Theological education desperately needs to move toward the vocational

I was asked a question recently about theological education. If I had the time to nuance my answer, I probably would have done, but I didn’t. I was being asked to sum up my feelings quickly. How do you communicate that, though there are some bits that are good, it is mainly not fit for purpose as we have currently constituted it?

I think the issue is essentially summed up this way: what pastoral issue, or ministry function, is best tackled by writing a paper? No pastor I know of – whether seminary educated or not – would send a 3000 word essay to somebody struggling with a sin issue or difficult life circumstances. I know of nobody who would try to do evangelism by writing a paper for anyone. I don’t know anybody who would try and train anyone in their congregation for anything by writing an essay themselves or, interestingly, asking anyone they are training to write one either. There doesn’t seem to be any ministry issue best addressed by writing an essay on the subject.

That doesn’t mean essays can’t tell us anything. It is just to say it is almost never the best thing to do when it comes to anything we might need to do in pastoral ministry. But much of our training does seem to revolve around the production and assessment of papers. If to pass the theological course we are expected to write essays to a credible standard, and show our knowledge by such means, we are mainly training people to do something that pastoral ministry doesn’t require them to do, which suggests we aren’t necessarily best training them for pastoral ministry.

When I was training as a teacher, I was assessed as a teacher by someone coming to watch me teach. Only one assignment I was given asked me to write a paper, and even then it was only a very short one and that effectively asking me to reflect on a time when I was chatting with a pupil about some pastoral issues and asking me to say what I did well and what I would do better next time. Most assignments were mimicking what I would actually have to do in a classroom when I was teaching regularly. The majority of the course wasn’t even centred on assignments. We had massive folders full of “evidence” to prove that we could teach. There are a set of standards every teacher has to meet and the folder had each standard in it with several bits of evidence showing that you had met it. We were assessed on that sort of evidence and other experienced teachers watching what we were doing in real life teaching scenarios who then gave us feedback on what we were doing well, what we need to do better and who ultimately decided if we were competent or not.

When I came to do my theology MA – and I have said this a number of times – it cannot be right that I merely used the exact same skills I learnt in my secular History-Politics degree but swapped the specific books over. I say it can’t be right, it is perfectly acceptable if we are aiming to train people in the academic discipline of theology (which, to be fair, was ultimately what I was doing – I wasn’t training to be a pastor at the time so I wasn’t looking for that sort of input). But if our training is supposed to be training pastors – not theological academics, but practioners – then our training necessarily needs to be different to the standard model in the academy. We are training for a vocation, not for academia. But most of our training seems to push away from the vocational and heavily toward the academic. It is a valid mode of training, but it is the wrong approach for the actual outcome for which we are aiming.

We need a serious overhaul of training for the pastorate. If we are training people for a pastoral vocation, we need to totally readjust our training programmes to that end. Papers and lectures – by and large – are not the way forward. Training centred in local churches, putting pastors-in-training in real life messy situations and assessing them in context is going to be far more helpful to them than sitting in a classroom writing essays. Assignments should be the stuff of what they will do in pastoral ministry. I don’t know many pastors who have written essays and papers for their congregations, which tells me an emphasis on them probably isn’t going to be the most helpful. I know lots of pastors who don’t seem to know how to stick PowerPoint slides together for a church service, have no idea how to counsel someone biblicaly who is grieving, have never conducted a baptism, don’t know what a church finance sheet looks like, struggle to know how to even start with evangelism. The list goes on and on.

As such, an assignment that asks you to stick together the church PowerPoint has more value than many seem to acknowledge. Asking somebody to show you, on a finance sheet, the current deficit the church faces might be helpful. Asking somebody to reflect on a time when they counselled somebody – what went well and what they could have done better – might be a useful exercise. Sticking people in churches where they will have to do these things week in, week out is more likely to help them develop these competencies than hiving them off for three years to sit in a classroom with other boffins who can spin out a 15,000 word dissertation on the signifcance of Thomas Helwys or some pompous title about Turretin’s elenctic theology. I mean, you can check out these dissertations and ask yourself, how many of those dudes will be using their work in their first pastorate? I can assure you, I have never once been asked by anyone in my congregation about mine, nor has anything happened to make me think, ‘you know what this situation really needs? My dissertation on Evangelicals and the politics of Northern Ireland will sort it right out.’

My point is that we all know there are things a pastor needs to do to be competent. Not world beating, big name, famous; just competent. The best way to train people for compentencies is to put them in real life situations with more experienced people where they can learn from them. It is to set assignments that reflect those real life situations. It means assessing them in those real life situations. And I’m just not sure we have anywhere really doing that yet. We need to push hard toward the vocational or else we can’t be surprised when we do keep churning out pastors who are more interested in their studies and writing position papers.