seminary. His one-volume Systematic Theology  is a standard seminary text. He is orthodox, precise, and easy to understand. His Summary of Christian Doctrines is the bite-sized version of the bigger work. This book will take you a good distance and prepare you for going further. And get the Eerdmans edition, by the way, it’s layout and design are much better than the alternative.

Read this book very carefully. If you were a musician, this would be your slow practice and scale memorization. Start by reading the whole book once through at a relatively quick pace. Then go back through and start memorizing. Memorize the content of each chapter, especially the proof-texts, and quiz the material with a friend. Friends add fun.

If you run out of time before seminary starts, keep the Berkhof project going until you finish. This will lay a foundation and framework for the rest of your work in seminary . And if you are hoping to be licensed and ordained, doing this step will get you to these goals much, much sooner. It’s not hard, it just takes discipline.

 

Step Two: Sharpen Your Skills, Deepen Your Theology

Let’s say you are feeling pretty solid with Step 1. You know your Bible well and are continuing to read it regularly. You’re working with your pastor on the plan you made, and you’re seeking to grow in grace. You’re making daily progress on a language, and you know Berkhof’s book like a baby knows its blankie. Now what?

I suggest you do two things. First, sharpen your academic skills. Improve your ability to study, read, write, and speak. These skills are essential for succeeding in seminary and may even help you test-out of some prerequisites. But if you’re like most American college graduates, your academic skills are still—sadly—lacking. It happened to me too. Work on these skills with someone who knows them well and uses them daily; your pastor is just one possibility.

Second, continue to lay your theological foundation. Through Berkhof, you’ve received an introduction to systematic theology. Now it’s time to carefully study introductions to biblical theology, historical theology, confessional theology, and apologetics.

I suggest that you alternate between working on your academic skills and improving your theology.

This is my suggested reading list, in order. You can change it depending on your needs and preferences.

Reading List

  1. How to Become a Straight-A Student by Cal Newport; See also his excellent blog at http://calnewport.com/blog/about/ (Study Skills; Time Management)
  2. Confession of Faith and Catechisms (Confessional Theology)
  3. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss (Punctuation)
  4. A Writers Coach: The Complete Guide to Writing Strategies That Work by Jack R. Hart (Writing)
  5. From Eden to the New Jerusalem: An Introduction to Biblical Theology by T. Desmond Alexander (Biblical Theology)
  6. Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Making Speeches and Presentations by Max Atkinson (Learn to Speak)
  7. What’s Your Worldview?: An Interactive Approach to Life’s Big Questions by James N. Anderson (Apologetics)
  8. Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (Writing; Life of the Mind)
  9. The History of Christian Doctrines by Louis Berkhof
  10. The Craft of Research, Third Edition by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams (Learning to Write)
  11. On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luthers Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 by Gerhard O. Forde (Theology)

Suggested Assignments

Practice what you read. Schedule and complete the following assignments. Review and revise with your mentor.

writing

  1. Write blog posts for your church on assigned topics.
  2. Edit someone else’s unedited writing.
  3. Take a copyediting test. Here is one. And here are several more from Dow Jones.
  4. Review a book in 500 words.
  5. Write an 800-word devotional on a portion of scripture.
  6. Defend a doctrinal thesis in 500 words.
  7. Defend a doctrinal thesis in 1,000 words.
  8. Listen and discuss an episode from the podcast The New Yorker: Poetry.
  9. Listen and discuss an episode from the podcast The New Yorker: Fiction.

speaking

Try to find real-life opportunities for speaking. If you can’t, pull together an audience of any size for a mock-speech.
  1. Write and deliver a 200-word speech.
  2. Write and deliver a 500-word speech.
  3. Write and deliver a 1,000-word speech.
 

Step Three: Keep Going and Branch out

Steps 1 and 2 are a lot of work if you do them right. That’s just one reason you should try and take a year or two off between college and seminary. But let’s say you’ve done all of the above and still have time before seminary. (Of course you’re still reading the Bible, studying languages, and serving the church.) Congratulations! Just keeping going! Shore up any areas of weakness and have some fun. Start reading more fiction and memorizing poetry. Branch out to pet projects, work through a recommended reading list, or study the books for a subject that interests you.

You might also consider learning the style guides now that you’ll use in seminary (Chicago Style for Students & Researchers, 8th Edition and The SBL Handbook of Style, 2nd Edition). The best way to do that is to find unedited pieces of writing and correct them by looking everything up in the guides.

Finally, developing your thinking about the civil side of your life is also worth doing. The following resources are, I think, a good place to start.

 

Conclusion and a Request

So, now you have a comprehensive guide to preparing for seminary. It’s up to you to find a mentor and tailor it to your needs. And don’t forget to leave your comments and questions below. Thanks!

 


Summary and Resource List


Here I summarize the material above. If you want to know how and why to prepare with these steps, see above.

Step One Summary

Task 1. Read Your Bible

Read the Bible 10–20 minutes every day at a moderately quick pace. Also, carefully read a scholarly introduction to each book. Quiz yourself on the introductions and the text of each book to see how you are doing.

Task 2. Improve Your Prayer

Write out by hand “A Pocket Outline for Scriptural Prayer” by Ligon Duncan. Using this outline and Matthew Henry’s A Method for Prayer, write 1–2 prayers each week. See above for a recommended topic list.

Task 3. Talk to Your Church Leadership

Talk to your pastors, elders, and deacons to help you determine your needs (material, spiritual, academic) and a plan. Find out how you can serve more and serve better.
  • Godly mentors who know the right goals and how to help you reach them
  • This plan!

4. Study Greek or Hebrew

Spend at least 20–30 minutes a day studying Greek or Hebrew.
  • The language textbooks and supplementary material of the school you will attend

5. Memorize Berkhof’s Summary of Christian Doctrine

Study the doctrines and proof-texts in the Summary of Christian Doctrine. Get to ninja level.  

Step Two Summary

Read the recommended books and complete the assignments (or similar ones) to strengthen your academic skills and theology. See extended discussion above for assignments.  

Step Three Summary

Continue in the habits you’ve learned. Shore up areas of weakness and branch out in directions that interest you.  

Photo Credit: Jorden Wells via Wikimedia Commons.