Do we need to test the ability of trainee pastors to write essays?

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From time to time I write about where I believe things need to change in terms of training people for pastoral ministry. I believe that if we are going to train more people for Gospel work then we need to look at different ways of going about the training. This does not mean that I’m against the place of traditional seminaries. I’m a big supporter of Oak Hill and Union here in the UK. I personally benefited greatly from my time at Oak Hill and have enjoyed partnering with Union in recent times.

However, I don’t think that this is the only way to go about training and nor do I think that if we stick to traditional methods through lectures, essays and exams that we will manage to train and equip everyone we could and should train.  There are various reasons from cost (money and time) through to academic experience and gifting as to why that type of approach won’t be accessible to all.  To be clear, I think it is possible to be academically gifted and we should recognise and applaud those gifts but that this is not the same as the Biblical qualification for elders to be able to teach.  I don’t think that “academic” is the same as “wise,” “gifted” or “intelligent.” It is possible to be all of those things whilst not being academically gifted and it is possible to be academically gifted but unwise and not gifted for pastoral ministry.  Indeed, I sometimes question the presence of intelligence when I read some academic works!

This is relevant to an article by Matthew Bingham shared by Oak Hill on why essay writing is helpful for assessment. The premise of the article is that we need to be able to communicate the Gospel effectively.  Clear communication requires ordered thinking and writing things down helps us to order our thinking.  Essay writing forces us to write concisely in order to structure our thinking and communicate clearly.

What Bingham has done there has explained well why essays are good and helpful. He has not justified why they might be necessary for assessing both in terms of academic assessment generally or in particular for potential pastors. The problem is that I think he has conceded too much against those who attack essay writing.  It’s as though essays are not seen as good in and of themselves so we must defend them as having the limited benefit of helping us to assess students. If we do that, then we see essays as something to endure for our three years at college and then to discard later. 

However, in defence of essays I want to say that I enjoy them and have found them helpful. I enjoy reading essays including those found in collected works either edited or by multiple authors. I also enjoy writing them. Now a lot of what I write now takes the form of short blog articles like this but sometimes I sit down and intentionally write a full essay in order to develop an argument or explore a subject.  The point is that the essay serves a purpose in its own right to communicate something.

At the same time, Matthew argues too much. Yes it is true that writing things down is helpful when we want to structure our thoughts but not always. Some people process their thoughts better mentally or orally. Sometimes I like to sit down and write my sermons out in full before turning them into note form, sometimes I go straight to notes and sometimes I don’t write anything down at all. I go for long walks to think through what I will say or I talk my ideas through with someone else (usually my wife).

Furthermore, whilst an essay can be one way of processing thoughts concisely and in order, it’s not the only way of doing so. Flow diagrams and mind maps provide another method of communicating concisely on paper.  Blog articles also force conciseness. I’m not sure that essays always do achieve that goal!

So here’s my take.  Yes, the ability to write an essay is a good discipline.  I have no problem with it being used as a means of assessment in some contexts. However, lets’ consider the possibility that it might not always be the most effective means of assessing someone’s competency.  Let’s be open to other methods of assessment too.

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