Has my theological training helped my ministry?

Someone was asking me the other day whether I trained for gospel ministry. It’s the usual question I get whenever somebody has heard me preach, ‘…and you trained for the ministry?!’ I said kind of. ‘What do you mean?’ they asked. I told them that I had done an MA in Theology after having done a PGCE in Religious Studies and Philosophy and taught in secondary schools for a bit. I explained that I didn’t do it with any thought of imminently going into ministry nor for the purposes of training per se. They asked whether it had proved useful for the ministry I’m involved in now. ‘Not really’. That was apparently not the answer they expected. They asked again, ‘wasn’t your theological training helpful?’ No. Not for what I’m doing now.

Perplexed, they pressed on, ‘but didn’t it give you some helpful building blocks?’ No. It was a Master’s degree. It’s not about building blocks and it wasn’t really centred on ministry. ‘So what has it done for you?’ came the question. It’s a good question. Jumping off of a History/Politics undergrad degree, and having done the RE PGCE, it became fairly clear the same skills were involved, it just involved reading different books. Modules evaluating Evangelicalism in Latin America and my thesis on Evangelicalism, politics and sectarianism in Northern Ireland hasn’t had much practical benefit here. I’ve written a paper for an academic journal but that’s not advanced the work of ministry or, dare I say, been read terribly widely even by the kind of people inclined to read that sort of thing. I suspect one of the only ways it has really helped, practically, is allowed me to pontificate on stuff and not get written off immediately as someone who has no training (I usually get written off later as a trained idiot instead).

Now, all that was OK. I purposefully chose an academic course. I did it primarily for my own interest and with a potential view to pursuing a PhD at some point. That it would help my employment options if I went back into teaching (I didn’t) or would permit me to pursue ministry in the future were secondary considerations, truth be told. There were a good four or five years between my training for ministry, such that it could be called that, and my going into ministry. I already had a reasonable grounding in theology from personal reading and cross-over from other qualifications. So, for me, the course worked in the way I needed it to at the time. But, to be frank, I wouldn’t encourage most people wanting to go into ministry to do what I did.

If you want to receive practical training in the nuts and bolts of ministry, I would encourage you to first undertake a Ministry Training Course like Cornhill or the North West Partnership Training Course. These courses will give you a far better grounding in how to handle the Bible properly than jumping onto an MA will do. If, following that course you want to undertake further study, I would encourage you to undertake a BA or BTh (or GDip equivalent). These will allow you to build on the skills you learn on a Ministry Training Course and take them further. They will offer you more skill in Bible handling but can also provide wider ministry skills such as Biblical counselling, preaching and other such things. This would prepare you well for ministry.

If, after all that, you wish to pursue an academic career or you think you might have something to offer through writing (and don’t just presume you should or could, it’s worth asking some other people you trust will give an honest answer), an MA might be a worthwhile step. But, if I’m being honest, if you’re not intending to write or press on in academia, it will have minimal added value in your everyday ministry.

What can’t be said enough is that none of this is any replacement for hands-on training in a church context. The best place to learn to preach is not in a classroom, but in a church speaking to real people. In fact, I think it is even better to learn to hold a moving crowd in the open air – who will show you what they think – before you ever get up to speak to a captive crowd, most of whom are too polite to walk out. The best place to learn how to counsel people with scripture is in a church setting, whether doing one-to-ones or sat with others in a home group, and dealing with real problems. The best place to learn how to share the gospel with real people is by spending time and sharing the gospel with real people who have never heard it.

The Gospel Coalition has been running a series of videos from well-known speakers regarding what seminary didn’t teach them. You can view those videos here (click ‘video’ for a list of them). A few people have, rightly, pushed back that there are some things they could not have learnt without seminary. The point here is to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are things that seminaries and Bible colleges do very well that it is hard for churches to teach. There are other things that churches do very well that seminaries and Bible colleges simply can’t teach. Proper theological training is going to involve both and must if it to adequately train people for ministry.

It is partly for this reason that we have chosen to partner with Union School of Theology to offer their GDip in Theology. We are providing a church-based learning environment in which to train whilst also providing a Bible college education. We are able to offer both the practical training a church can offer as well as the academic training a seminary could offer all within the same church-based learning environment. We believe this draws together what the church and academy both do well in a way that will best equip students for ministry and most fully serve the church.

If you would like to explore how you can train with us, please visit the training page of our church website. If you would like to find out about some of our funded ministry placements, go here for more detail.