Four suggestions for theological education

I have commented before about the need for change in theological education. If we are going to serve those from deprived communities, and train those who might go to them (and, to be honest, train those in middle class communities better for the actual task to which they’ve been called) I think we need to overhaul our approach to teaching. Let me offer four suggestions on how we might see some helpful change.

Focus on outcomes

Many theological colleges need to take a decision: are we training pastors or academics? The way they answer that question is likely to affect how they deliver their content. If we are training pastors, there is a lot of academic knowledge that may well be interesting, but isn’t pertinent. If we are training academics, there is a lot of practical stuff that just isn’t relevant. Determining whether we want to be sending people into the academy or into the church will determine the direction of our teaching.

But once we have determined who we’re trying to train, we also need to work out what we’re training them to do. If we’re training pastors, there are certain competencies that are required to do the job. If we’re training academics, there are other competencies. Even where there is crossover, the depth and nature of those competencies are going to differ.

Once we know the competencies that we need to develop in those we’re training, we can begin to work out how best to assess those competencies and then how best to teach them. Far too often, training providers work out their teaching and assessment plans first, telling you what skills you will gain after the fact, rather than beginning with competencies and working out how best to assess and then teach them.

Unhitch from accreditation

At the risk of upsetting everyone with a vested interest in bible college education – both those who have been through it and those who deliver it – one of the worst moves in Evangelical theological education was the linking of secular university accreditation to college provision. That link nigh on guaranteed those from deprived backgrounds, who had no formal education, were never going to get any from Evangelical training institutions. It simultaneously wedded Evangelical colleges to an academic mode of learning that emulated secular institutions designed specifically for those with an eye on the academy.

It was interesting to see how my undergraduate degree in History & Politics at a red brick university was delivered in almost exactly the same way as my Theology MA at a theological college. If both were specifically aiming to offer academic training for those seeking to go into academia, that is all well and good. But this mode of teaching was markedly different to my PGCE that was less concerned about the academy and more bothered about training teachers for vocational roles in secondary education. But many theological colleges assert that they are about the business of training pastors and yet continue to subscribe to the mode of teaching offered by those who have no interest in training for vocational roles.

In the name of rigour, we have tied ourselves to academic teaching methods and assessment that are not fit for vocational roles. The irony is that in chasing the academic accreditation we neither train pastors for pastoral ministry nor do we gain the academic kudos we seek. Few non-Evangelicals are especially impressed by those who have entered the academy through our Evangelical colleges whilst, at the same time, because we have sought that academic rigour we train people in such a way that doesn’t wholly prepare them for the practical reality of pastoral ministry. We then wonder why many of the pastors we send out prefer to have their head in books than be among the people they are meant to serve. That is precisely what we are teaching them to do.

Centre more on tools than knowledge

When doing my teacher training, the emphasis fell squarely on the tools that will help us teach rather than the subject knowledge we would need. That’s not to say there was no subject knowledge input, but it was to recognise two things. First, one doesn’t need a PhD to teach year 7 history, one simply needs to have read the text book ahead of time. Second, if you can read at all, you can gain subject knowledge easily enough as you need it but it is much harder to learn the tools you will need to teach by yourself. I could teach the civil war, despite never having studied it, because I could read up on the necessary knowledge as required but I had been given the tools to help me work out what I needed to teach 12 year olds and how best to actually teach them.

In my view, our theological education ought to do the same. The college will not be around forever and so it needs to make best use of its time. It could focus heavily on imparting theological knowledge, one bit at a time, but it would never cover everything and would end up leaving huge gaps. If it focuses its time on knowledge without tools, those gaps will never be filled (at least, if they are, it will be later on despite, and not because, of training received).

Somebody once asked about the EFS/ERAS debate. Don’t we need to know about that as pastors teaching on complementarianism? Honestly, to be frank, no you don’t. I followed that debate very closely and I don’t even need the fingers of one hand to count the number of people who asked me about it in my church. Not one. Had my college spent ages teaching about this, based on my church, that would have been time wasted. Would it be valuable if somebody had asked me about it? Maybe, but that then applies to every academic question and you can’t possibly cover them all. But if my college gave me the tools to be able to look up the relevant information, assess it, weigh it and give a considered answer to those who ask, that seems far more valuable as those same tools can be applied again and again to all those questions we didn’t have time to cover.

Instead, colleges should focus on tools. Do people need to work out what their view of Acts is or is it better to give them the hermeneutic tools to work it out as they need to do? Do people need to figure out their view on baptism in college or do we give them the tools to work it out when they need to do? Beyond personal tools, do people need to know what to teach in college or is our time better served teaching them how to teach and how to work out what to teach? Do people need to know what the most pastorally appropriate thing to say is in one hundred different scenarios or do they need the tools to figure out the best thing to say as different scenarios arise? We need to focus more on tools and less on specific knowledge.

Assess practice, not papers

If we are concerned with training pastors for pastoral ministry, whilst papers might tell you something, they aren’t going to tell you everything. They don’t necessarily even tell you the most important thing. I want to see pastors who are able to pastor people, not pastors who are able to argue cogently in an essay.

When we assess preaching, it seems sensible to assess somebody’s preaching rather than a paper on homiletic theory. When assessing pastoral ability, it makes sense to assess pastoral visits rather than someone opining on models of pastoral care. When seeing if somebody can do the work of an evangelist, it makes sense to assess them in an evangelistic setting rather than hearing their views on approaches to mission.

What about knowledge, I hear you cry? Rather than assessing somebody’s knowledge of the Trinity in an academic paper, why not throw them into a real life apologetic setting with Muslims or Jehovah’s Witnesses and listen to them explain the doctrine of the Trinity? This allows you to assess both knowledge and praxis. If you want to get a handle on somebody’s pastoral ability, why not assess them in a pastoral situation and let them write a short reflective piece on what they thought went well and what they might do differently next time? If we want our pastors to have ‘soft skills’, why not observe them in setting where they will be used and assess them?