The great need is for men and women who are devoted to the Lord, growing in grace, and seeking to live their lives as communities of true disciples before a watching world.
But we must also recognise that we need men and women who are able to give a coherent account of the teaching of the Bible and the gospel message. And for that to happen they have to be recognised and taught.
The shape of that teaching must emerge out of a dialogue between the text of Scripture and the ministry context for which the learner is being prepared. It should be informed by historical models of ministry formation but not constrained by them.
Our concepts of ministry underlie the way we approach this issue. When we consider the task of training people for ministry it is the way we conceive of that ministry that has a great influence on the form of training that emerges. What are the elements that characterize our traditional Western concept of ‘the ministry’? Let me explore one area of tension.
Harvie Conn, who taught missiology at Westminster Theological Seminary until his death in 1999 asserts that the model of the minister as pedagogue is deeply influenced by Greek culture with its over-emphasis on the intellect (Eternal Word and Changing Worlds: Theology, Anthropology, and Mission in Trialogue [Grand Rapids: Academie, 1984], 273). This emphasis, says Conn, came into the church through the Alexandrian theologians of the second and third centuries, replacing the Bible’s emphasis on edification as a God-centred call to build up others through love (Rom 15:2; 1 Cor 8:1).
Conn was not condemning the training of the mind. He was arguing that, at least in some circles, the mind was being overemphasised in relation to the life of obedience and faith. So he called for the development of a model for training for ministry that is formed in “doing the will of God” (Matt 6:10, 7:21), in “living by the truth” (1 John 1:6), and in being “transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:2). The “sound doctrine” of the minister (Titus 1:9) is to be exercised in the context of a godly life (Titus 1:6-9, 2:1ff.). I think he was right.
So, I want to plead for a diverse approach to ministry training. Let’s not exclude godly people from leadership because they don’t have A-levels.
And let us not slip into excluding men from the pastoral ministry because they haven’t got a theological degree. Our accredited institutions are expensive to run. They need to spend tens of thousands of pounds each year just to keep their accreditation. And that in the context of too many such institutions for the size of the constituency, that in spite of a number of closures in recent years. The knock-on effect of this is they need to fill spaces in order to stay afloat. They may be tempted to widen the criteria of entry to make that happen. And gifted individuals may be led to believe that they really need a degree in order to be fruitful. The advantages of an accredited programme are that there is a rigorous check on academic quality and the student is forced to discipline themselves to fulfil the learning outcomes.
But there are also dangers. Let me list five of them:
1. Danger One: the professionalization of the ministry. When that happens, anyone without a theological degree considers themselves unqualified to make a contribution. The gap between the pulpit and the pew grows. Church members come to see the minister as the one who must do the work of ministry. The biblical view of every-member ministry is dropped in favour of clericalism to the detriment of the church (Eph 4:11-16).
2. Danger Two: Satan uses good training to puff up the one who is trained.
3. Danger Three: those who are thus trained are put into an invidious position – if they admit they are weak and that there are some things they don’t understand they think their people will lose respect for them, which, given the expectation created by the system, is a very real fear. And so, the fear of man proves to be a snare (Prov 29:25).
4. Danger Four: pastors and evangelists are well equipped to interact with conceptual thinkers but poorly equipped to interact with concrete thinkers. Those going into the system as concrete thinkers are socialized out of their native cognitive style into one not suited to their background and so become less able to communicate with their own people.
5. Danger Five: church life moves from the life of faith to the life of sight (Prov 29:25; 2 Cor 5:7). The minister, with his professional qualification, takes on the role of the CEO, whose basic criterion for success is the ability to balance the budget. We may not see this much in Wales, but it is a big issue in other countries. There is no inherent reason why it should not become so here.
That means that we must develop a healthy scepticism towards accreditation. How much of the Lord’s money is simply handed over to secular academic institutions for the kudos of offering a degree?
Furthermore, we need to develop curricula that are flexible in pace and place. These need to fit the needs and abilities of those who are identified as being called to service, whatever their academic background. Though some accredited institutions have innovated in this way, the demands of the accrediting body can prevent the flexibility that is desired.
I am not arguing that nobody should get an accredited degree: we all benefit greatly from commentaries and other scholarly works that would not have been produced had not the author been put through an academically rigorous programme. My argument is merely that we must be creative, flexible, and pluralistic, not beholden to academia. A nimble approach that is well-grounded in the context will be better able to respond to changing situations and be a better use of limited resources.
I have mostly been addressing the preparation of men for the pastoral and evangelistic ministry. But we also need to take a long look at how we are training men and women more generally. How many of us are consciously looking out for how we can release men and women in our churches into ministry and thinking how they can get the training they need to do that well?
In this connection it would be good to look at how parachurch ministries such as student ministry and camp ministry can synergise better with the local church. At camp, for example, are we consciously looking to upgrade the skills of camp officers, not only so they can lead camps but also so they can lead groups in their home churches? My impression is that this could be done better.