So, how can you find a school in which academic standards are held high? How do you find the program that's the best fit for you and will best facilitate your long-term career goals and ministry calling?
Whether you're just starting out on your college search or are a full-time senior pastor, youth pastor or associate minister wanting to continue or finish your education, the following tips will help you find your way. Although not an exhaustive study, these guidelines and considerations will get you pointed in the right direction to fulfill your educational goals.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT SCHOOL
This question lingers in the minds of thousands of Christians. It makes no difference whether you are professional clergy or a layperson, the decision to go to school requires choosing the right one for you. The best place to begin is on your knees before God. You must know what God has called you to do before you embark on a search for a school.
As with any major decision, there are pros and cons to be considered, so you must narrow your choices down to a manageable number. Consider these questions:
*Do you need to earn credits that will transfer to other colleges or universities, either religious or secular?
*Are you preparing for a particular ministry, such as music/worship leader, or psychological counseling?
*Is it necessary for you to study the natural sciences or mathematics? If so, is it because of the requirements of your position or career?
*Do you simply want to study the Bible and glean the deepest truths from what is found inside?
*Are you preparing for the ministry? If so, what emphasis (pastor, evangelist, missionary)?
The answers to these questions must be discovered in the context of your calling from God. Then, when you've found a school or schools of interest to you, viewing their respective programs and courses of study will help you make your final choice.
To be ordained within a particular church or denomination, completion of studies at a school recognized by that ecclesiastical body is often mandatory. This helps ensure the doctrinal stance of that particular group is maintained. However, this doesn't mean all the students of these schools are seeking ordination. Very capable and gifted instructors are found in these schools, which may be appealing as you pursue your goals.
KNOW THE DIFFERENCES
Many different kinds of schools are available, each with their own strengths to consider. Several general categories are described below to help you identify which may be the best choice for you.
Bible schools. These schools often develop within the ministry of particular individuals. Often, these ministers are seeking to fill a need they see in an area not met by other schools. The emphasis of the school is usually strong in one or two areas of ministry, such as evangelism or pastoring, and exists to equip men and women in these areas.
Many of these schools are not accredited, so courses taken may not be eligible for transfer to another school. However, these schools are usually very strong in biblical studies and will include extensive teaching on the theological posture of that particular church or ministry.
To decide whether a Bible school is right for you, first examine your goals and aspirations for ministry. Often, Bible schools offer good hands-on training that is not available in larger, more academic settings. Also, you can safely assume the students who attend will be sympathetic of your religious views. However, you may find lively discussion and debate are rare or even discouraged.
Tuition is usually based on the program the student is enrolled in (6 months, 12 months, and so on) which includes the number of courses and hours for that program. Some schools include housing and materials in the fee, while others do not. Program tuition can range from $1,500 to $5,000 depending on the length.
Bible colleges. As is the case with Bible schools, Bible colleges are often formed within a particular church or denomination. It's very common for denominations to have a Bible college for training the ministers to be ordained in their group. Therefore, you will often find strong theological bias toward particular beliefs and dogma.
Bible colleges are more likely to offer subjects that broaden the academic base of the students. Much like a liberal arts school, they offer a variety of subjects that enhance and develop the student beyond study of the Bible. However, there is still great emphasis on the theological training available, and usually courses are required that teach at least the basics. One can attend a Bible college and not get a theological degree if that is his or her desire. However, the specialty of Bible colleges is usually undergraduate-level academics mixed with theological studies.
These schools frequently offer smaller class size with more personalized instruction than that of larger colleges and universities. The advantage is in the instructor/student relationship that often exists. Many times, students can engage the instructor in after-class discussions that deepen and broaden the subject matter discussed in class.
Tuition is based on the degree the student is seeking, with per credit costs ranging from $65 to $125. Most schools charge housing and materials separately.
Christian universities. These schools offer course tracks that are similar to that of Bible colleges. The major difference is in the distance one can go.
Typically, universities can offer more extensive graduate degrees up to the doctoral level. Often, the courses offered at Christian universities rival those of state universities and offer equal or higher academic standards. Students can expect the rigors of study and academia to be the same as a state university, with the added dimension of a Christian environment.
Students may enter a Christian university to receive advanced theological training; however, they usually enroll for advanced degrees in the sciences, both social and natural. One can obtain advanced religion degrees, but they are often more academic rather than theological.
Tuition at the undergraduate level often ranges from $150 to $250 per credit hour. Graduate level tuition ranges from $300 to $800 per credit, depending on the program. Housing and other fees are separate.
Christian graduate schools/seminaries. These schools are specific in their course offerings. They are designed to provide students opportunities to earn degrees specific to ministry, theology, counseling and Christian education. Doctoral degrees offered are Th.D. (doctor of theology) and Ph.D. (doctor of philosophy). Tuition per credit hour ranges from $300 to $800 or more depending on the program.
ACCREDITED VS. AFFILIATED
People often assume that because a school is not accredited, it's not worth attending. But in many cases this is a bad assumption.
Accreditation is done through private agencies, such as the International Christian Accrediting Association (ICAA) that formed out of Oral Roberts University. These agencies have identified certain standards with which participating schools must comply.
The process of accreditation involves completing an application procedure that usually requires a site visit by a team from the accrediting agency. These on-site visits allow the team to view course content, look at administrative record keeping, interview both students and instructors, and generally ensure the school meets the criteria of the agency. In the case of ICAA, schools must undergo a visit every five years to document compliance.
Accountability is the greatest asset of accreditation, but accountability can be secured through association as well. Many schools choose to chart their own course without the oversight of any accrediting agency. Others choose to affiliate with organizations that allow complete autonomy but embrace association.
The Apostolic Council for Educational Accountability (ACEA), founded by C. Peter Wagner, was formed to provide a venue for accountability in lieu of accreditation. Less concerned with the academics of education and more concerned with impartation, ACEA member schools adopt a peer-level evaluation and mutual accountability while maintaining the integrity of their individual callings from God.
Fuller Theological Seminary has a list of schools and seminaries on their Web site (www.fuller.edu). Browse through them to see if one or more catches your eye. If so, then follow up by requesting a student packet so you can examine their statement of faith, programs and courses offered.
If a school looks promising, arrange for a site visit so you can see the facility, meet some faculty, interview some students and generally get a feel for the spiritual environment. See if the program offered will help you meet your goals.
Another important piece of advice: When scouting out a school with which you are not familiar, make sure it's not a "degree mill" that just takes your money to give you a worthless piece of paper.
Many schools make their programs available online for students who are unable to attend a program on site. The advantages are obvious. While pursuing a degree, students can stay home with their families, continue in their ministry or occupation, take classes according to their schedule and enjoy access to vast libraries at their fingertips whenever needed. Many schools, such as The King's College and Seminary founded by Jack Hayford, offer high quality, accredited programs online.
However, the disadvantages to online or distance learning must be considered as well. Students who take classes online face challenges similar to those of students who take correspondence courses. These include: the possibility of a wavering commitment to stay in the process to completion; feeling isolated from the instructor and classmates; and less "impartation"--by nature the focus is more rote academics.
Before embarking on any online program, find out how the instructors will interact with you.
What will be required from you to ensure their timely response to your questions? How much experience does the school have with this method of teaching? What kind of Internet connection speed do you need: 56K modem or high-speed DSL or cable connections?
In closing, many schools of all types are available for your investigation. The key is to have an idea what you need so that you can check your needs against what a school offers. Of course, some trade-offs may need to be made, but if you're giving up more than you are getting, you may need to look further.
Financial aid is another item to consider. Many students cannot afford to dive into a program that will cost $10,000 or more per year. Ask if the school has a program you can take advantage of to either lower your tuition and fees or help you stretch out the payment over time. If you're going to a Christian college or university, there may be a no-interest or low-interest program. Also, ask about scholarships or grants.
Finally, stay focused. Many people are willing to work with you to ensure your goals are accomplished. By staying focused and receiving the help they offer, you'll get farther down the road with less effort. Dedicated instructors, counselors, advisors and faculty can help you see the bumps in the road you didn't even know were there.
Be willing to stretch your horizons and look beyond where you've come from. And pray. The Holy Spirit will guide you to the school that will fulfill His purpose in your life.