The Role of Education in Pastoral Ministry

The question of what role education should play in the pastor’s ministry is discussed at length in some circles with everyone still believing after the discussion ends the same thing they believed before the discussion began.

Everyone agrees that education is important. Few will disagree with that proposition. Few will say that a preacher should decisively not seek some manner of theological education. Those who do think are not addressed in this post.

The important question is how vital theological education is for ministry? Should a lack of education disqualify a man for ministry?

The question seems to revolve around three poles. One pole is those who say theological education, or lack thereof, is not important enough to disqualify a man from ministry. A second pole is those who say it is so vital that we should not call a man who has not sought some form of theological education. The third pole is those who say it is important but who disagree with how it is done today.

Those who revolve around the third pole raise valid points about the disconnect between the academy and the church. They are right to be concerned about a dichotomy being created between academics and ministerial passion. With regard to some schools, professors, and students, their concerns are overstated while with other schools, professors, and students, their concerns are right on the money.

Many of these want to return theological education to the local church. That sounds good and noble but it meets with harsh realities. Who will teach in these church schools? How qualified will they be? How do you know the students will get a good education? How do you avoid their being so insulated that the church/school doesn’t simply turn out clones? Why should other churches or denominations accept the education you provide?

Already we face serious difficulties in pulling off such an enterprise. Noble intentions do not equal an endeavor that is feasible nor one that brings glory to God.

Some churches have started such institutions and invariably they either face these hurdles and because of them are so limited that they are not very effective or they end up being like the very institutions they were started to oppose.

Those who revolve around the second pole also have noble intentions. They say that just as we expect people in other walks of life to be educated and trained in their area of expertise, so we should expect no less from those who lead the church. This sounds good and I’m probably more inclined to agree with them than not but this view, too, can suffer from idealism. We all know men who, though educated, did more harm than good. I went to seminary with people I wouldn’t want to serve as a pastor in any church that ministered to someone I cared about. Some were educated but still horrible at personal ministry or they had character flaws or they failed to appropriate much of what they’d learned (they might as well not have gone to seminary).

All this to say (and I’ve edited out much more than I said) that graduation from seminary alone should be not be the major qualification for ministry. Spiritual development and spiritual formation are important, also. Each denomination and church must establish their own standards but there should also be some grace and latitude in the decision to allow for those who did not have the benefit but who are still qualified in other ways to do the job.

The first pole mentioned above I have saved for last. While I mostly agree with the those around the second pole, I also would never say that education is so essential that lack of it disqualifies a man. God, has, can, and does, gift some men who do not have the benefit of formal education.

Having said that, I think anyone who aspires to the Gospel ministry should seek some kind of formal, further education. I know laymen who have taken classes and completed certificates and other things because they realized how much they could stand to value from such further study. I have a friend right now who is beginning such a course of study. He never intends to earn a degree and isn’t planning on going into ordained ministry but he realizes that such study will benefit him and an opportunity has opened up so he’s taking it. If those in such a position realize how beneficial a degree is, how can someone who is seeking pastoral ministry or in pastoral ministry not value it at least as much?

Pastors and leaders without formal education should life-long learners and they should be willing to be pushed back on by good mentors and colleagues. They also shouldn’t let their lack of formal education become a source of discouragement or pride. Just because they do not have formal qualifications does not mean God can’t use them but just because they don’t have formal education doesn’t mean they’re somehow purer or closer to the early church, etc.

A blend of these three poles would be beneficial for a local church. Maybe the requirement is formal education for the senior pastor or main minister of the congregation but a church-school or Bible Institute would be good for other leaders and any pastor with a formal education ought to be able to teach classes in a setting like that. One could set standards for leaders that such an (in)formal education would be required for certain areas of leadership or responsibility in the church while also letting people serve in other capacities based on their willingness and their character. This way, all can serve using the gifts God has given and the church can still maintain high standards for the Gospel ministry and for church leadership.

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About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
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