The Future of Theological Education

How should church leaders be trained and educated?

What is the role of the local church?

What is the role of institutions of theological education—the Christian college and seminary?

If Christians want to successfully carry out our mission of making disciples in the coming years, we must re-think how theological education is done.

Older models of theological education are swiftly passing away. Gone are the days when someone would be identified as having gifts for pastoral leadership, sent away to a denominational seminary for three or four years of full-time study, and then graduate and move to some other church in the denomination.

Many churches are rightly moving more toward raising up and training leaders from within, who are rooted and grounded within a local church and have a vision of serving the church in creative ways.

So what can churches and institutions of theological education do to enhance theological education for the sake of ministry effectiveness?

Here are three initial steps we need to take.

1. Collaborate

If we are committed to raising up leaders in the church, we must recognize that both churches and colleges/seminaries are places of learning, and that church leaders-in-training will benefit from being embedded in both simultaneously.

Traditional M.Div. models are often set up in a way that assumes students are doing full-time academic study for 3-4 years, with a fraction of that time being devoted to actual service in a church through internship. Granted, many people go to seminary while doing full-time ministry. In that scenario, however, academic course work often gets layered on top of their ministry rather than adopting a paradigm that would allow course work to be more directly integrated into someone’s life and ministry.

So what could be different? As I’ve been involved in developing Kuyper College’s Master of Ministry program, one key concept we keep coming back to is the idea of two learning communities: the local church and the classroom.

As theological educators, we asked ourselves: what if we did a better job of setting up courses and assignments in a way that actually assumed and affirmed the learning that happens in our students’ local church contexts? What if, instead of creating one-size-fits-all assignments, we gave students the freedom to look at our goals for each course and work together to craft assignments that would be directly relevant and usable in their ministry context?

A model of theological education that assumes two learning communities creates real-time application that maximizes and reinforces learning.

2. Listen

This attentiveness to students’ ministry context requires a posture shift for those in theological education.

Let me explain by drawing on an analogy from the field of community development. In that field, the model of asset-based community development depends on listening to the community itself in order to understand both its strengths and needs. Active and responsive listening is key.

In contrast, some community developers attempt to impose their own goals, methods, and systems on the communities they are supposedly seeking to help. This is called paternalism or, in some cases, colonialism.

Often, this is how seminaries have treated the local church and their students. They have paternalistically assumed that the needs expressed by pastors (“I didn’t learn that in seminary”) and other church leaders are not the real needs.

Why should students spend time, money, and effort on a degree that will give them some credibility but not provide much of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes they need to do their job well? The answer is that we often place a higher value on academic performance and professionalized church leadership than truly effective ministry.

I believe this is why a variety of networks and equipping ministries—including Luminex—are flourishing in our current context: they are doing the education and training in a way that is more sensitive to the needs of churches and church leaders than many seminaries.

To be clear, by “listening” to churches, I do not mean that seminaries and colleges ought to bow to the god of pragmatism or the tyranny of the urgent. But we do need to acknowledge that ivory tower intellectualism is its own sort of god. Theological education that does not truly serve the church should not exist.

3. Create and innovate

We must be willing to take risks. We must be able to try new ways of meeting today’s needs with the ever-relevant gospel of Jesus Christ.

Pastors and church leaders need to acknowledge the strengths of theological educators, and theological educators need to acknowledge the strengths of local church leaders. Then we need to actually do the creative work to innovate and merge our strengths for the sake of Christ’s whole body.

If our end goal is church leaders who have been discipled well in order to shepherd well, then we should be wide open about how we might attain that end goal.

Is it through processes of training in the local church?

Through established seminaries, graduate programs, or colleges?

Other networks committed to raising up and developing Christian leaders?

Most likely, it is some combination of all of the above.

This is an exhilarating time for me to be in theological education as we think about how God is at work to mold his church to meet the needs and challenges of our time.

We must collaborate, listen, and innovate in order to move forward, trusting that, though some of our favored forms may pass away, the mission of Jesus Christ continues!

Branson Parler is Professor of Theological Studies at Kuyper College and Director of Faith Formation at Fourth Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI. Find additional information about Kuyper’s Master of Ministry program on their website, or email Branson at bparler@kuyper.edu.

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