Why we need to break out of our theological colleges

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I’ve been arguing for some time that we need to make some step changes in terms of how we train and equip people for church leadership and paid Gospel ministry. I’ve argued that our methods of identifying potential leaders, pastors and planters exclude far too many and that particularly the traditional seminary route puts up an unscalable barrier to the very people we should be seeing pastoring churches.

Now, that’s not to say that everything about our seminaries is wrong.  My friend Steve Kneale has written here that he didn’t find much at all helpful from his MA for Gospel ministry apart from the certificate. My experience is very different in that regard (as well as some of my opinions). Like Steve, I was wary about Biblical languages because I expected to struggle in that area but I bit the bullet and have found that area of knowledge helpful for a variety of reasons. Unlike Steve, I found that the big theological subjects including Biblical Studies, Doctrine, Church History, Apologetics, Ethics etc were hugely helpful. No, they didn’t bear immediate applicability but sometimes it is helpful to step back and go to first principles. It isn’t always necessary to ask “but how do we preach this” immediately.  Furthermore, the college I studied for my MTh at offered a qualification in Theology and Pastoral Studies meaning that the programme was wider than pure theology. There was plenty of excellent content on pastoral care and counselling, the practicalities of counselling, sermon preparation and preaching, race, culture, mission etc and you could also access modules that were part of the youth and children’s work programme should you so desire. 

So, my take is slightly different shaped by our experience of where we studied and no doubt by our different personalities. I think there is great content on offer at least at some of our colleges. My question is whether or not that content is accessible and helpful to all the people it should be.  There are three aspects to this.

The first is whether or not the artificial nature of an academic community is at all helpful to anyone.  I would argue that it is not. The result was that we often heard people trying to justify this third space that was neither church nor academy. 

Secondly, I think that there are issues about the methods used in teaching and evaluation. For a lot of people, the system of lectures and seminars simply doesn’t help them learn regardless of their background.  That might depend on learning styles. What doesn’t depend on learning styles and is therefore true for everyone is that the process of getting people to write essays and sit exams doesn’t really test the gifts and competencies required for pastoral ministry. My ability to answer an academic exam question in a set time doesn’t say much if anything about my ability to offer spiritual comfort to a grieving widow. My footnoting prowess won’t help me much when I’m preaching on a Sunday morning.

Thirdly, for too many potential pastors, the barriers involved in seminary training are too high and so they are put off. For some, it is simply about the cost.  I paid about £40k for my four years at Oak Hill and that was well over a decade ago.  I was able to do so because I’d a well paid job and at the time was single so didn’t have family costs but also because my home church and a few friends willingly helped out too. Many people simply don’t have those resources available to them. But that’s not the only barrier.  For some, the culture of seminary comes across and oppressively white, middle class.  They simply find themselves feeling like fish out of water. Then for others there are the academic barriers. I know men who are able to handle God’s Word well, able to lead others to faith and able to pastor but they don’t have an academic background or mindset.  So they would struggle at such places not because of gifting or ability but because of the approach.

At the same time, I want to repeat that I still consider training for ministry beneficial and important. I still consider much of the content offered particularly by places like Oak Hill useful. So, I don’t simply think its a case of calling people to pastoral ministry without any requirements for training. The risk with that is that we end up with gifted, self-taught men but continue to exclude many from effective ministry.

For those reasons, I believe that we need to be offering more opportunities for people to train for Gospel ministry by learning on the job, remaining part of a local church and gaining practical experience.  Such an approach is not about dumbing things down as they should benefit from the same rich curriculum that they would if they went to Union or Oak Hill but without the barriers and with a lot more flexibility.

I’m personally committed to offering such training for people wishing to get involved in church planting here in the West Midlands. Please get in touch to find out more.

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