Book Review: Succeeding at Seminary

Monday, 24th May 2021
Image: book-review-succeeding-at-seminary

Author: Davy Ellison


Jason K. Allen, Succeeding at Seminary: 12 Keys to Getting the Most out of Your Theological Education, Moody Publishers, Chicago (2021), 128 pages.


Given my position and role at the College books of this nature are always of interest to me. I am constantly offering advice and guidance to students exploring the option of theological education, in the midst of ministry preparation, or graduating after their studies at the Irish Baptist College. As Allen himself points out, “Ministry is too high a calling to enter ill-prepared, and picking a seminary is too serious a decision to make lightly” (p. 39). It is therefore great to have resources to point aspiring gospel workers to, and Allen’s book is now one to which I will point people. As I read I repeatedly found myself nodding in agreement and murmuring, “Yes and amen!”

The book’s subtitle effectively describes the content: 12 keys to getting the most out of your theological education. Allen’s advice is delivered in 12 pithy chapters that, if acted upon, will equip a student with all they need to succeed at seminary (or Bible College—I will return to this in my conclusion). All of the key issues are covered by Allen: discerning calling, the importance of formal training, choosing a location and a mode of study, caring for family and finances, and cultivating character.

There are a number of aspects to Succeeding at Seminary which commend it to the reader:

  1. Allen offers a robust but gracious defence of the legitimacy of formal theological education in preparation for ministry. He begins: “For those called to ministry, preparation is non-negotiable; and for most, that will include seminary studies . . . formal seminary education is not a prerequisite for gospel ministry, but sufficient ministry preparation most certainly is” (p. 14). In every other area of life, Allen highlights, “We insist on knowledge, training, suitable experience, and a successful track record . . . The church should expect no less from its minsters” (p. 28). He justifiably concludes, “A call to ministry is a call to minister the Word. Thus, a call to ministry is a call to prepare to minister the Word” (p. 27). This note, struck at the outset of the book, is a most helpful and winsome defence of formal theological education as one element in the pathway of preparing for ministry. For this alone I would recommend reading it.
  2. Somewhat related is the way in which Allen is able to acknowledge there are other pathways in to ministry: “You can be an amateur even if you hold a seminary degree, and you can be a faithful minister even if you lack one” (p. 26). However, Allen does this while still advocating the importance of formal study. After all, “Ministry is too high a calling to enter ill-prepared” (p. 39). Scandalously this kind of convictional civility is often missing in Christian conversation. Happily, it is not absent from Allen’s book.
  3. Throughout there is an emphasis on cultivating character. It is true that this might begin with head knowledge: “Seminary has a way of rounding us out, enabling us to mature into a well-informed believer with a broad-based knowledge of Scripture, theology, and ministry essentials” (p. 29). Such rounding out, however, inevitably impacts our character. Thus, Allen contends, “Seminary studies make you a better minister not just because of what you learn, but because of the maturity, responsibility, and self-discipline the entire process cultivates” (p. 60). While both character and competence are important, character is the first among equals. Allen captures this impetus.
  4. The book is packed full of wisdom and humour, both of which are needed to survive theological education. If I were to start offering examples I would likely end up retyping most of the book—since that would break copyright laws, you will simply have to pick it up yourself.

Only twice did I grimace when reading Succeeding at Seminary. These are not significant issues, but minor disagreements:

  1. In my opinion Allen presents far too positive a view of online ministry preparation: “While there are far more components to a seminary education than just knowledge, the stereotype of an inferior online education needs to be laid to rest” (p. 42). Respectfully, I disagree. Preparing for ministry online is simply too isolating. It lacks real life peer-on-peer engagement; it minimises the ability to form a band of brothers or sisters (see chapter 11); it stunts growth in character through seminary studies. Ask any student in theological education, it is simply impossible for those who have not experienced it to offer the same quality of encouragement and rebuke—try as they may. Perhaps I am old fashioned, or, more positively, a purist, but everything in my experience supports the claim that in-person, on-campus engagement is superior preparation for ministry. Indeed, Allen concedes as much: “There is simply no replacement for studying on campus” (p. 44). Online theological education can serve a purpose, but not in ministry preparation (at least in the West).
  2. The second comment that caused me to raise an eyebrow was the advice to “Be willing to embrace a different lifestyle for a few years” (p. 77). The implication being that working within a smaller budget only has to last until we graduate. Once we graduate and find a ministry position we can start splashing the cash! Let me suggest that if ministers maintained a similar standard of living in their pastorates to their seminary days, and led by exampling in giving the resultant disposable income to support gospel work, the church might have a worthy example to follow in generous financial giving.

I have one further issue with books of this nature, which I alluded to above. The issue is not with Allen, however, it is with the publishers. Theological education in the United States is a very different beast from theological education in Europe. It is true that many experiences are the same, but there are some key differences. My hope is that even though it may not be as profitable as a “Seminary book” that some publisher may invest in the lives of theological students in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Europe with a “Bible College book”. It would be great to point prospective students to a book that is attuned to the peculiarities of theological education in Europe.

Do not let these personal preferences detract from the overall benefit of Allen’s book. Succeeding at Seminary is an excellent book. It is challenging, helpful, and insightful in equal measure. Particularly profitable, in my opinion, were two key emphases that resonate with what we do at the Irish Baptist College: spiritual formation and practical experience. Allen rightly states, “Seminary is not just a season of theological formation; it’s also a season of spiritual and ministerial discovery. A healthy seminary experience will not only inform the mind but shape the heart and crystallize the calling” (p. 22). At the Irish Baptist College we are about the work of spiritual formation in the lives of our students. The thread of spiritual formation runs throughout the book. Allen also reminds his readers that “Most churches are not looking for a minister with a credential; they are looking for a minister with experience” (p. 103). The need for experience is one of the reasons that the College’s Preparation for Ministry course is punctuated with placements and teams. The classroom is important, but it can only take the student so far.

Succeeding at Seminary should be required reading for all entering theological education.

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