After a huge response to this article (thanks to those who wrote to me personally) I have decided to just try and elucidate a little more clearly on some of my points. I was inspired to do this from a friend who sent me a 40 year old article on my facebook page. Entitled: ‘Proposal for a New Seminary’ and written by John Frame in 1972, it can be read in its entirety here. However, I am going to quote it quite extensively. Three things struck me about the article: (1) its radical nature despite the fact it was written four decades ago, (2) the fact that the author is a Professor of Systematic Theology Philosophy at a highly regarded American Bible College and (3) how much it resonated with what I had tried to communicate.
Concerning the ability of a Bible College to provide balanced, spiritual development as well as rigorous academic training, in his article Dr. Frame traces the problem back to Princeton in the mid 1800’s. There, the Rev. Gardiner Spring who had been a board member at Princeton for 34 years saw a marked difference between a seminary trained minister and a pastorally trained minister (what I would call, ‘in-house’). As a result of this, we learn that:
He (Rev. Gardiner) advocated (1) that the seminary faculty maintain close supervision, not only over a student’s academic progress, but also over his social and spiritual development; (2) that the seminary faculty itself consist of men with extensive pastoral experience; (3) that no student be ordained to the ministry until he has spent a time of apprenticeship with an experienced pastor.
Now, I know that a lot has changed in the past 140 years and that certainly many Bible Colleges in the UK tend to offer ‘placements’ to their students, along with ‘mission trips’ and other ‘hands on’ initiatives, as a means to helping get ongoing training and experience. This was certainly the practice of my Bible College 12 years ago. However, that which sounded good on paper, was often very different in reality. In my case, the workload was so heavy (a BA Hons Degree) that it sometimes affected my ability to do anything meaningful in my placement church. I may have led the odd service and helped out in the youth work but that was about it. The local pastor I was seconded to was much too busy for me and I received next to no hands on counsel and spiritual help from him. This is not a criticism of the man but just a weakness of the system. Many, not all, of my friends had similar experiences. We were also assigned personal tutors as well who were meant to be a sort of spiritual mentor to us. The gentleman I initially received was either (a) too busy too see me as regularly as I required (he was an administrator in the college and he had at least 20 other ‘students’) and (b) had no real pastoral gifting or ability whatsoever. We soon parted ways. Looking back on that difficult period of my life (an ex con, with no Christian background, 9 months out of prison) I see now that the one man who did play a major role in my life was just about the only experienced ‘pastor’ on the staff. The rest were a mix of women, youth workers, children’s workers, missionaries and evangelists. Good people, in the main, but of no help in terms of preparing me spiritually for the world of pastoral ministry. This is how Dr. Frame describes it:
Worst of all, it seems to me that most seminary graduates are not spiritually ready for the challenges of the ministry. Seminaries not only frequently “refuse to do the work of the church”, they also tend to undo it. Students who arrive expecting to find a “spiritual hothouse” often find seminary to be a singular test of faith. The crushing academic work-load, the uninspiring and unhelpful courses, the financial agonies, the too-busy professors, the equally hard-pressed fellow students all contribute to the spiritual debilitation. I have known a number of students who have stopped going to church while in seminary and others who wander from church to church in a fruitless search for genuine Christian fellowship, yet unwilling (some of them would say “unable”) to give enough of themselves to others to make such fellowship possible.
He was talking 40 years ago, I was talking 12 years ago and I have counselled people recently in Bible Colleges and not much has changed. If anything, the intellectual rigours have increased in many places with the rise of degrees being ratified by secular universities. Even from my own experience of having had several Bible College students doing their placements with me I can tell you that the pressure on the poor people was so enormous that they weren’t actually that much help to us on the ground, particularly as deadline day approached! Again, not a criticism of a some great young people (and some not so great), but a fault of the current system which now places so much emphasis on a paper qualification as the key to the door of pastoral ministry.
Perhaps the most incredible event, for me at least, came when I was interviewed for my first post as an Assistant Pastor in a local church. When I put the Bible College down as a referee (not unusual given the fact that they had just spent three years apparently ‘training’ me) I was notified that they didn’t ‘give references for ex-students’ (I had been gone for about a year at that point)! So, all I had to offer was a piece of paper with my qualification on it and a small portfolio of things I had done in my placement church. Thankfully, I got the job after a series of interviews (another issue I have strong feelings about!). My point is, an institution set up to train young men and women specifically for pastoral ministry could only vouch for my ‘academic credentials’ rather than my ‘spiritual suitability’. A staggering situation, not uncommon among many graduates I know even today.
I am going to write a third part to this paper so I will leave it here for now and come back to it on Monday. All comments are appreciated of course. Just be aware that if I have left some things out it may be because it is coming up next. Or, more likely, it may be because in my tiny brain I haven’t thought of it! Let’s keep the discussion going as we look next time at what kind of skills we should be looking for, pushing for, developing and celebrating as we search for a workable model to train young men and women to work, plant and pastor in our inner city housing schemes.