What Is a Seminary?

by Tobin Perry

If you’re interested in Christian ministry or advanced theological studies, you’ve probably wondered: what is a seminary? While you can pursue a graduate degree in religious studies at many universities, seminaries are uniquely designed to help prepare you for ministry in local churches, nonprofit organizations, and academia.

Read on to delve deeper into the world of seminaries, including how they differ from a traditional college or Christian university and what degree pathways they offer to help you reach your goals.

What Is a Seminary?

A seminary is an educational institution specifically designed to train students in theology and practical ministry skills, ultimately preparing them for ordained ministry. Generally, there are two kinds of seminaries:

  • Denominational: Affiliated with specific Christian denominations, these seminaries train ministers for churches within that denomination. Students may attend denominational seminaries and serve outside the denomination, but most serve within it.
  • Nondenominational: These seminaries aren’t affiliated with any denomination. They may still operate within the theological convictions of a particular faith tradition but not in any official capacity.

Seminaries are also categorized by how students take classes. In residential seminaries, students take classes on campus. At online seminaries, students take classes virtually. Some are taught live, while other schools may offer recorded classes.

Hybrid seminaries give students the option of taking both online and in-person classes. Today, many seminaries offer this hybrid model.

Seminaries vs. Other Academic Institutions: What’s the Difference?

So, what is a seminary? This question can be tough to answer if you haven’t spent much time around seminary graduates. However, there are some basic distinctions between a seminary, a Christian university, and a traditional educational institution. All three types of colleges will likely offer classes on religious topics (and, more specifically, Bible-related courses). Still, each institution will have some classes that the others don’t. And most importantly, each has its own purpose.

Traditional College

Religious courses at traditional, secular colleges often fulfill the school’s liberal arts requirements. These colleges and universities usually offer classes related to world religions, including Christianity. Their purpose is to help students understand the historical, cultural, and literary influences of religions around the world. Graduate schools with religious studies programs often prepare students for advanced academic work in religion at secular universities.

Christian University

Religion and biblical studies courses at Christian universities (whether at an undergraduate or graduate level) are designed to help students develop a biblical worldview that’s consistent with the school’s values. These courses can be part of students’ general graduation requirements or prepare students for specific graduate or undergraduate degrees in biblical studies or ministry.


Seminaries are designed to prepare students for ministry. Students usually take a combination of theological courses (e.g., Old Testament, New Testament, systematic theology, and biblical languages) and practical ministry courses (e.g., preaching, pastoral care, counseling, and missions).

While all three types of schools may have multiple New Testament studies courses, for example, a seminary-level class will teach the content with a specific focus on using the material within a ministry setting.

What’s the Right Seminary Degree for You?

The best way to choose a seminary degree pathway is to understand your ministry calling and which skills you need to be effective in that role. Most seminaries offer a variety of degree plans to fit specific career goals. For example, Azusa Pacific Seminary offers the following programs in English, Korean, and Spanish:

Master of Divinity

If you’re looking to serve in pastoral ministry, you’ll need a full complement of theological and practical ministry courses. A Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree provides this range of education, making it a popular seminary program for this role.

Because it provides such a strong mixture of theology and practical ministry, the MDiv is also a great option if you’re a ministry leader considering a future in theological education.

Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies

The Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies program requires fewer classes and is more flexible, allowing for ministry specializations like urban studies, church leadership and development, and youth ministry. It’s a particularly good fit if you feel called toward a more specialized form of ministry. This degree path can work well if you’re a prospective pastor or lay leader who wants to grow your skills.

You can also serve Christ through para-church organizations or other nonprofits through this educational track by building a flexible degree plan.

Doctor of Ministry

Building upon the Master of Divinity degree, the Doctor of Ministry is the highest professional ministry degree available. It’s ideal if you’re a ministry leader who already has a seminary degree and ministry experience, but you want to further develop your spirituality and leadership skills to be more effective in your community.

Take the Next Step toward Your Career

When God calls you to ministry, you want to be ready for everything He has planned for you. Seminary can help. Among other benefits of a seminary education, it can help you sharpen your skills and build relationships with mentors and peers to support you along the way. Learn more about Azusa Pacific Seminary and take your calling into your own hands today.