The Goals of Theological Education, Part 4

I have argued that two goals of a good seminary education are the development of a reservoir of knowledge to be drawn from in the various situations in ministry and the shaping of character that can endure the tests that ministry will impose. One more goal of theological training is the development of skills, or competencies, that are needed to succeed in faithful ministry.

Pastors need to know how to interpret any given passage in the Bible. They need to know how to synthesize biblical teaching into a biblical doctrine that speaks the truth of what the whole Bible teaches to the contemporary world. They need to know how to develop and preach good sermons. They need to know how to lead a staff meeting, an elders’ meeting, or a deacons’ meeting. They need to know how to interact with people in various social settings. They need to know how to counsel hurting and damaged people through various seasons of life. They need to know how to visit a hospital room, how to comfort a grieving family, how to prepare a young couple for marriage, how to officiate a wedding, how to shape the ministries of a church for optimal discipleship, how to perform a baptism, how to pray publicly, how to teach others to pray, and a thousand other tasks that they will perform in church leadership.

These skills require a foundation of knowledge, but knowledge alone is not enough to prepare to do them well. Ministers in training need to observe, imitate, and train in these practices as much as possible in their educational experience. Both the classroom and the church can become fruitful training grounds in the development of these and other necessary skills.

Any good seminary class must ultimately be oriented toward the development of a lifelong skill or skill set. For example, a good theology class will not simply pass along information about this doctrine or that; it will also address the questions of how to do theology well. If one’s desire is to be biblical, what principles and methods in the development of a theology can help ensure that it is biblical? In answering that question, the professor will have to pass along knowledge, but his overall aim should be laying a foundation for the development of skills that students can continue to use to advance in their knowledge long after the class has concluded. Classroom experiences must be viewed less like an information download and more like filling up slots in a tool belt.

But seminary classes alone can never train students in the development of the full range of skills needed in ministry. Many aspects of pastoral leadership can only be learned by observation, imitation, and personal experience on the field. Ministry is a craft that is best learned through apprenticeship to those who have mastered it. Therefore, pastors must be involved in the training of pastors. This commonsense notion reveals the need for pastoral internship programs that enable students to gain seminary credit while training in a local church setting. Internships are one of the most promising avenues for effective ministry preparation available today, and I am thrilled that in recent years a number of seminaries (including my own) have developed programs that offer substantial seminary credit for participation in such programs.

The rigorous demands of a seminary education are entirely fitting if we want knowledgeable, holy, competent leaders in our churches and out there planting new churches. If you are in seminary or planning to pursue it one day, you will likely face difficult moments when the demands of the seminary life seem overwhelming. In those moments, I recommend pausing to think deeply about the person you are training to become. Keep the end goal in view, and may that drive you forward, to the glory of God.

In the concluding posts in this series, I will address the responsibilities of seminaries and of students in the pursuit of these goals.

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