Returning Theological Education Back to the Local Church

August 19, 2016
I retired from local church ministry after almost forty years to serve the mission of B. H. Carroll Theological Institute because I saw both the value of formal, accredited theological education for my own ministry and how sharing the same training at the local church level benefited members, staff, and other church leaders in the area.

By bringing formal theological education to the local church, every member had access to quality training. Anyone called to serve Christ in the diverse and global ministries of His church could complete a degree program where he or she lived and served. I became sold on Carroll Institute’s desire to return theological education back to the local church, and I wanted others to experience what I had known firsthand.

Since joining Carroll Institute just over three years ago I have found implementing such a strategy to be more challenging than I had anticipated. Here are three reasons I see why I believe this is so:

  1. Only about a third of those entering ministry today engage formal seminary training. Sixty per cent of my generation went to seminary. Leith Anderson, President of the National Association of Evangelicals, lists nine trends for why fewer are going to seminary these days. There are more reasons for this, but he has captured most of what I have learned too. The newest generation of church leaders do not value degree-centered ministry training as did their predecessors.
  2. Local churches have moved away from programed training to make disciples and develop leaders. I have no statics on this, but my own experience and wider interaction with other churches gives evidence that need-based, topic-driven, short-term studies are the OS for equipping members and staff for ministry. We are a self-helped generation of disciples fed on bite-sized morsels of personality-driven information. A friend recently recommended Keith Johnson’s new book, Theology as Discipleship. Johnson reminds us we all live with a “functional theology,” yet we “never engage in disciplined theological thinking about core Christian doctrines or the history of the church’s debates about them.”[1] Longer courses of study on topics seemingly unrelated to “real life” do not match the palette of many disciples today.
  3. Seminary is seen as “over there somewhere where the professionals get degrees.” Many think theological training is for the career ministry leader, and the only access to formal, theological training is to attend a residential campus for three or four years, earn a graduate degree and then find a job. While online access has exploded on the scene of theological education, which has made theological content accessible anywhere at any time, “going to seminary” is still the predominate perception of those who want to be trained for ministry.

While these challenges exist, I am still convinced that returning theological education to the local church is the best way to equip men and women called to serve Christ and his church wherever they live and serve. The church is still God’s Plan A in the Mission of God, and spiritually gifted and trained servant leaders are still God’s strategy to equip disciples for mission where they live, learn, work and play.

In this series of blogs, I want to unpack why I believe a disciplined program of training is valuable for those called to ministry, the importance of reviving the value of Pastor as Scholar, and what a strategy of returning theological education back to the local church could look like in your church.

So, to start the conversation, let’s answer some of these questions.

  • What is your perception of seminary training?
  • Do you believe such a goal is possible for a local church?
  • Why do you think/feel fewer and fewer called church leaders are engaging in seminary training?

[1] Johnson, Keith L. (2015-12-09). Theology as Discipleship (p. 12). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

8 responses to “Returning Theological Education Back to the Local Church”

  1. Travis Bundrick says:

    1. I enjoyed my seminary education and it prepared me extremely well for ministry in the 1980-1990’s. I was also encouraged to stay involved after graduation in learning through professional conferences, which I did and found very valuable up to this present day.
    2. I believe the goal is a valid and achievable one with a solid strategic church centered strategy over time.
    3. I am sure there are a variety and growing number of reasons for this trend, some valid, others not so much. From my perspective and observation after 30 plus years of ministry working with many ministers, my list includes: seminaries are not balancing their requirements between theology, Biblibal studies and practical skill development of ministry; seminaries lean to heavily on Accreditation requirements when selecting professors- while accreditation is important, it excludes many great teachers who have been practioners for years due to the fact they do not have a Ph.D–I am biased here due to my own formal education stopping at a Masters degree; seminaries need to be more holistic in their approach to developing mind, body, heart, and soul; seminaries need to offer 36-50 hour degree plans with thesis and project, not 66-100. The primary reason I hear from pastors and church members is this- they know quite a bit about theology and the Bible., but tend to be terrible at doing ministry with people, performing basic tasks of church life, earning follow ship, leading people and following an ethical way of living. These things need to be addressed if the current trend is to have any chance of changing. Otherwise, seminaries need to do a better job at communication the fact that they only develop Bible and Theology scholars, which is very good, but guide students to learn the rest somewhere else. ( I also believe if the seminaries would link students to a mandatory, solid practical apprenticeship program and/or residency program for all the years they take classes, a better product could be produced.)

    Many seminaries are addressing these areas…yay for them!

  2. Eric Benoy says:

    Good thoughts! I agree that there has been a dearth of discipleship and theological training in the local churches. it has been influenced, as least in what I have seen, by things on the part of members as well as ministers : (1) time spent on diversions and entertainment has increased greatly and this creates a smorgasbord effect of which church is but one dish ; (2) many churches move to passive, entertainment style worship ; (3) parents/guardians not wanting “to make” children go and/or not bringing them unless there is something age-specific for them ; (4) ministers more concerned with the size of the church (and paycheck — strange how God does not call folks as much to new ministries when churches they go to reach a certain size and pay), ready to write off small churches, older churches, bivocational ministry ; (5) churches cutting back on number of services outside of Sunday morning — I could go on.
    As far as seminary training, I see it as vital, but, having spent the last 28 years in the seminary environ, I have seen the trends (1) of more and more people coming to get degrees that are not going into vocational ministry. Counseling, social work, academia are the big areas. Back in the early 1990s, United Methodists noted that more than 50% of people attending their seminaries were headed to fields of work other than the local church and (2) the internet and plethora of conferences afford many ways to get some kind of training without the “hassle” of traditional “trappings”; get a little here, read these blogs, get helps online, go to conferences of hip younger guys; sort of the over mentality many tech schools, “take only courses needed and get a job” with little concern of overall development of the person (no, I am not knocking tech schools) and (3) so many want something new, young, catchy, non-conventional.
    With attitudes and perceptions such as this, no wonder the churches are suffering.
    I spent months teaching basic Christian doctrine in my church, giving handouts, using technology, engaging with questions, printout of my complete PPT — attendance started okay but the most faithful approached 80% and still cannot answer basic questions — it seems that when I challenged them to think and wrestle with their faith, they zoned out. But this is sorely needed because people do not know what they believe, let alone why, and therefore shy away from sharing their faith.
    But, I have rambled enough. I apologize, but such things just get me going and I want church folks to engage their faith.

  3. Elaine Bleakney says:

    I was saved at age 27 in 1957. I advanced rapidly in understanding Baptist life and cooperation and ministry through TRAINING UNION and schools of missions and group training schools led by enthusiastic, committed believers. My pastor introduced me to associational relationships and ultimately I was participated in state and SBC activities.
    Training Union gave me a solid, informed, motivational foundation for spiritual development. Introverted by nature, participation in publicly sharing my “part” prepared me leadership. TU is the primary reason I have some understanding of church polity, biblical doctrine…I know why I am a christian. I have an understanding of my Lord as my Master and a growing regard for His sovereignty in my life. I know why I am a Baptist.
    Training Union was invaluable in my discipleship. When TU was abandoned in the early Seventies the church body lost it’s most constructive educational training tool.

  4. Gene Wilkes says:

    Travis, Thank you for your comments. I do believe a combination of degree programs and conferences are a healthy combination of training for ministry. I have come to learn the issues related to accreditation, but I have also learned the value of peer assessment and accountability through the process. A minister no longer has to go to college or seminary to obtain knowledge. The Internet has opened the door to all knowledge. The issue now is what is the quality of that information and who is the one presenting it. Accreditation by agencies like those by whom we are accredited tells the student the seminary is presenting quality information and assessed outcomes of learning. No conference does that.

    “Degree” may imply Ivory Tower learning away from the day-to-day realities of ministry, but many seminaries offer certificate to doctoral degrees like B. H. Carroll. You can audit courses at many seminaries, and you can get an accredited degree from the same. Both agencies that accredit Carroll Institute are wrestling with how to address your concern. Competency-based training is challenging the traditional “seat-time” degree standards. I think you’ll see many changes in seminary curriculum in the years ahead. One the other hand, the church universal still needs scholars and teachers who excel in the disciplines of the Christian faith. Someone needs to know the history of the church, biblical languages, theology, and the theory and methods of mission, worship, and evangelism. In our changing culture of pluralism and globalism, we need these pillars who hold the foundations upon which the faith of Christ’s servants in the marketplace, school, home and church can count on.

    One of the things I like about the Carroll model is that the vast majority of our professors are practitioners. They have terminal degrees in their fields and serve in a local church setting. They are pastors, staff members, missionaries, and ministry leaders. To learn from one of them while you serve in a local church gives you immediate points of application of what you are learning to how and where you are serving. I’ll address raising the value of Pastor/Scholar in the next blog. We also use Masters-level trained teachers for some of our classes.

    Thank you again for your comments. Let’s keep the conversation going.

  5. Gene Wilkes says:

    Eric, Those are valid reasons for the “dearth of discipleship and theological training in the local church.” I also resonate with your observations about what I would call substitutes for disciplined training of church leaders. I use the analogy for training for a marathon between runners of equal ability; one who trained on his/her own and one who trained with a mentor, training program, and peers. (http://www.bhcarroll.edu/the-need-for-seminary-training/) The second one will do better than the first because of his/her training program, not on ability alone. Ministry is a marathon, and I believe those trained to run that race through a disciplined program of training will finish the race better than those who learn on their own. I am concerned that vocations such as counseling, law, medicine, and engineering would not let an untrained, non-certified worker near their industries. Too many church value personality over competence. The seminary was designed to produce faithful, trained servants of the church who “equip the saints for service.” My goal is that all of us who serve in this ministry of equipping can help the church re-discover the value of those who present themselves to God as those “approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)

    Our culture has become lazy in our ability to think and reason. I am convinced as the culture feeds on sound-bites, images, and 3-minute news-ops, the church must teach our people a “reasoned faith.” Otherwise, Christians will fall into what Paul called “godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly.” (2 Timothy 2:16; TNIV)

    Keep offering your basic doctrine course at the church, Eric. There are those who will grow in their faith by what they learn, and they will share it with others who will grow in their faith.

  6. David Strawn says:

    Amen and Amen. Having taught for BH Carroll pretty much since its inception, I am committed to our model of equipping men and women for ministry in their local settings. Since retiring last year, I have moved toward working with smaller churches, many with single staff or some part-time staff members. I have encountered even more untrained, unequipped people trying to lead churches just by their own experiences and charisma, a sure-fire recipe for burn-out.

    One of my favorite authors – Eugene Peterson – has a great little work on the Psalms of Ascent. I have used the title frequently in my conversations with church leaders – “Discipleship, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” We tend to get caught up in the latest book, conference, video series, or personality instead of training our people to dig in for the long haul of discipling.

    Carroll’s vision and mission are perfectly suited to partner with churches in the disciple-making process.

  7. Gene Wilkes says:

    David, thank you for being part of the Carroll mission, and I appreciate your example and continued effort to incorporate theological education into the discipleship ministries of the local church.

  8. Gene Wilkes says:

    Elaine,

    I memorized my parts for Training Union each week myself, and I learned much from those lessons even as a high school student. With the loss of programs like that, there exists a void of training that must be filled in order to equip followers of Christ in a changing culture. What is your church doing now to make disciples?

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