Context-based training for mission – why it matters

“For a long time, teachers in our seminaries have thought that if they teach students sound theology, Greek exegesis and church history, these students would begin to function like church leaders” (Perry Shaw, Transforming Theological Education, 2014)

“Effective ministerial training should not primarily be about training ministers in the skills they need to minister effectively today; instead, it should be about giving them the capacity to respond well to the pastoral challenges of the day after tomorrow, which we haven’t yet begun to imagine. And what they need to respond well to such unknown challenges is a thorough grounding in theology”
(Steve Holmes, University of St Andrews, at, 2015)

Here we have two opposing points of view, which neatly summarise one of the key debates in contemporary theological education (especially as applied to training for Christian mission and ministry)[1]. Perry Shaw’s statement is provocative, and might be a bit of a straw man, but it reflects some increasingly widespread concerns about the effectiveness of our approaches to the formation of Christian leaders. It has also drawn something of a robust counter-reaction. The second quote, from Steve Holmes, gives an articulate defence of theological education as an investment in lifelong creativity and reflection, building capacity for a response to new and unforeseen challenges. This is illustrated further by a further quote from his post; “theology, properly studied, gives us the skills to respond well to ideas we’ve never encountered before …. I don’t know what the opportunities and challenges of ministry in a decade or two might be. I do know that the right way to face those opportunities and challenges will be deep reflection on the way the unchanging gospel has been and might be applied to different questions and circumstances”.

Now, I have noticed that the defence of traditional methods of theological education tends to come from those who are more academically-inclined and/or who have invested much personal time and energy in it. On top of this, it is unrealistic to assume that we can bank all the knowledge and skills that we might ever need from a single initial programme of degree-level training. If that were the case, why do so many theological colleges also offer Masters’ degrees to church leaders as a form of CPD? That suggests that they don’t really believe you can get everything you need upfront, all in one go. Instead, we need to be training lifelong learners (and be lifelong learners ourselves).

We also need to acknowledge that the existing models of training for ministry are not sui generis. They reflect the wider history of professional training. Our traditional approach is similar to the old pre-clinical model of medical training, wherein a medical degree was followed by training as a junior doctor; in the same way, a theology degree is followed by service as a curate, probationer, or assistant minister (or youth worker!). But medical training is changing. Trainee doctors now meet patients much earlier on in their training. In Scotland, questions are being asked about existing methods of nursing training. A nursing degree doesn’t train people to be nurses (it gives them a degree in nursing, which is a different thing), and the NHS is now having to do more practical training following graduation, to train people with nursing degrees to work as nurses. Alongside this, many universities now strongly stress employability prospects, and there is an increasing expectation among students and future employers that graduates will be ‘good to go’ (i.e. ready to work).

There is the same pressure on us. We are seeing an increased desire for training in ministry to go alongside theological education at the same time. It’s part of the atmosphere we’re in. And this is not just a symptom of impatience. The trend is being led by those who trained under the old model and experienced its limitations. While at European Christian Mission, I discovered that missionary training college graduates often needed more church-planting experience before they could serve in mainland Europe (they were not ready as people, never mind ready for ministry). This is an increasingly common experience.

“There is a disconnect between the kind of leader that seminaries are producing and the growing sense of the kinds of leaders now needed on the ground in congregations. There is a heightening of anxiety across church systems that what seminaries are producing is simply out of step with what is needed. There is a growing conviction that the established model of the ‘professional’ clergy will go the way of the Dodo. We are in need of shaping new kinds of contextual learning communities which are working at discovering together what the new leadership needs to look like. This is not an abandonment of classical or intellectual skills but a loss of confidence in the existing professional, graduate models of leadership”.[2]

The idea of theology “properly studied” (Steve Holmes’ phrase, above) is the crux of the matter. What does “properly” mean, and where does it take place? In 2015 I attend a consultation on missional approaches to theological education, at which one of the questions discussed was, “what kind of Christian leaders are we hoping to form?”. The answer was people with a healthy personal and interpersonal character, those who are able to reflect on context and experience, and who are resilient and creative. And this has significant implications for classroom-based education. Because, one might reasonably ask, can these really be learned in a classroom?

It is important to realise that context-based approaches to ministry training are not a panacea. They require a lot of hard work from the student, from the tutor, and from the placement itself. Because if the classroom has been dethroned, then now the placement is king. It is the key context for missional and personal formation. The quality of the learning achieved stands or falls on the quality of the placement experience, the integration of that experience into learning, the continual forming of connections between theory and practice and back again, and the mentoring and supervisory support provided.

Theological and missional creativity is not the automatic outcome of most theological education. I would suggest that it is too often the opposite case. As one of my research participants said to me recently, “there is something about theological education that dampens down the risk-taking. There’s something about the process that we’re not getting right”. And so I have been asking myself the following question – do we think ourselves into new ways of acting, or do we act ourselves into new ways of thinking? Is theology studied best in the classroom, in the study, or in the cafes and on the streets? The classroom has its place; but it is not the starting point. Yet our premises and locations, our educational methods, our assessments, and those whom we appoint to teach, often drive the assumption that it is. And this, I would argue, is what needs to change.

[1] And, to be honest, is there really any other point to it? After all, “mission is the mother of theology” (Martin Kähler, Schriften zur Christologie und Mission (1908/1971), p190.
[2] Alan Roxburgh, author and leader of The Missional Network. Written in a blog post on the Fresh Expressions website in 2013 (no longer available online).

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