The actual value of our qualifications is an indictment on us

When you are in ministry, you often get asked about your training. Formally, I have an MA in Theology. People frequently have a hard time accepting that it has been of very little value in my ministry. But the the reality is it hasn’t been.

That is no reflection on, or disrespect to, the college where I got it. I didn’t sign up to study with them having any plan or designs on being a pastor. I was specifically looking to do an academic master’s degree. They delivered precisely what I was looking for. So, this is no sleight on them. But as far as my ministry has gone, it has been incredibly limited in value.

I purposefully didn’t take any language modules because I am not good at languages (at least, I didn’t think I was) and I worried it would disproportionately affect my results. So, tools like Greek and Hebrew did not come through my MA. I have no Hebrew and reckon it probably beyond my ken. I learnt Greek entirely apart from my MA and taught myself using books and online tools. I learnt enough to be able to read the words and helpfully use technical commentaries. I strongly suspect most people who have far better Greek than me still aren’t going to be setting the linguistics world alight and their sermons are not drastically improved as a result of it. But such as I have anything approaching something valuable from that (and I’m not sure I do), it didn’t come from my MA but from personal study available to anyone else.

What I did on my Theology MA was remarkably similar to what I did on my undergraduate History & Politics degree. I essentially changed the books I referenced, but the skills were really not all that dissimilar. The modules followed a similar format, the papers were questions whereby a case had to be built with reference to appropriate authorities and I even had a dissertation/thesis to do as well. Mine was on Evangelicals and the politics of Northern Ireland. Interesting to me, for sure. But I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times anyone has asked me about it. I don’t need any hands to count the number of times it has had any direct value to what I am doing now.

Some people have suggested that it must have been helpful because they think I write this blog quite well. Which is nice of them to say. But if it is at all well written, I suspect that has come from the fact that I have blogged a lot. Whenever I have read old papers back – whether BA or MA level ones – they all seem terribly written to me. The argument may be cogent and reasonable, but reading them is painful. I suspect whatever writing skill I have developed for this medium has come mainly through writing this blog regularly and often. It bears saying, I was blogging before I did my MA.

Even then, when I think of direct impact on my everyday ministry, it has been limited in its value. The course was specifically academic in approach and delivery, which is not the reality of most everyday pastoral ministry. It was structured so that I had to take two ‘case study’ modules on the history of global Evangelicalism. I ended up taking a module on the history of Evangelicalism in the US and one on its history in East Asia. Neither study – albeit interesting in their own ways – have really been of much use in Oldham.

You would think modules on exegesis or biblical theology would be of more value. But the questions quickly (and entirely understandably) took on an academic edge. My biblical theology module, for example, included papers on the role of biblical theology in preaching. Whilst that might be an interesting academic question to answer, talking about whether biblical theology is useful in preaching and discussing various academic debates surrounding biblical theology doesn’t actually do very much to improve your preaching or give you solid biblical theology. The academic questions were perfectly valid ones, but as far as my ministry goes, it just doesn’t make a right lot of difference.

There is one area in which my MA has served my ministry. But it wasn’t anything that I studied in particular that has been useful. Rather, the value has come from having a piece of paper and a couple of extra letters after my name. I am sure it has given me a hearing by some people who – if I was saying the same things without the piece of paper or the letters after my name – wouldn’t have given it the time of day. It hasn’t made what I say any clearer really. It hasn’t changed what I say or how I say it particularly. But it has done something to some people looking on who feel what I say carries more weight simply by virtue of that piece of paper and two letters. I am sure it has given me a hearing with some, and stopped me being dismissed quite so readily by others, which has been useful when I’ve said things I suspect some would like to ignore.

Which is quite sad when you think about it. The main benefit my Theology MA has given me is a bit of undeserved credit and the begrudging ear of some people who would otherwise dismiss me. I’m not convinced I write, reason or think vastly better for having it. As it happens, I went into the course with some fairly clear theological convictions and I came out with a piece of paper and the same theological convictions. I went in already able to build, write, argue and defend a case and I came out with a piece of paper largely able to still do that. All it has really given me – that I perhaps wouldn’t have if I hadn’t done it – is the begrudging ear of some who would have otherwise dismissed me as an untrained oik if I didn’t have it.

I am mindful that increasingly, without a theological qualification, many people would not get a look in at a pastorate in the UK. Without a master’s level qualification, you struggle to get a look in over in the US now. But it seems crazy to me that I should be listened to more, that I should be assumed to be a better pastor, simply because I am in possession of a piece of paper that has actually done very little to impact my everyday pastoral ministry. It did not especially help form my theological convictions, my ecclesiology nor my ability to preach and teach more helpfully. As I keep saying, I didn’t take the course to that end so it is no failure in the course that it didn’t do those things. But I do think it a failure in wider Evangelicalism’s view of the pastorate that it thinks such things to be a necessity, or of more value, when I am yet to be convinced it is so.

Not one of Jesus or the original twelve Apostles had any such qualifications. The only Apostle you might get close to suggesting was academically qualified is Paul. Nowhere does Jesus, nor any of his Apostles, suggest it is necessary. For most of them, their training was following Jesus around for 3-years. Some after them seemed to follow something closer to the apprenticeship model. In many places, Paul just stopped at a church for a while, taught them from the scriptures for ages, then later appointed elders.

If you want to do an academic theology degree for its own sake, because you find it interesting (which is what I did), have at it. There is genuine merit in doing that if that’s what you’re doing it for. Learning for its own sake can be great – that’s why most people ever go to university to do anything really. But I’m not sure when we decided it was vital for pastors to be doing that in order to be good pastors.

I don’t know when we decided following a largely secular university model of academic teaching was necessary for pastoral ministry. I don’t know when we decided people were more worth listening to because they had a piece of paper and a couple of letters after their name than the perfectly able Bible teacher who doesn’t. I don’t know why we still haven’t figured out – even though quite a lot of people affirm it is the case – that doing the work of pastoral ministry alongside someone else who has been in the game a lot longer and knows the kind of issues, pitfalls and problems of a given context is usually far more beneficial than sitting in a classroom and writing papers. We still haven’t grasped that pastors with a first or distinction in their degree are not necessarily better teachers of the Bible nor pastorally hearted ministers of the gospel.

If you are aiming to go into academia and to be an Evangelical light in the academy, I can see a good case for gaining these qualifications. But it seems to me the only reason to get an MA in Theology for pastoral ministry seems to be because it will get us a hearing where we might not otherwise get one. Which, if I am honest, is not a great reason to get one. Worse, not only is it not especially beneficial to our everyday ministry, it is a sad indictment of a culture that thinks this way. It is a culture that dismisses truth and prophetic speech simply because it emanates from the wrong mouth. But there is a long and inglorious line of this sort of thinking in the scriptures, a theme running across the centuries of prophets and ends in a crucified Christ. It is a culture that would, on the face of it, dismiss Jesus and his Apostles as unqualified for pastoral ministry and really not the kind of people we ought to be taking seriously. And that, it seems to me, is a problem.