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Excerpts from our theological whitepaper

November 9, 2011

Last week, 3DM and TOM began an initiative discussing the future of theological education. This is a subject near and dear to my heart and couldn’t be more excited about this. We’ve produced two things to really spark this discussion. First, a video introducing the problem, which you can watch at the bottom of this post. Second, a whitepaper addressing what we find to be among the most fundamental problems facing the world of theological education, articulates what we believe the proper aims of theological education ought to be, proposes principles for guiding us toward those aims, and provides an example of a practical way forward.

I fundamentally believe that we are in the midst of a discipleship crisis in the United States and we can do something about this by embracing some of the basic discipleship principles we see in scripture about Information, Imitation and Innovation…and this could be explosive for our seminaries, which will form the character and competency of Jesus in our leaders.

You can watch the video, download the paper and join in on the discussion by clicking on this link.

We’ll do another post soon with an exciting announcement accompanying this initiative, but first, here are a couple of excerpts from the paper:

  • Simply put, the guiding thesis of this paper is that to the extent that our current systems of theological education have been shaped by Christendom presuppositions, they have lost their missiological bearings and are wholly inadequate to prepare Kingdom leaders (Part 1). Incremental changes and clever adaptations to these current systems only serve to distract from the opportunity we have before us to develop a Kingdom, and therefore missional, vision of theological education (Part 2). At the heart of this vision is the conviction that the proper telos of theological education is an “accreditation” of students based not merely on the degrees they earn, but on the development and fit of their character and competency for life and leadership in the Kingdom of God (Part 3). To this end, we argue that a missional vision of theological education will be praxeological – aimed at training reflective practitioners, mobilizational – aimed at training missionary leaders, and spiritual – aimed at training Kingdom citizens (Part 4). At the conclusion of this paper we will offer an example of a model of theological formation that we believe exemplifies many of the characteristics of the vision argued for here (Part 5).
  • Consider the fact that the characteristics of graduation requirements for Christian institutions are nearly entirely the same as those of secular institutions. In other words, in our hasty attempt to match the intellectual dimension of higher education in general, we mimicked the emphasis on the markers of intellectual mastery: the successful completion of courses, exams, and papers rather than, in a manner more befitting the nature of Christian education, the markers of spiritual maturity, Christ-like character, and the competency to actually do what we have supposedly been trained for in the power of the Spirit.
  • To be blunt, we might suggest that the passing on of Christian knowledge to those who lack the character and competency out of which it might be put to use is akin to passing along car keys to someone who is clearly drunk – they may able to use the tool, but if nothing horrible comes to pass, it will be by sheer grace. Thus, if the resource of Christian knowledge, available through seminaries, is to be used faithfully and unleashed to its full potential, our main task must be to re-imagine systems of theological education that have as their primary aim, the cultivation of Kingdom-oriented character and competency.
  • As we consider these consequences, the question isn’t if seminaries and their programs are formational. They always are. The better question is, “Are seminaries and their programs helping students develop the kind of character and competency needed to serve faithfully as Kingdom leaders?” We simply don’t find this to be the case. Besides the plethora of anecdotal and qualitative evidence we could cite to this effect, this reality is also attested to by the fact that 75 percent of pastors say they feel “unqualified or poorly trained by their seminaries” to lead their churches well.

These are just a few choice excerpts from the paper and it moves on to making suggestions for a possible way forward.

So what do you think? Does any of this resonate with you? What are your observations?

12 Comments leave one →
  1. November 9, 2011 3:03 pm

    Mike, This is well thought out and in the context of my denominational setting I got a tons of questions on how to see this concept actualized. Thanks for stretching us beyond our comfort zone. I am forwarding this on to some of our denominational leaders for their awareness and review.

  2. November 9, 2011 3:27 pm

    This resonates with our findings. Developing character and competence are crucial. Developing competence is much easier than developing another person’s character. Accreditation plays heavily into re-imagining theological education. Prospective student’s number 1 question about a seminary is, “Are you accredited?” After that it is “How much does it cost?” Being accredited requires your curriculum to follow the general patterns of other seminaries. Go too far outside those boundaries and you’ll not become accredited, which means you won’t have students. A large percentage of prospective students need an accredited seminary because they are still paying on college loans that can be deferred if they attend an accredited school. So in addition to theological education not training for character and competence, students leave seminary with more debt.

    • C Eric permalink
      November 17, 2011 2:48 am

      Excellent practical reality issue! This happens because people not only have the debt but they feel they have to be full-time students at an accredited seminary to get opportunities to serve as pastors in our denominational system. More places finding ways for people to be part time students, but how about being able to be employed as a minister while you’re still receiving academic training? How about finding ways to endorse and call/hire people into ministry positions without the familiar academic measurements?
      If it’s about getting a degree, a M. Div, then it’s all about getting the grade and I think all too often being great at academia goes further at our seminaries than other critical elements. Certainly people learn and are well formed at many seminaries — I am grateful for what I learned at mine. However, I often resented what felt like academic rituals being prioritized. I was not a great student; I have friends & colleagues who are much more gifted at crafting a research paper & many of them are also good pastors. Still, I knew God was calling me.

      I have been validated in my ministry many times by our denomination, my congregation, my peers — but I know I almost didn’t make it through seminary because I wasn’t as adept at typical classroom measurements. My professors were pleased with what they saw in me and heard from me in classroom discussions or in their offices — but I struggled with papers, with getting A’s the old fashioned way. How many others might be capable, even qualified, or better able to serve as Pastors — who were/are not suited to academia.
      I think Pastoral preparation should have much more to do with mentoring, discipleship, with an equal or icing amount of traditional academic training.

      I learned a long time ago that students learn best when they’re curious, when they’re self guided to what they want to know or recognize what they need to know. Would-be Pastors should be allowed more of that.

      • November 17, 2011 2:34 pm

        There are a few models being developed that are addressing these issues. One is Rockbridge Seminary ( It is fully online which allows students to stay in their ministry field. Students must be already engaged in a ministry to enroll. The curriculum is based on ministry competencies with practical projects they can use immediately in their ministry. They don’t use the familiar A-F grade system or grade people on the normal curve.

        I agree with you that students learn best is when they are self-guided. Ministry training should be learner centered, rather than content driven. Students should be guided by professors and mentors with real world experience. There is no substitute for on-the-job training.

  3. November 9, 2011 5:18 pm

    Excellent video guys…content & style…really well done. Thanks for asking the questions.

  4. November 9, 2011 6:10 pm

    Excellent beginning! I especially appeciate the aim of training Kingdom citizens and focusing on character rather than just academic preparation. I am reminded that several of the apostles were noted as being unlearned men, but as those who had been with Jesus. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for education having myself earned a Masters in Education. However, it will always be more about our knowing Christ than knowing about Him. I look forward to reading more as this develops.

  5. Matt permalink
    November 9, 2011 9:15 pm

    I’m totally with the analysis. Have you looked at what the porterbrook network is doing? Their ‘Porterbrook Institute’ is almost exactly what you’re talking about. They might be a great conversation partner.

  6. November 10, 2011 10:37 am

    This paper really warms my heart. Although I’ve always sensed this as being a big issue since my own training, it’s particularly since my time in Cape Town last year and being with leaders from every part of the world that I’ve been more verbal about the issue of training for leaders and the need for a radical change in how we do it – it was part of my report back last year. I haven’t got through the whole paper yet but will spend time with it over the next few days – but I want to say a big thankyou for this work, for raising the issues and for pointing us towards possible answers. This has to be foundational for the future of the gospel in the West so prayers needed!

  7. Brian permalink
    November 29, 2011 9:54 pm

    As a seminary student about to complete his M.Div I completely agree with this video. However, when did we (as the church) decide that schools were going to train our pastors? I was always under the assumption that schools were for the “theological” aspect and coming along a strong leader would be the other aspect. However, there are not many leaders who want to invest in the next generation. That is why I like this movement; this is what the church needs. We need leaders who are willing to invest in others…

  8. Martin permalink
    December 7, 2011 7:21 pm

    Hi there. I’m new here but to add to the voices that have made comments. I may not agree with everything on the paper but being a Theology student (currently), I must admit much of issues raised, I can identify with. Beside the academic pursuit we need to incorporate mission, for God has no other business for a church in the world!


  1. Questioning Theological Education « Theology Forum
  2. On Theological Education: Doe It Need to Be Reconstructed? « The Evangelical Calvinist

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