Why Ministry Training Must Change: we’re not in Kansas anymore

No one has invested more in the way we have been training ministers for the past 200 years than I have. I have a BA in biblical studies, an MA in Christian history, an MDiv (the gold standard ministry degree), a DMin (for those who just can’t quit), and am even now in the final stages of a PhD in a ministry related field. If ministry is primarily about reading books and writing papers, I’m your guy. (I’m sure there is some kind of psychological disorder that corresponds to this paragraph). And I am thankful for this training. It has provided me a fertile imagination for the work I have had before me.

Ministers weren’t always trained this way. I was given instruction in four primary areas–biblical studies, systematic theology, historical studies, and practical theology (though my training was more interested in the “how to’s” of ministry than what is indicated by practical theology). This way of conceiving theological education emerged in the 18th and 19th centures in relation to two realities.

First, theological education during this time had to account for itself in relation to the rise of the modern university and the increasing dominance of scientific method in legitimizing what counted as knowledge. To do this, theologians like Friedrich Schleiermacher at the University of Berlin, proposed that ministry should be thought of in the same way medicine or law or other professions were. Theology belonged in the university as professional training for ministry. The four-fold divisions in theological education I enumerated above are largely the ones that Schleiermacher proposed 200 years ago.  And these fields of study developed standards for scholarship that allowed them to be accepted within the larger academic world.

Second, Schleiermacher envisioned ministry preparation within the historical and cultural context of Christendom. Ministry preparation assumed a certain relationship between the church and reigning cultural realities. Ministry could assume a stable relationship with its context and devote its attention to serving the needs of members. Baptizing, marrying, burying, and the administration of the rites and practices of the church became the focus of ministry.

I am thankful that someone as brilliant as Schleiermacher was thinking about how to train ministers for the challenges of his day. Nor do I think that this way of conceiving ministry training should be completely abandoned. But I do think the world has shifted enough away from the assumptions that guided Schleiermacher to demand that we rethink how we train ministers for the world our congregations encounter today.

In some respects, I think we are training ministers for situations that simply no longer exist. Christendom may be emerging in other places in the world (though I wouldn’t use this word for what is happening in the Southern hemisphere), but it is certainly over in most places in the West. Even the assumptions related to what counts as knowledge in the modern university has changed, and in ways I think that are potentially more congenial to theology. Given the significant shifts represented here, we must re-conceive the training of ministers.

This conversation is well under way in many places. “Unpacking Berlin” is a common phrase among seminary leaders these days as they imagine new ways of training ministers. And it is certainly what I’m trying to do with our master’s degree in missional leadership at Rochester College. Let me give you some of my assumptions about what this new training needs to embody.

First, the tasks of ministry need to be imagined within a new cultural reality. We live in what many are referring to as a “new missional era.” We simply cannot assume that if we build it they will come. The church, and its leaders, must recover more of a sense that the church is a sent community and develop the skills and capacities that go along with that.

Second, a one-size-fits-all approach to ministry will no longer be adequate. Congregations, their contexts, and the tasks of ministry will not be the same from place-to-place. Ministry training will have to focus on the ability to read and engage local cultures in creative ways more than they have in the past (I received no such training anywhere along the way).

Third, the congregation and its immediate context will need to be more central to the training of ministers. The primary classroom for the training of ministers simply cannot be the four walls of a seminary, but must increasingly be the local contexts in which we live. The congregation and its context cannot be only the place where we dump (apply?) our learning. It must be the place where we learn. And if God is active in the world, then the congregation must be a place where theology is generated, not just retailed.

Fourth, learning will have to move beyond the boundaries of the theological disciplines conceived by Schleiermacher. We cannot afford to think of some courses as theoretical and others as practical. We have to imagine theory and practice as interrelated and mutually informing. We have to conceive of thinking as practical (at least as a practice) and doing as critical. Learning has to be more integrative.

Fifth, training needs to take place in learning communities. This is one of the things that recent seminary training has fostered in good ways. The “cloistered” world of the seminary brings people together for learning for a period of time. It is possible now, however, to create meaningful learning communities without removing people from their local ministry environments. In fact, through cohort learning, the same 12 courses in the same sequence with the same 12 people, online learning communities can be richer than programs where people are choosing from a cafeteria of courses and only occasionally learning with the same people. I had my doubts about this going in, but I have no doubt now that this is true.

Sixth, there needs to be greater focus on the formation of the minister as a person participating in the life of God. Ministry preparation conceived in the ways described above necessitates a vital understanding of an active God. The tasks of ministry have to be conceived of in relation to discerning God’s activity in the world. And this can only be done by emphasizing an actual participation in the life of God.

OK, thanks for patiently thinking with me here. I hope to blog some over the next few weeks about how this approach is impacting both my world and the world of our students at Rochester College.

About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
This entry was posted in Christian practice, culture, missional leadership, missional theology, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Why Ministry Training Must Change: we’re not in Kansas anymore

  1. Tim Spivey says:

    Mark, that’s a great post! A lot of younger ministers out there experienced a crash at the intersection of training and reality upon leaving grad school/seminary. There have been several organic groups popping up to learn from one another’s experiences to augment what they received formally. Great post, keep up the good work, Brother.

  2. Tim Archer says:

    My limited view: a lot of our schools are now training theologians, not ministers. Ministers need to know theology, but that’s not the same thing. We need to be asking hard questions about what the church needs from its leaders on the local scale. Glad you’re asking them.

    • Mark Love says:

      Tim, I can relate to your statement, but I would say it a different way. We’ve defined theologian in too narrow a way– to refer only to persons who do theology in the academy. In fact, if God is at work in the intersection of church and world, then the minister is potentially in the best place to be thought of as a theologian.

  3. Rick Brown says:

    You are right on target with this post. As you said, we need to be thankful for the training we have received. But, some of what has been handed down to us is “empty” (1 Pet. 1:18 might play here). We need to relearn ways to engage in ministry in our culture. I’m thankful for those like you who are working towards deep change in this area knowing that any real change is a difficult process.

  4. Christopher Chesnutt says:

    If there’s such a vast dis-connect between what one learns in the academy/seminary and the realities of congregational and daily life, then why bother even seeking out academic/seminary training in the first place? What waste so many years of preparation – not to mention $’s – for nothing? Of what good and value is that? For example, I took an exceptional class from your dad at Pepperdine, “Women in Early Christianity.” That class was comprised of a diversity of students: men and women; whites and minorities; people from ‘wealthy’ backgrounds and people from ‘poor’ backgrounds; lifetime COC-ers and people who had never even set foot in a church building; and so on. Yet everyone emerged from that class affirming that the restrictive ways in which we’ve read and interpreted the NT passages related to women in the church were (and are) wrong, and with a desire to change things. Now, we’re entering churches with this new-found information, and we can’t do anything about it, lest we be labeled as ‘change-agents,’ ;elitist’ and ‘out of touch,’ people motivated by feminist and liberal agendas, etc. We have to accept the status-quo, unless we want to face rejection, the loss of a job, and so on for assuming a prophetic stance on this issue. Walter Brueggemann’s spot-on: “Nobody should draw the ‘prophet’ card. Truth-telling is unwelcome amongst us.” So was Jack Nicholson: “You can’t handle the truth.” Our hard work has, sadly, not really paid off. Unlike the broader culture, our churches haven’t truly learned the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement, the LGBTQ Movement, and so on. We’re still stuck in 1950’s, 1960’s America, with all of the political in-correctness of the time. And, as Dr. King once said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal……..Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” I will continue to be as patient as I can be, and to continue the fight for real change that we can truly believe in, but there may come a point when I’ll have to shake the dust off my feet and move on. I would hate to have to do this because I cherish my life-long relationship with Churches of Christ for a variety of reasons, but my loyalty is to the truth of God’s word and to the purposes of His kingdom. That comes before my loyalty to an institution (like ACU or Pepperdine) or to a denomination (like the Church of Christ).

    • Mark Love says:

      Chris, thanks for posting. I think there’s great value in the education you received (especially the classes you took from me). Again,I’m advocating change, not revolution. The very fact that you can articulate the understandings you have is no small thing and a benefit to the church. One misconception, I think, that our current system implicitly communicates is that ministry is simply the application of your learning. What counts are the conclusions you’ve reached, all that is left is a strategy for implementation. I think the disconnect you describe is not so much between what you’ve learned or believe and the situations you face, but with the idea that you begin with the answers and not with the interpretation of situations. The church, as a human community, will always be a few paces behind where God is leading it. That’s a given. Prt of what we need is an approach to ministry that helps congregations discern its life in the mission of God, wherever that happens to be at the moment.

    • Susan Mitchell says:

      Really, Chris? You don’t see any changes in any examples of Churches of Christ with regards to how texts are understood and how women are able to serve?

  5. Kevin L. Huddleston says:

    Mark, thanks so much for this post. It was our unwillingness to shift our thinking that prevented me from going back to grad school for twenty-five years. (That and having too much fun with my kids.) However, because you were willing to push the possibility of re-thinking the way ministers are trained, I now stand five weeks from graduating with my Masters in Missional Leadership from Rochester. I cannot even begin to share in this time and space how this program has impacted my ministry. In fact, it has not only changed my ministry it has changed my life.

  6. Kerry Jones says:

    Great article, Mark. I can’t wait to be there in the fall! In fact, I’m trying to swing a trip to Streaming in order to get a preview of “coming attractions.”

  7. Andy Wall says:

    Mark, this is great stuff. I’ve added you to my bookmark tabs and will be returning often. Since I’ve been teaching “Task of Ministry” in your father’s large footsteps at Pepperdine the last few years, I’ve sensed a disconnect between traditional ways of doing ministry and where my students are heading and want to go. I look forward to the challenge and enrichment of this conversation.

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