Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Theological education

Here's a slight but significant detour in this discussion of denominations.

Let's talk for a minute about how we train church leaders. Since its earliest days, the Protestant movement (which was born in a university at Wittenberg, Germany) has made use of colleges and seminaries to do this task. We have believed for hundreds of years that a university-style education is the best possible environment to train theologians, pastors, and church leaders.

At the same time, many in our congregations have harbored a deep resentment that their pastors and leaders and theologians are so desperately out of touch with their daily lives. Pat Kiefert, one of my seminary professors, used to tell stories about going back to Montana where he was raised, where people worked in the silver mines and drank Budweiser and where they listened to both kinds of music -- country and western! Pat, meanwhile, had gone hundreds of miles away to school, got a bachelor's degree, then a master's degree, then a doctorate. In the process he developed a taste for fine wines and jazz music. So when he went home, he couldn't relate to the people in his hometown. They patted him on the head and ignored him, and he couldn't speak their language or understand their concerns.

This is what our traditional model of theological education has produced. We have decided somewhere along the way that pastors should be outsiders to their community, outsiders who have a great deal of specialized education and who are concerned with things like divergent models of the Trinity and the difference between Docetism and Gnosticism. As outsiders, the pastors have a hard time connecting with their people. The pastor's authority usually comes from superior knowledge about the Bible and about theology.

What if we adopted a different model of theological education? What if we decided that spiritual authority came from closeness to Jesus rather than academic degrees? What if we recognized that the best theological work is being done in congregations, among real people's problems, rather than in the ivory towers of seminaries? What if instead of initials like "M.Div." as a qualification for church leadership we looked for someone with God-given gifts, personal authenticity, a proven track record of relationship with Jesus and ability to lead people? What if we took people who are capable leaders and then taught them -- in their own context -- whatever church history, biblical knowledge, and theological stuff they need to know?

What if seminary education was more about learning to live in community, learning to meditate on scripture rather than dissect it, and learning to be formed and shaped by God's word?

How would this impact our churches? What would it be like for you to have a pastor trained in these ways? What would you gain? What would you lose? If you've ever done any theological training in academic settings, how does this sound to you? I'm curious.


  1. Addendum to your revised list of qualifications. Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, provided us with an excellent list of qualifications for Kingdom workers.
    As I pay my $18,000 per year to Bethel Seminary to get those few letters behind my name (along with some good Bible teaching), I often wonder why "scholarship" is the only thing we are taught. Why do we/they minimize anything practical or relating to real ministry with real people?

  2. Bruce,

    I always appreciate your insights! You're absolutely right that Paul provides a good starting place in 1 Timothy 3.

    But I think your point about scholarship is also well taken. Certainly scholarship is one important ingredient -- but what about some of the others? What about models of leadership training that focus on mentoring, or devotional discipline, or how to properly handle scripture, or leadership skills, or budget and resource management, or many of the other things church leaders are expected to do? I think it's so critical for those who are pursuing theological education to make it a priority to seek these other things out through other means if necessary.