An overview of training methodologies.
Re-stating the Problem
In part one of this series I talked about the shortage of leadership the church faces. For over 100 years, churches have looked to the Bible colleges and seminaries to train and provide their leaders. However, in spite of all the effort and money lavished on our institutions of learning, we still face a perpetual lack of people to fill leadership roles.
Not only do we face a shortage of leaders, the quality of the output of the colleges and seminaries is open to question. In my own experience, I’ve often been surprised, if not shocked, at graduates from the institutions who don’t seem to have a good grasp of basic Bible knowledge, let alone principles and foundational doctrine.
Part of the problem is that most of the graduates from our institutions of learning are young. They simply haven’t had enough time to mature and gather the life experience they need to be leaders. Some are still in the process of figuring out who they are and their own beliefs and convictions. It’s unreasonable to expect someone who doesn’t yet know himself and is unsure of his own faith to be able to ground others in the faith.
But the problem goes deeper. In his book, Organic Leadership, Neil Cole remarks, “I remember the shock of one day realizing that my master of divinity degree, which cost me five years and fifty thousand dollars, was of no value at all in the world. It had value only behind the walls of the institution.” (Neil Cole, Organic Leadership: Leading Naturally Right Where You Are, Baker Books, p. 34) Cole goes on to point out that since a seminary education does not equip people to earn a living outside of the church or the religious education system, they are trapped by that system. They are almost forced to find a living within the church even if they are not suited for the role. The result is predictably poor leadership, poor scholarship and anemic churches.
A friend of mine in the ministry has said basically the same thing. He agrees that the colleges and seminaries don’t prepare people for the real world (he has a masters degree from seminary). His observation is that a typical graduate will ruin one or two churches before concluding that the ministry is not for him. Since he doesn’t have the skills or knowledge to get a decent job elsewhere, he winds up selling insurance.
The situation can be infinitely worse in areas where there is high, endemic unemployment. It is all too easy for people to start thinking of the church in terms of a career and a paycheck rather than a calling and a ministry. A missionary professor wrote, “In general we find a large proportion of seminary students are poorly motivated, having little interest in theology for its own sake, or in learning practical techniques for ministering the Word of God. This must be because their primary interest is in qualifying for a position, not in learning how to serve.” (J.G. Meadowcroft, Theological Seminary, Gujranwala, Pakistan, Theological Education By Extension, p. 2)
He goes on to say, “One of the curses of the church has always been clericalism. This “professional” attitude towards Christian service, in which the pastor expects, and is dependent upon, a living from the church, is a direct result of seminary training taken early in life as preparation for a career. Hence many clergy are more pre-occupied with preserving their rights than with serving their people.” (Meadowcroft, p. 3)
To illustrate the point he writes, “Some time ago I was in a certain city and met a young pastor who graduated a few years ago from seminary. As a student he was fairly mature and intelligent, and I had some hopes for his ministry. Since being ordained he has worked hard in his spare time to further his university studies. I asked him what serious Bible study he had undertaken since he left seminary. His reply, which quite staggered me, was that he found it impossible to study theology without a teacher. Here was a man, appointed to teach others, who did not know how to study from books, or use a commentary or concordance. I believe that the primary reason, however, was that he was not really interested in the subject he was paid to teach. Motivation was completely lacking.” (Meadowcroft, p. 5)
He writes that the basic issue with our attempts to train is, “We may believe that we can make a leader of him by putting him through the course and laying hands on him afterwards. This assumes that the virtue of leadership is in the course, not in the man. It is this notion that is generally held by those who choose seminary candidates. By some kind of metamorphosis a young fellow who has no qualities of leadership is expected to emerge from the chrysalis of the seminary as a “leader of the community”. And so he also considers himself to be. The fact, however, is that nothing will make a man a leader if he does not possess the attributes already.” (Meadowcroft, p. 5-6, emphasis in the original)
In light of all this it seems to me that we have things backwards. Instead of training the immature and inexperienced in hopes that they will develop a call to serve, we ought to be looking to mature and capable people who are already making their way in the world and are now, as a result of their life’s experiences, feeling the call to serve. I think it is far better to train people who already know what life is all about and who already have a means of livelihood, than those who are unsure of God’s call on their lives but are looking for a means to secure a living.
You might think that my assessment of the Bible college/Seminary system is overly harsh. While it is true that I do criticize the system, my major beef is that the church has made the system necessary. Since the church has not made a serious effort to address the problem of training and equipping its own people, there was little choice but to turn to the colleges. Please understand, I do not question the motives of the teachers, professors and administrators in our institutions of learning. They have tried valiantly to fill a huge gap. We could argue that the situation would be far worse than it is without the colleges.
Here’s the problem as I see it: We need a way to train mature, experienced and motivated men for leadership, who are already making a living outside the church. Some would argue that the colleges and seminaries could train such men just as easily as the young, callow and unemployed. In theory, this might be true. In fact, however, it isn’t happening. Certainly not on the scale the church needs. As a practical matter those who have the greatest potential, already have career and family obligations which often prevent them from attending a college or seminary.
How, then, can we provide necessary training without totally disrupting the lives of the people we want to become leaders in the church? Our solution must not require people to move from their homes. It must not disrupt their careers and occupations. It must not place an undue burden on their family life. It must not be a financial burden. Most importantly, it must not remove people from their home congregations. After all, we are attempting to prepare people to serve in their home congregations, not to lose them to other places.
In a commendable attempt to answer some of these problems, the seminaries are starting to provide some of their curriculum via distance learning techniques. The thought is that if students are unable to go to the seminary, perhaps it might be possible to bring the seminary to the student.
A form of distance learning which has been around for a long time is the correspondence course. The instructor sends lesson material to the student. The student reads it and/or does the exercise or experiment called for in the lesson. Then, he takes a test or writes the required report and sends it back to the instructor. Student and instructor never meet and, most likely, never even speak to one another. The training is entirely impersonal. And, it is entirely linear – the same course fits all. There is little or no variation for individual learning styles or individual strengths or weaknesses. Those who need more review or examples in order to grasp a concept don’t get it, while those who get it quickly are forced to plow through redundant material.
The advent of the Internet has enabled some changes to the basic concept of the correspondence course. A student can read a text or other course material on his own time. Then, he can log onto a secure website and take a test. If he has questions, he can email, chat online with, or even text his instructor. While less impersonal than a classic correspondence course, this method still shares the same weaknesses. It is difficult to make it fit the individual needs of the students.
Web-based training has the potential, at least in theory, to overcome some of the limitations of the correspondence course. Online instruction can be interactive in the sense that the lesson can tailor itself somewhat to the individual needs of student. For example, if the student demonstrates a good grasp of certain principles, the lesson program can skip over material which would be redundant for him. Similarly, if the student is having trouble with a particular concept, the lesson program can provide him with additional or supplemental material.
Well-designed Web-based training can also be interactive in the sense that it allows students to communicate and collaborate with each other. While no replacement for the interactions which take place in a “real” classroom, it can break the isolation inherent in not actually being with other people.
While distance learning techniques do have the virtue of not requiring students to travel to where the professors are, they still have some major problems. One is the impersonal nature of it. It is hard to develop a true mentoring relationship with someone you have never seen, let alone met. And mentoring may be one of the most important components of training church leaders.
A second problem is the expense. It is not trivial to prepare the courses. From my own experience, I know that it is not easy to put together even a worthwhile correspondence course. Preparing interactive, online courses with many branches can be much harder. I’ve read estimates that it takes anywhere from 100 to 600 hours of development time for each instruction-hour. I’ve never really tracked it, but I tell people that it takes me about 10 hours, on average, to prepare a sermon or a traditional 45 minute lesson. (I’m talking about expository sermons and adult Bible lessons.) If that guesstimate is anywhere near accurate, it would take at least 10 times the effort to produce a worthwhile online version covering the same material.
I don’t have any personal experience in preparing online courses, but if the above figures are true, it does not surprise me that most of the seminaries I’ve looked at provide only a small portion of their courses online. It also does not surprise me that the courses they do offer online cost the student almost as much as the traditional courses.
The cost of preparing online courses can probably be cut – perhaps even by an order of magnitude – by using one of the several free or open-source “Virtual Learning Environment” systems which are available. These systems provide a ready-made framework and the tools needed to prepare a course. This spares the instructor from having to build the transport and presentation mechanisms in addition to the course content. Regardless of the quality of the environment, however, it still takes a lot of hard work to structure and adapt the content. There is no doubt in my mind that it takes several iterations – with feedback from real students – to develop a truly excellent online course.
The issue of feedback points to another limitation of correspondence or online courses. They are best suited for conveying facts. It is much harder to design something to teach principles where the answers are not necessarily true/false or multiple-choice. Sometimes real-time feedback and interaction with other people is necessary to learn how to think and derive principles. In other words, online courses may not be the best method for teaching the application of wisdom rather than conveying knowledge.
Virtual Classroom, Teleconferencing
A natural development from the online course which the Internet makes possible is the virtual classroom. The wide availability of inexpensive or free teleconferencing services now makes it possible for teachers and students to meet in virtual settings. The students and their teacher may be in totally different locations, or even time-zones, and still interact with one another in real time.
Aside from allowing students to remain in their own locations, virtual classrooms have two major advantages over other online courses. The first is rapport and immediacy. The students can develop a relationship with their instructor. They can get to know him or her, and the other students as people. They can ask questions and share their concerns immediately. They can also interact with other students. The instructor can stimulate discussion among the students. He or she can mentor the students in ways that are not possible with the typical online course. To put it another way, the technique can bring back some of the intimacy of the classroom without the drawback of having to be physically in the same location.
The other major advantage of the virtual classroom over online courses is that an instructor can use basically the same course material as he or she would in a real classroom. It isn’t necessary to write specialized software in order to present the course. No longer is it necessary to try to program the things which good teachers automatically and instinctively do based on the feedback students provide during a particular lesson. Adjustments, digressions and amplifications happen naturally as students and instructor interact with each other.
Theological Education by Extension (TEE)
Theological Education by Extension, or TEE, is another way to take the seminary to the student. In the TEE methodology students remain at home and complete course workbooks at times of their own choosing. In this it resembles correspondence or online courses. However, there are also some important differences.
One of the differences is in the type of testing. Online courses generally test after each unit or lesson. The intent is to see whether a student grasps concepts and how to apply them. In contrast, TEE material often seems to emphasize content over concepts; information over principles. Every couple of paragraphs students have to answer questions about what they just read. Often these are fill-in-the-blank type questions which merely restate the text. While this approach may encourage rote repetition, it may not be as beneficial in teaching people how to think or apply what they learn in practical ways. I suspect that the TEE approach is probably most useful in areas of the world where rote learning is the norm rather than areas where students are encouraged to think for themselves and explore concepts on their own.
To be fair, the above criticism is a generalization. I have personally read several TEE workbooks which are as described. I find the approach irritating, not only for the simple-minded repetition, but because I find that breaking up the flow of the text with questions inhibits me. It does not fit my learning style. On the other hand, I have read some higher level TEE material which was excellent. The text was not broken up into tiny chunks and the questions encouraged thought rather than rote repetition.
Another difference from most online courses is that students enrolled in TEE programs are required to meet together with an instructor, generally once a month. Typically, the instructor travels to an area where several students are enrolled in the course. He or she spends a whole day with the students. They discuss the material they have studied over the previous month. The instructor is able to answer questions, clear up problems and may give supplementary classroom instruction and/or provide additional material to the students. Another benefit of these meetings is it gives the students a chance to get to know each other and interact. These contacts help break the feelings of isolation many students develop as they work on their own, and lay the groundwork for cooperation in later ministry.
Something else which makes TEE distinct from some of the other approaches mentioned above is that students are expected to take part in the practical work of their home congregations. From my perspective, this is one of the main strengths of this approach. There are many aspects of ministry and leadership which cannot be learned from a book or in a classroom. They are acquired and developed only by doing. Teaching, itself, is an example of one of these skills. Books can suggest certain approaches or techniques, but no one can learn to teach until he or she has actually tried to impart information or a skill to someone else. It takes practical experience to discover which techniques fit your own personality and to develop an effective teaching style of your own.
The TEE programs with which I am familiar provide three successive levels of training. The first level is appropriate for people who may have only a grammar school education. It is an introductory set of courses which provide a broad overview of the Bible, Christian life and ethics, and some basic doctrine. Upon completion students receive a certificate.
Next is a series of intermediate courses which build on the previous level. In them students learn the basics of Bible study and are introduced to specific Bible books. An introduction to sermon preparation may also be included. Upon completion students receive a diploma.
The third tier in the TEE program provides college level courses. In them students are exposed to more in-depth studies of various Bible books, biblical languages, church history and comparative religion. Students are granted a degree upon successful completion.
Church-Based Theological Education
While all of the methods discussed so far have a place, they share a common weakness. All of them depend on some entity, usually a Bible college or seminary, outside of the local congregation to provide the training. And, one of the points I’m trying to make in this series of essays is that the institutions of learning we have grown to depend upon to train our leaders are inadequate to the job. It is my conviction that the church will never have enough people to do the work of the church as it ought to be done unless it learns to develop and equip them itself.
What prevents the church from developing and equipping its own people for ministry? There are at least three things:
1) Time. There are only so many hours in the day. Most church leaders I know already have a schedule filled to overflowing. The thought of carving out significant blocks of time to train others is daunting. Yet, I have to ask what most leaders spend their precious time doing. Much of it is consumed in the mechanics of running the organization. They run from one business meeting to another. They are “busy putting out brush fires.” I sometimes wonder whether church leaders have forgotten what they’re there for. They need to remember that one of their primary responsibilities is to equip (Ephesians 4:11-13). Once they get their priorities sorted, they will make the time to train and equip. Like the Apostles they will delegate lessor tasks to others (Acts 6:3-4). And, the beauty of it is that once they have started equipping others to take on responsibilities, there won’t be as much pressure on their own time. Others will be able to take on the administrative details while the leaders focus on equipping still others for ministry and “works of service.”
2) Feelings of inadequacy. I suspect that many church leaders feel incompetent to train others – particularly if they, themselves, don’t have advanced degrees. Part of this feeling of inadequacy is that, all too often, we’ve bought into the idea of credentialism: If you don’t have a piece of paper issued by some authority, you are incompetent. If you aren’t accredited, you have no right to train others. This was one of the things which upset the Pharisees and Sadducees about Jesus and the Apostles (John 7:15, Acts 4:13). What leaders need to realize that it is not a sheepskin which is important, but how much time they’ve spent with Jesus. They may not have the shiniest and most expensive diploma, but surely they can pass on what they, themselves, have learned from the Master? And, one of the best ways to master a subject is to try to teach it. A leader may feel inadequate and incompetent, but the more he teaches the more mastery he will gain. One of the ways we learn is by doing. Start doing what you can with your current skill-set in the sure knowledge that the Lord will equip you to handle any task He sets you.
3) Pride and insecurity. Unfortunately, one of the reasons leaders are reluctant to train others is they look at them as a threat to their own position. What if they turn out to be a better speaker or teacher than me? What if people start liking them more than me? I might lose control of my church!
It is time we realized, once and for all, that it is not “my” church. It is not “your” church. It is not “our” church. The church is the Lord’s and His only. If Christ truly is the Lord and Head of the church, then we don’t have to worry about who is greatest, who is the more talented and who gets the most accolades. We can leave all such matters to Lord in the assurance that our commendation and reward comes from Him alone. It is not our place to worry about position and honor. Our only responsibility is to obey – and let the chips fall where they may.
It is also time we got hold of the biblical concept of multiple leadership. God never intended local congregations to have only one “Pastor” or “Minister.” It was never His intent for only one or two people to do all the teaching and speaking. In contrast, in the New Testament we see a model of mutual ministry shared among many. We see congregations overseen and shepherded by multiple Elders. We see edification given by all.
In this context, what can we do about teaching, training and equipping the multiple leaders churches need within the church itself? In recent years a new model has been emerging. I mean “new” in the sense that it is something which is quite foreign to Western educational practice. In another sense it is not “new” at all, because it is the model practiced by the first Christians. For lack of a better title it is “Church-Based Theological Education.”
This type of instruction or training has some distinguishing characteristics.
1) It is not centered on an institution of learning such as a seminary. Rather it is an extension of the church.
2) It is not merely church-housed. There are many churches which provide facilities for an institution of theological training. However, aside from the location, there is little to distinguish them from normal Bible colleges or seminaries. Their presence has little impact on the church and the leaders of the local church may have minimal involvement in the training given. Most of the student body comes from outside the local congregation.
3) It is not separate from the functioning of the church. Instead it is an integral part of body life. While some instruction is given in classroom settings, much of the learning takes place in the context of actual ministry.
4) The pedagogical approach is different. Theological education as practiced in most seminaries relies heavily on formal instruction by lecture. Assessment is made through testing and the emphasis is on the acquisition of knowledge. In contrast, Church-Based Education revolves around mentoring. Instruction is dialogic, that is, it takes the form of discussion. Instructors prompt self-discovery by continually asking questions of the students. The emphasis is on practical application of principles rather than the mere acquisition of knowledge. (However, knowledge is not minimized!) The aim is character development.
What does such an approach look like in actual practice? How can we integrate ministry and instruction? What specific courses should be taught? Possible answers will have to wait for another essay.
In the meantime, you might find some of the following resources helpful:
Allen, Roland, Education In The Native Church, World Dominion Press, 1926
Cole, Neil, Organic Leadership: Leading Naturally Right Where You Are, Baker Books, 2009
Reed, Jeff, Church-Based Theological Education: Creating A New Paradigm, BILD International, 1992
Reed, Jeff, The Churches of the First Century, BILD International, 2009
Rutt, Couglas L., Some Caveats For Theological Education By Extension, M750 Issues in International Theological Education, Professor Robert Newton, 1991
Wood, William B. and Tanner, Kimberly D., The Role of the Lecturer as Tutor: Doing What Effective Tutors Do in a Large Lecture Class, CBE-Life Sciences Edition, Vol. 11, 3-9, Spring 2012