Death of ministerial training?

An article is it time to write the Eulogy?: The future of Seminary Education caught my eye (HT Steve Harmon who blogs at Ecclesial Theology).

My impression is that the situation in the US is different to the UK  but the question of what we expect from our Theological colleges is nevertheless worth asking. Not least because there is sometimes a mismatch between what colleges seek to do and what churches, and ministers, think they ought to do.

For me the marks of a good Theological College include:

– Ensuring every ministerial student leaves with a good grasp of the content of Scripture, an overview of Christian Doctrine and how it has been formed over the centuries and a working knowledge of Church History. My fear is that whilst all UK Baptist Colleges seek to do this our indulgence of reflective patterns of learning means we don't always ensure good levels of knowledge and understanding.

– Enabling every minister to develop the ability to critically evaluate doctrine and interpretations of Scripture. This requires experience in exegesis and some insight into hermeneutics. These will then help students to think in the years ahead and to use their skills to reflect on new situations.

– A working knowledge of wider subjects which impact the practice of ministry. Communication skills, some knowledge of Sociology and Psychology and the place these have in pastoral ministry. Clearly you can't expect much depth of knowledge but some awareness of key issues is helpful.

There are tcore competences which every minister should have in leading worship, preaching and pastoral care. Some training is needed in all these areas, in listening skills and the interpersonal skills which help to facilitate meetings and lead congregations. These need to be coupled with missiological concerns including evangelism and church planting; we are not forming ministers simply to act as curators of inherited forms of church but to pioneer churches in a rapidly changing world.

But we must not forget spiritual formation, we need ministers who know who they are in Christ, who are secure in themselves and their calling, and who develop a pattern of spiritual discipline which will help them maintain a walk with Christ in the years ahead. We need ministers of virtue, those who can use their academic learning to think through ethical issues and then to reflect on the implications of this for their own lives, the life of the wider church and of society as a whole.

And then there are a host of other vital but disparate issues. The recognition that much history and thought centres around Europe whereas the future of the church is more balanced with the rise of the global south; means some reflection on our place in the world church is required. Issues of gender and the use and abuse of power. Issues surrounding children and young people, the marks of healthy churches and an ability to use Powerpoint!

My impression is that most UK Baptist Colleges seek to do all these things and, in their different ways, do a good job. My concern is that the present trend for congregation based patterns of learning compromise peoples ability to devote sufficient time to formation; but financial pressures make it hard to see an alternative.

Often one hears the cry of 'things we were not taught at college'. The best colleges don't seek to teach everything but to teach you how to think; enabling ministers to embark on a lifelong journey of learning.

I suspect in future colleges will need to change their course structures to make more use of open learning and play a larger role in the continuing professional development of ministers. I may not like it but modular, congregation based patterns of training are here to stay and they will be joined by patterns of training which enable bi-vocational and non-stipendiary forms of ministry. For these to be effective we will need to give a higher priority to maintaining colleges as centres of excellence and changing the church culture so that continuing education is the norm for all ministers.

But I'm still left with a nagging question? If we don't train scholars what will happen to the scholarship of the wider church; where will the next generation of college tutors come from and who will be there to guide the thinking of the denomination in the years ahead?

It is too early for the eulogy but perhaps time to look in the mirror.

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