A New Model for Ministerial Training
Excessive student debt is a problem. A big problem. And a problem that shows no signs of reversing trend anytime soon. A recent article by Scott Cohn, a senior correspondent for CNBC, noted that the average 2011 college graduate was saddled with over twenty-five thousand dollars in debt. But this is not just an abstract problem for household balance sheets or global financial markets. It is a challenge to the church and those seeking qualifications for ministry as Dr. Russell Moore, dean of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently pointed out in a Wall Street Journal article.
Dr. Moore argues that while rising student debt is making online education more palatable for those looking to secure ministerial qualifications, that the old-school brick and mortar seminaries will not go away. Rather, seminaries would be best served by expanding their ties with the trainee’s home church. This would serve a two-fold purpose. The first would be to make ministerial training more tied to the real world, the church. The second would be for financial benefit in that if the church feels tied to their ministerial trainee, there is a greater likelihood of financial support, thus helping to alleviate the student debt problem. While I credit Dr. Moore for his desire to tie seminary back into the church, I can’t help but think a different pathway altogether is a better option. This pathway is one of second career ministers and entirely church based education models. Allow me to lay out four reasons for this suggestion below:
1. For far too long now, we have ignored the call of many wise Christians to remake the model of ministerial preparation into a church based model. In an essay by Roger S. Greenway entitled Getting David out of Saul’s Armor (contained in the book The Urban Face of Mission), he notes that the traditional way of training is:“… so weighted toward academic accomplishments that the ‘weightier things,’ such as diligence in prayer; evidence of a loving and gracious spirit; obedience to the moral standards of Christian living; spiritual power in teaching, preaching, and evangelism; and the ability to exercise authority without pride, receive scant attention.” Greenway goes on to note that the academic model trains men for ministry in the following manner: KNOWLEDGE->Skills->Character, whereas the new model would train men in a different order: CHARACTER->Skills->Knowledge. Greenway’s suggestion seems far more likely to produce men of character in accordance with 1 Timothy 3. For years now, those who both teach and attend traditional seminaries have recognized this problem and have done a number of things in attempt to rectify it. But the problem is that the very form of university based ministerial training will never allow a type of training that Greenway suggests to be implemented simply by “rearranging the academic plumbing.” Only the church can create the type of training that Greenway describes.
2. My first point is not outrageous, nor is it limited to something that may be more appropriate for an urban setting as some might suggest after seeing me quote a book on urban mission. In 1972, John Frame wrote an article entitled Proposals for a New North American Model in which he argues that the academic model be disposed of entirely because ministerial qualifications are spiritual, not academic. Similar proposals have come from other corners recently that hit on salient points beyond the spiritual v academic aims of the two models. Last year David Fitch penned an article entitled STOP FUNDING CHURCH PLANTS and Start Sending Missionaries: A Plea to Denominations in which he points out the fact that the North American church is wasting valuable resources with its traditional church planting methods rather than sending missional peoples to be bi-vocational missionaries in underchurched contexts.
3. The most strikingly disappointing aspect of Dr. Moore’s article is when he states, “There will always be those who get a law degree or an M.B.A. (and the resulting debt) and then sense a call to ministry. The history of the church—see Augustine and John Calvin, not to mention the original 12 disciples of Jesus—is filled with “second-career” ministers. But the ideal pattern is for churches to seek to identify, early in life, those who are gifted and called to ministry… (emphasis mine)” There are two problems with this statement. The first is that men who desire to enter ministry and are saddled with an outlandish amount of debt are not just MBA’s and JD’s. Many of these men are saddled with debt from their undergraduate degrees. Not to mention, most JD’s and MBA’s find jobs that enable them to pay off their debt. But the bigger problem here is that Dr. Moore acknowledges that the biblical model seems to be that of second career ministers and then goes on to add the infamous “but” caveat. But what Dr. Moore? Perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to discount the model we find in the Bible and instead stick with the western system of academia. I am suggesting that the church will usually be best served by men who spend time in the secular workforce (for lack of a better word) and then enter the ministry after their debts have been alleviated. But again, this is not just an issue of pragmatism. It is an issue of Biblicality. It appears that the New Testament suggests a model that Dr. Moore “buts.”
4. I hate to be a doomsday type but the truth is that Dr. Moore is failing to assess the broader picture under which rising education costs are occurring. The reality in the United States and the vast majority of western civilization (soon to be its entirety) is that net incomes are shrinking, purchasing power is falling and unemployment is rising. And even when there are jobs the compensation packages are getting smaller and smaller. The west is staring a debt and currency crisis in the face. And when these crises happen, they are often catastrophic (see Argentina in the early 2000’s) to the point that the majority of the population sinks below the poverty line. The debt crisis that began in Greece three years ago is only going to continue to spread and this in turn will continue to deplete the list of candidates who could reasonably attempt to pay for seminary. If we keep our eyes on our fiscal future, now is the time to begin making changes toward a church based training model or we will be caught horribly off guard and unprepared when the crisis reaches our shores.
The student debt problem is in fact a serious problem that demands serious answers. I have outlined above why I believe we need to move to a church based training model. What are your thoughts? I would love to hear them.