Training for Ministry – The place of Theological College/Seminary

You’ll have picked up from recent posts that I think that:

          The primary responsibility and context for ministry training lies with the local church

          That, if we are to see Gospel ministry multiplying then we need to find ways of training and equipping people who may not be able to or maybe even should not go away for campus based theological training.

However, just to be clear, this does not mean that I am against Theological Colleges. It’s just that:

          Theological College does not provide the whole answer to training. This is something that established denominations like the CofE recognise with the Curacy system and increasingly churches are recognising through the development of Ministry Trainee schemes

          Sending someone to Theological College does not mean that the local church sub contracts out its responsibility for a church member and their spiritual development

          As I mentioned above, relying soley on theological colleges limits capacity if we are serious about multiplying leaders and not every leader will be suited to campus based academic training. We need to find ways of providing just as good a quality theological education for those who will not attend seminary as for those who do.

Personally I benefited from 4 years at Oak Hill Theological College.  I would summarise the benefits of this time as follows.

          It taught me to prioritise theological education and give it the attention it deserved. Whilst many leaders effectively have to learn on the job continuing in church role and whilst there are significant benefits to this, there’s also a huge benefit in postponing or setting aside pastoral responsibilities to give time to being trained.

          Because of this it gave me space to think things through. This also taught me patience. It meant that ideas had time to mature in my head and my heart. I wasn’t learning hand to mouth in order to pass something straight on to others. At times we struggled with this and wanted to ask “But how do we preach this” half way through an Old Testament studies class. But that’s not the point. You don’t have to be able to preach something immediately for it to be useful

          I still think that this is probably the best place to learn Biblical languages. It’s such a  precious gift to be able to read God’s Word in the original languages. However, I doubt that without theological College and the gifted teachers there that I would have had the stamina and ability to learn them on my own.  This is important because there are lots of things you can teach yourself by reading and thinking. Use your time at seminary wisely by prioritising those subjects that you won’t be able to self-teach.  When you go to interview or an open day, make sure you speak with the language tutors.  Do they inspire you with confidence? Do these come across as both loving the subject and their students?  Oh and try and get down to studying the languages as soon as possible and for as long as possible. One of the strengths of Oak Hill was that you could (and many did) study Hebrew as well as Greek right from year 1.

          It gave me access to a wealth of theological resources. One of the most vital things that Theological colleges do is to provide good quality libraries. If you are looking at theological colleges, one of the first things you should check is the quality of the Library.

          You get to spend time listening to and engaging with people who have devoted their time and their gifts to serious academic scholarship.

          You spend time with others who are going into pastoral ministry, church planting and missions. You build up friendships and contacts that last a life time.

A couple of other quick comments.

First of all, I advise Theological College rather than University. Specifically, I would say that you need to find a good Evangelical College/Seminary. In the UK I particularly recommend Union School of Theology and Oak Hill.

Why do I say this? Well it’s all about the purpose, intent and context. It’s true that there are good Evangelical scholars working in secular Universities but that’s not guaranteed to be the case.  Now, one of the arguments given for University based theological studies is that it enables you to engage with a broader range of scholarship but that’s a red herring. At Oak Hill I had the opportunity to read and engage with the whole range of scholarship, reformed, Catholic, Liberal etc.

However, the point is this. Theological education is not a detached academic exercise. The Bible is God’s living Word, it’s where he speaks to us. So, where and how you study matters. Teaching theology is a pastoral exercise because “what we believe affects how we live.” So I want to know that people within our congregation going on to study theology will be taught by people who take that pastoral responsibility for them seriously. This is something that I know places like Oak Hill and Union get.

The other side of things is that there is a difference between studying an academic subject and being trained for a particular vocation. Universities and seminaries have a different intent and purpose. The specific intent to of theological education should be two fold. On one functional level it will equip you to pastor and teach. On a deeper level, Theology should be about worship and the result of what we teach and learn together should be that our hearts are moved to glorify God. I would humbly suggest that only believers in Jesus can genuinely be involved in equipping pastors and only believers can truly participate in worship through theological education.

This leads to another point. Sometimes people go off to study at a Bible College because they want to grow in their knowledge of the Bible and to grow spiritually. Some colleges even offer specific courses for those purposes.

Now, the desire to grow spiritually is a good thing and not to be sniped at or discouraged. Everyone who goes to seminary should have this aim. However, I’m not personally convinced that heading off for a year at a Bible College is the best way of doing this. 

Why? Well simply to go back to first principles, it can’t be because God has provided a means for us to grow in our faith. It’s called the local church.  The tendency over the past century has been to lose confidence in the local church (sometimes due to real experience and problems) and to see the answer to spiritual growth as things like college courses, short terms missions programmes, Christian holidays and conventions. Now all of those things are potentially good and helpful to the church and serve a purpose but when we give them the wrong purpose, we put too much weight not hem and we fail to address the root cause of problems in the local church.

So when should someone go to theological college? Very simply, if your home church discerns with you that this is a vital step in equipping you for a specific calling.