‘Simpler Pastoral Education for Simpler Times? A modest proposal’

As the Dean of Studies for my teaching institution, part of my responsibility is to advise and educate my denomination (and others) about the academic requirements that our church has set for its own ministers – for those about to begin their training, for those who are obligated by their ordination to engage in ongoing learning, for those ministers who are seeking to join our church from outwith, etc., etc. Unfortunately, there’s hardly a working day that goes by when I don’t feel ‘the squeeze’, when I am not having to resist the calls (and those not only, and occasionally not at all, from students) of dumbing down that John Stackhouse describes in this recent piece published in Faith Today:

Isn’t it great pastoring has become so much easier nowadays, so much less challenging than before? Now, if only theological education would clue in and change accordingly!

Andrew Walls, the great Scottish historian of world missions at the University of Edinburgh, notes how academic requirements for British missionary candidates rose during the 19th century. Missionaries who were to move to China or India – and learn those languages, understand those cultures, and connect the Christian faith properly with those complex religious and philosophical traditions – needed a broad and rigorous education. At least a university degree in the humanities was demanded plus specific missionary training.

Into the 20th century, major Canadian denominations continued to expect a university degree in the humanities or social sciences plus a degree in theology for their clergy here at home as well. “BA, BD” (Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Divinity) became the standard for Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists and later United Church pastors, with similar training required of Catholic priests. And as educational levels increased among the Canadian population at large, especially  after 1960, smaller evangelical denominations raised their expectations accordingly. Bible schools turned into Bible colleges, and increasingly a seminary qualification – the Bachelor of Divinity, now relabelled a master’s degree (MDiv), although otherwise largely unchanged – was expected on top of a university diploma in something, if not always in a relevant discipline.

Nowadays, however, leaders of certain popular churches in the United States and Canada mock the “semitaries” that supposedly neutralize rather than “release” the holy entrepreneurship characteristic of their kind of religion. Seminaries themselves are cutting degree requirements, paring back on biblical languages, church history, doctrine, and other apparently optional courses so students can finish more quickly and cheaply.

In fact more and more institutions are trumpeting the virtues of online learning in which you don’t have to leave home at all but can read books, listen to lectures and write assignments (when you can make time), with episodes of Skyping or Tweeting or Facebooking to compensate for the loss of sustained and reinforcing contact and conversation offered by traditional (= “old-fashioned”) schools.

It is interesting to compare the rise and decline of pastoral education with the continued rise of medical education. There wasn’t all that much physicians could do to help before the age of antiseptics, anaesthesias and antibiotics. But as the 20th century dawned, medical training increased apace, until by mid-century a physician was expected to undertake half a dozen years of university level training plus at least a year of interning before practising independently, while specialists studied for years more. Medical challenges have always been huge, and as medical knowledge grew, we expected our physicians to grow with it.

Happily, however, pastoring apparently isn’t like that. No, pastoral challenges in Canada today have greatly diminished. You’ve noticed that, haven’t you? Canada is becoming a more and more ethnically uniform country, so pastors need no longer know how to understand different cultures – say, those of India or China.

Canadians are attending post-secondary education less and less, so we don’t need a similarly educated person to help us co-ordinate the gospel with our lives. Just give us a charismatic speaker with great storytelling ability and a big heart.

Biomedical issues, political challenges, cultural currents, financial questions, technological innovations – everything is much, much simpler to understand today, so our pastors can be simpler people too.

Yes, let’s expect less of our clergy and theological schools. Let’s demand, in fact, that seminaries reduce degree requirements, lower standards for their professors, drop their tuition charges accordingly and give our next generation of pastors what they need – an education that is cut-rate, compromised and convenient. (Read between the lines of some of those seminary ads. That’s what they’re offering.)

Sure, those who care for our bodies need the best education we can possibly afford to give them. Can you imagine entrusting yourself or your child to a physician who learned medicine online? The idea is scandalous.

But what about those who teach us the Word of Life in the era of the Internet, the global village, multiculturalism and secularization? Do pastors need intellectually rigorous education anymore?

Do they?

As I see it, this is not a fight born of the triumph of modernity’s confidences. It is a fight born of the best of pastoral, theological and missiological instincts and is undergirded by a conviction that what old-time Presbyterians used to refer to as ‘an educated clergy’ is still one of the best gifts that the church can give to itself, and so to the world. And as I have noted earlier on this blog:

And as for ‘educated clergy’, Carnegie Samuel Calian (who is President Emeritus of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) put it well when he reminded us that ‘Everything we learn at seminary is for someone else … The aim of seminary education is not simply to produce an educated clergy, but even more so to build up the people of God to become an educated congregation in Christ. The practice of learning is for the purpose of giving hope to others’.

It is precisely for this end that pastors must be readers. So if pastors don’t want to read for themselves (which is a completely ridiculous position to hold, but is evidently possible), then they ought to read, read and read for those they have been called to love and serve.

Thanks to Terry Wright and to Amanda MacInnis for drawing my attention to John Stackhouse’s piece, and for Amanda’s own perceptive comments on this issue.


  1. Good stuff, Jason. I’m not against the use of online learning for lay people wanting, say, to do a course on the Reformation or to learn Greek; but for those seeking ordination, there’s surely got to be that communal, embodied element of learning. Most (all?) UK ministerial training colleges have compulsory weeks where the students get together, but I wonder if there needs to be something even more concentrated.


  2. Jason
    Thanks for this article. The braining [sic] of pastors is getting short shrift these days. It seems to me that it is also inter-related with the entertainment push in the church (from both pew and pulpit).

    As Dever and others have noted, if a preacher fails to grapple with scripture that is beyond his comfort zone, both he and his congregation stay stuck where he is – and the building of the body (which includes the pastor!) is attenuated and the thrill of digging into the word together is missed. A pastor (or a pastor-in-training) who shies away from learning – how does he preach the Word? How does he encourage his people to dig into the Word for themselves?

    That is, the desire for deep learning is, to me, a pre-requisite for pastoral ministry. For the more that we are steeped in the Word, the more we are confronted with our own shallowness and unworthiness. And that, in turn, shapes us to be tender toward bruised reeds.


    Thanks too for providing this rich blog which I discovered about two months ago.


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