Ministerial formation

by Richard on November 23, 2009

The other day, Kim quoted from Stanley Hauerwas on ministerial formation. Allow me to repeat a morsel:

Medical education, therefore, entails moral formation that those who teach in divinity schools can only envy. Why are those who run medical schools able to form students to be physicians in a manner we are not able to train students in divinity schools? Again I think the answer is quite simple: in this day few think that an inadequately trained minister may damage their salvation, but we do believe an inadequately trained doctor may hurt us. Accordingly we often care a great deal more who our doctor is than who our priest may be.

If I’d been more on the ball recently, I’d have picked up that Angela Shier-Jones has been addressing a similar theme in a similarly forthright fashion. Here she is arguing that all ministers should have a theology degree before they are ordained

It’s not just that I am ashamed of the poor standard of ministerial education compared to our European and American counterparts, I am also horrified at the biblical and theological illiteracy which we foster on our people as a result.

The lack of ability of all too many ministers to engage critically and analytically with the rest of the world using the resources of the faith, (Scripture, reason, tradition and experience) is one of the main reasons that the gospel is often deemed irrelevant and anachronistic. It is widely thought by those who must wrestle with global problems such as ecology, justice, the war on terror and human trafficking that the Christian faith is as much use in such matters as belief in the tooth fairy is.

Surely the best way to begin to change this and to recover a national voice which can speak confidently and intelligently of Your concerns in these matters, is for the Church to follow the lead of the government. All ministers from 2013 should need a minimum qualification of a recognised Bachelors degree in theology or ministry before they can be ordained.

The fear that this will prevent people from offering for ordained ministry must surely be set alongside the fear of what is happening to the Gospel because we don’t!

Her follow-up post on Wesley’s lists is worth looking at, too. Guaranteed to rile some, but sometimes feathers have to ruffled.

I don’t know that I would go as far as Angela, but I believe she is right in every respect that matters. How about you?

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }


Tony Buglass 11.23.09 at 4:39 pm

Not everyone is capable of degree-level theological education. Anyone who is serious about their call should be capable of engaging critically and intelligently with their faith. Anyone who cannot be passionate about it shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a pulpit.

A prayer I found somewhere recently asked forgiveness for a faith being “too much of the head or too much of the heart” - it really needs both.


Tim Chesterton 11.23.09 at 4:44 pm

Are you people in the UK familiar with Christian Schwartz’s Institute for Natural Church Development ? They have developed eight quality characteristics for healthy and growing churches (note that they are not part of the ‘Church Growth’ movement and that they focus far more on teh quality of congregational life than on numerical growth, although they claim that numerical growth often follows naturally from health). One of their findings was that the higher the level of education that a pastor had, the less likely it was that their church would score high on the eight quality characteristics!

I do not have a university degree but I have not noticed that my better educated colleagues are better able to communicate the gospel or teach the faith than I am. In fact, in many cases they seem unable to communicate without using incomprehensible theological jargon. I’m not saying that higher education is always a negative, but I think that making it an absolute ironclad rule would be very misguided. But then again, I might have a vested interest in the answer to this question!


Olive Morgan 11.23.09 at 7:20 pm

I agree entirely with Tony Buglass. Congregations need their Ministers to be as educated as possible but they also need them to be passionate about their faith. ‘Religion is caught not taught.’ If we wait until candidates reach degree standard before they are ordained, we could miss out on many powerful preachers who can introduce people to their Lord - and who can grow in education and knowledge as time goes on.
Conversation in the car coming home from worship yesterday was that if they had to choose between a Minister who was an academic but not too spiritual or a Minister who was very spiritual, so that
(s)he ‘feeds’ the people, but has not yet reached high academic standard, the people would prefer the latter. I agree that all Ministers should continue to study throughout their Ministry (and surely those worth their calling will be doing so anyway) but to make a degree a starting point could, I believe, turn away the very candidates we need.


Richard 11.23.09 at 10:11 pm

I’m torn on this. I sort of agree Olive — but like Angela, I’m bothered by the implication that academic standards and the spiritual life are somehow opposed to one another. (I know that’s not what you said exactly, but the choice you set up between “a Minister who was an academic but not too spiritual or a Minister who was very spiritual, … but has not yet reached high academic standard” is, I believe, a false one) Where I think we agree is that I’d like all our ministers — all our preachers — to show an active commitment to continued learning. The old chestnut that says ‘you can tell when a minister left college by looking at her bookshelves’ is too often true. I’m not too concerned about degrees as such, though they are a proven method of measuring a commitment to education.


Kim 11.23.09 at 11:30 pm

The church should have no interest whatsoever in its ministers having academic degrees as such, granted by secular universities that are in bondage to the criteria of intellectual respectability of the Enlightenment (modernism) and/or to the relentlessly utilitarian principles of the market (postmodernism). Which is not to say that the church should wash its hands of the secular university: on the contrary, the church, as the humble conscience of the secular university, should be at its heart, out-thinking it, and showing it how to order reason rightly, i.e. in the light of revelation; showing it too that truthful speech and virtuous behaviour are a seamless garment (the business-model university, in particular, is dressed in rags).

At the same time - in the name not of intellectual respectability but of ecclesiastical responsibility - the church should have no truck whatsoever with ministers who are theologically illiterate and ignorant of church history and the great Christian traditions. (It’s a catchy phrase, Olive - that “Religion is caught not taught” - but it is simply not true: catechesis and instruction have been essential to Christian initiation and formation since Pentecost [cf. Acts 2:42; II Timothy 4:2-4].) Moreover, Athanasius and Augustine, Luther and Calvin, Edwards and Wesley, Barth and Bonhoeffer - these were not only the great church leaders of their day, they were the great public intellectuals of their day. And in our post-Christian times, when theological amnesia and ignorance is endemic not only in Babylon but in Zion itself, where in the “purpose-driven” church the question “Does it work?” trumps the question “Is it true?”, seldom has the need for ministers-as-theological-educators been greater.


Olive Morgan 11.23.09 at 11:37 pm

Yes, Richard. In theory I believe the same as you and Angela, but the trouble is that we have seldom experienced Ministers here who have been both academic and spiritual. It is soul-destroying when your minister preaches a well-thought out sermon but makes no eye-contact and the sermon content leaves you cold, bearing no relation to your daily Christian life. Also it is very distressing when a Minister who became a Christian as an adult and has not had the years of Biblical study in his earlier years that we have had but is passionate about his Lord (and takes every opportunity to catch up on his studies) is not given the vote to stay on at a church purely because of his lack of academic achievement. His spirituality and popularity were never in question. With all my heart I yearn for every Minister to be both academic and spiritual but often the academics seem at least to their congregations to lack the passion that Tony Buglass speaks about.


Tony Buglass 11.24.09 at 12:21 am

I have just read this, in Diarmaid McCulloch’s “History of Christianity” p.401 - he is speaking of Dominic:
“…a campaign of preaching in which he and his helpers would lead a life so simple and apostolic in poverty as to outdo the Cathars, and convince people that the official Church was a worthy vehicle for a message of love and forgiveness. Not only that, but his preachers would have the best education that he could devise to make even their simples message intellectually tough.”

I agree with Kim about Augustine, Wesley, Barth, Bonhoeffer and company - this bit about Dominic struck a chord, because it seemed to illustrate my own drive: it was because I became a Christian and became passionate about explaining the Bible that I wanted to go to university when I trained for the ministry. I now have two theology degrees, but their only usefulness is in informing my preaching and teaching so that everyone can at least understand the Gospel, and hopefully catch the same passion for it that I have. The actual degrees themselves are only the means to that end.

I want the best tools in my toolbox for the work I do. In my case, that came through university study and research. That isn’t everyone’s gift, but I would expect any preacher worth his salt to want to understand to the best of his capability, and to want to preach and teach with clarity. Ignorance is no virtue, but neither is the ignorance that fails to find the way out of the clouds of jargon.


Tim Chesterton 11.24.09 at 12:26 am

There are many qualifications for an ‘episkopos’ laid out in 1 Timothy 3. ‘An apt teacher’ is one of them, and it should not be sidelined - but it is only one. Nowadays standard ministerial training provides years of careful preparation to ensure that the ‘episkopos’ becomes an ‘apt teacher’. Where is the comparable preparation to ensure that he or she is ‘temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable… not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money’ etc. etc.?

It seems to me that ministerial formation on the model of Jesus and the twelve has a lot more to do with spiritual growth and training on the job than it does with the academy. The old saw that Peter and his companions would never have met the ordination requirements of many modern denominations may be a cliche, but there’s truth in it nonetheless.

Once again, I’m not saying that I think ministers should be intellectual slackers. I just think that the idea that we should make the academic component the one non-negotiable, above all the other imperatives in 1 Timothy 3 nd the other NT passages about pastoral ministry, seems way out of balance to me.


PamBG 11.24.09 at 4:08 am

I agree that the church needs both sets of ministers. What we do NOT need, however, is a disdain for learning or a disdain for those who are not academics but have other gifts to offer.

Generally, though, I don’t think that the British Methodist Church values academics as witnessed by the fact that we “breed” so few of them. On the other hand, I do think that I also had the experience in theology college of feeling that some academics almost entirely wrote off anything I had to say about any life experience because I am not an academic. It cuts both ways. I can see what Olive is saying. I don’t think people want to feel that their spiritual life is being poo-pooed by their minister or feel that they are having a “wrong” experience of bereavement, for example.


Olive Morgan 11.24.09 at 8:43 am

Thank you, Tim. I have lived long enough to have experienced all kinds of Ministers. Those who have had good academic training have been very good Ministers (the best!) but only if, as Tony says, they then go on to preach and teach so that everyone can at least understand the Gospel, and hopefully catch the same passion for it that they have. Sadly, it can happen that an academic Minister can know all about Jesus and His gospel but do not appear to be walking with Him and there is no passion. It appears cold and dead.

On the other hand, as has been highlighted in this our centenary year (with ministers returning after many years), how much difference occurs for some Ministers through (as Tim puts it) ‘ministerial formation on the model of Jesus and the twelve which has a lot more to do with spiritual growth and training on the job than it does with the academy’. For such Ministers who have trained to the best of their ability through the years, I have counted it a privilege to be part of a congregation helping and supporting them on their journey.

I must raise another point here. some of us feel that that the church misses out some capable cnadidates for ordination who have a gift for pastoral ministry but have not -yet - studied theological books. Surely they could be given the chance to train if they have a strong call and have expressed their willingness to study. Would-be medical doctors are not turned down BEFORE they begin their training!


Helen Hooley 11.25.09 at 10:43 pm

Speaking as someone trained as a local preacher, and degree qualified as an engineer, I feel the debate is similar to that in engineering. I’d want a graduate engineer (with a minimum amount of experience) to do the calculations to determine how to build a bridge, but I’d want a competent tradesman (with at least a minimum level of qualifications) to build it. Surely we need a range of different competencies in our ministers, and not expect to get all of them all of the time in one individual? Demanding a degree from more ‘mature’ candidates in particular may de-select capable (and called) candidates.


Olive Morgan 11.26.09 at 8:20 am

Thank you, Helen. This is what bothers me because I see this mixture as the glory of our itinerary system of Ministerial stationing. For instance, at our Circuit meeting we voted two local preachers forward for candidating. One came from a family of Methodist Ministers - hi grandfather trained me as a LP in another part of the country - and he was sucessful. The other, who gave us much more evidence of a clear call and was pasionate about it, was already educated to University standard (a Science degree) and had studied all four of the Disciple courses with training to be able to lead such courses, but because he was just finishing Disciple 4 could not quote any theological books he had read recently, was turned down - to the shock of his EDEV tutor!
I don’t think anyone could do justice to the rigorous Disciple courses and work at the same time and still manage to find time for in-depth study of theology THEN. We lost a very good candidate there.

In the churches to which I have belonged, we have benefitted from those Ministers who have been steeped in theology but we have also benefitted quite differently in our walk with Christ from the spirtual attributes of Ministers who have continued to study theology ‘on the job’. I am so glad to have had both.


Tony Buglass 11.26.09 at 10:55 am

“…because he was just finishing Disciple 4 could not quote any theological books he had read recently, was turned down ..”

Was that the reason he was turned down? Or is that what he heard from what they told him? I haven’t been part of the candidating process for decades, apart from having one successful diaconal candidate from my circuit a couple of years ago. I do remember having to submit a reading list when I offered, which did have some theology in it, but we also had to say what else we’d read or watched. I’d have assumed doing Disciple would have counted as some theological input, but what else had he read, what was his attitude to the theology he had available to him? The point about this stage of assessment is not to find out how much you know, but to find out how teachable you are.

I don’t know your friend, I don’t want to be seen to insult or denigrate someone I don’t know. However, I have seen several candidates sent away over the years, each of whom was regarded as a good candidate by their circuits and districts. One was a Durham theology graduate. But there were other issues, about experience or teachability or something else, which meant they needed to go away and think again.

Let’s not assume a candidate is rejected for not reading any theology recently - that is unlikely to be the reason, and the committee will dig more deeply to see what is going on in that person. If someone has read little serious theology recently, but can point to good reading a little further back, that would help; if they hadn’t read any serious theology because they thought it irrelevant or heretical, that is another issue.


Olive Morgan 11.27.09 at 12:25 am

One thing he was determined that the committee should not know was that he had very recently lost his Mother, leaving him the only surviving member of his family, apart from his dependent children.
So it was the worst time for him to be having such an interview!


Tony Buglass 11.27.09 at 7:05 pm

Bad judgement, IMHO. Trying to hide something which does inhibit your performance is never good. Honesty is a better policy - then they’d have seen something of the real person, his maturity and emotional strength.

Noe of which answers the question - was he really rejected because he hadn’t read any theology, or is that just a presenting issue?


Olive Morgan 11.28.09 at 12:25 am

Yes, we thought he should have said, but he said he didn’t want to be accepted on a ’sob story’. Of course I don’t KNOW why he was rejected, so I was only guessing. I do know that his EDEV tutor told me he didn’t recognise the fellow described in the letter! Such a pity! We wait to see where his call takes him now.


Tony Buglass 11.28.09 at 9:44 am

Depending on what they told him, he might be advised to work on whatever they felt was lacking, and try again later. If the call is real (and of course, that’s what we’re trying to ascertain) sooner or later it will work.

Sorry if I appear to be the ‘defender of the official line’ (that really isn’t me!) or unnecessarily sceptical of your account. I’ve heard so many outraged responses by local folk when their candidate doesn’t make it, and far too many daft comments (”he was too biblical for those liberals;” “glad he didn’t go to college - they’d have destroyed his faith”, etc) - my experience is that not everyone who looks good at circuit or even district level is really right, and the closer examination at connexional level is designed to tease that out. Which is why I really don’t think a good candidate would be rejected just because he hadn’t read a particular kind of theological book.


Olive Morgan 11.28.09 at 1:51 pm

Thanks, Tony. I agree with you because I have seen several rejected who have later proved that the selectors were right to say ‘ No’, including a very close friend of mine (who sees that now). For this later candidate, his age is against taking the course you suggest - but I firmly believe that God must have other plans for him. We just wait to see what those plans are. I have very much appreciated your comments.


Dave Warnock 11.28.09 at 7:18 pm


Regarding your friend going through candidating at such a difficult famiily time. My own situation was not so bad but I went straight from Hospital visiting my Mum who was very very ill after a bad reaction to chemotherapy to the 24 hours candidating conference.

When I got there, they already knew the situation (thanks to some wonderful staff on my course) and they were extremely thoughtful and considerate. As I arrived a very senior member of the Church took me aside and told me that they knew what was happening and I could have extra space and they would understand if there were things I was not able or comfortable talking about.

Now I don’t think this is about getting through on sympathy but on being open, honest and accountable. I would find it worrying if a colleague could not be honest about their life. How can we model Christian love and care if we cannot be honest between ourselves. Nobody should be selected because they can hide their own problems and challenges but instead being vulnerable and being mutually caring is much more important. Also much safer, look at the countless numbers of men who pretend they they can cope with everything and be strong who then turn out to fail in catastrophic ways (one of the good reasons why male headship does not work in practical ways).

Anyway, I hope that as a church we can move further along the path of recognising all have a calling and that becoming an ordained minister is absolutely not the only calling to authentic and committed Christian discipleship.

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