Reforming Theological Education – further thoughts on the conversation

There’s been this little conversation going on about the best way to provide theological training for ministry.  Questions include:

–          Must theological training always happen in seminaries and on campus or is there a place for in context, local church-based training?

–          Is theological training too academic in nature and are there ways of equipping people through more ‘vocational’ methods?

Reading blogs and twitter feeds, I get the impression that some people are willing to concede that in context training may have a place but the general gist of it is that campus-based seminary training is better.

My position is that both seminary based and in context training have their place but that the in context and vocational training should and could be as effective at thoroughly equipping people for ministry.

I want to pick up on some of the reasons why by challenging some of the assumptions and arguments that I’ve heard.

1. The cost/payback argument

This argument runs along the lines of “yes theological training is expensive but there should be a cost because the calling is serious. However, in the big scheme of a lifetime of ministry, the cost isn’t too big. Furthermore, there’s a payback in terms of the improved quality of your ministry.

I appreciate the point people are trying to make here but here are a couple of challenges.

–          It may not be the intention but doesn’t that sound ever so individualistic and consumerist. Yes, there’s a sacrificial cost to ministry but that’s not about an individual working out the financial practicality of something, it’s about the church corporately recognising, sending and calling.

–          The cost of going to Theological College is simply prohibitive for many people who are genuinely called to Gospel ministry. I had the benefit of a good job enabling me to make significant savings over 10 years, a church that was willing and able to support me plus some generous friends. My wife was also able to find work. Many people who are called to Gospel ministry will not have the means to support themselves through 3 years of training and nor will their church or friends be able to give that much.

–          The  approach seems at times to be “This is how much it costs and this is how long it lasts -so live with it.” My previous background in Lean service and manufacturing kicks against that.  After the Second World War, western manufacturers basically followed that approach. Japanese manufacturing turned that on its head. They asked “What does it need to cost?” and “How long does it need to take?” They then focused on solving the problems involved. The result was that manufacturers who took that approach dominated for the 2nd half of the 20th Century. I am encouraged that there is an increasing willingness by a number of Theological trainers who are committed to finding ways of making training accessible and affordable.

2. Theological Colleges are where the experts are

I agree that seminaries have a great role to play in gathering a faculty who have time to study and  research in their specialist areas. I also agree that students can benefit greatly from campus life.

However, remember three things here. First of all, through recorded lectures, online libraries etc it is possible for that learning to be shared quickly and widely. That’s always been the case of course. I don’t need to go to the States to benefit from Don Carson or John Frame’s teaching, I can read their books. I don’t have to travel back in time to hear John Calvin at Geneva. Their expertise sits on my bookshelves here in my home.  Union, Moorlands and Crosslands have all been doing a brilliant job of making the best theological teaching widely available nationally and internationally.

Secondly, remember Ephesians 4:11-12. Pastor-Teachers have a responsibility to teach and equip. That’s why we are here. I would suggest that part of that responsibility and gifting must include the training and equipping of other Gospel workers.

Thirdly, whilst Theological Colleges are able to gather certain types of expert who are able to teach God’s people, churches also gather experts. Your church may have doctors and nurses who are equipped to think Biblically about life and death issues and know a lot about pastoral care. Your church may have teachers with expertise in communicating to children and teens. We are currently praying about appointing a worker who has experience of teaching at both primary and secondary school, SEN experience and training in areas including FGM. They will have a lot to contribute to those who are willing to learn from them.

Not every church will have the same mix of expertise. However, first of all, if we are thinking about partnership between churches, then we should be looking to share the wealth of knowledge that those people have. Secondly, here’s some other areas of expertise that we have within our church

–          People who have learnt to live with nothing and know the challenges of debt and the temptation of Prosperity teaching first hand.

–          People who have been through severe illness and people who have walked with relatives through pain, suffering and death. We have a wealth of people who know how to counsel through bereavement.

–          People who have experienced persecution and torture because they stood up for what they believed in.

Now, many of our urban churches are rich in these particular areas of expertise. Who better for trainee pastors to learn from. The question is: are we enabling their voices to be heard? Are we giving them permission to teach?

Let’s not underestimate the local church, it’s the means by which God has chosen to carry out his mission and God has equipped his church with people (gifts) who can equip others for works of service.

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