Education with No End in Sight: A Proposal for Continuing Education for Christian Ministers

While catching up with my bff in Michigan last week (the bearded senior minister of this church, Jordan Kellicut), I came up with what I think could be an interesting model for continuing education for ministers that would additionally bring church and biblical/theological scholarship into a closer, more cooperative, and (hopefully) more fruitful relationship.

The Shorter Version of the Pipe-dream

Either directly through or in partnership with a local Christian college or seminary, I would love to one day collaborate with others to construct a model for localized, fluid, and non-terminal continuing education for ministers who already hold a B.S. and/or M.Div. in Christian Ministry.

There would be no degree or certificate to earn. Since the students would already possess a degree (or two) in Ministry and related areas, the goal would not be to earn another terminal degree. The goal would simply be continued, high quality, and cutting-edge education for continued excellence in faithful ministry. Because there would be no degree, there would not necessarily have to be a set curriculum, either. Students and faculty could collaborate to pursue topics that are relevant and vital to their current ministerial needs. Say a group of ministers feels a little rusty on  their Greek or New Testament Textual Criticism; or they’ve been talking with parishioners with questions about the Christian Apocrypha; or they need a refresher on the OT Prophets in context; or they feel their churches might benefit from renewed theological reflection on communion/Eucharist—together with a faculty member (or two) with expertise in that area, they proceed to build a collaborative continuing educational experience based on the current needs of their ministries.

Because time and money will always be limited commodities, courses would have be constructed so as to be both realistic for both busy ministers and instructors, as well as low-cost, especially since all you get is the educational experience—not a certificate or terminal degree. Because there is no certificate or diploma, this model could be education with no end in sight: just as Bible colleges and seminaries seek to train up lifelong ministers, this model would promote lifelong education for lifelong ministers.

The Longer Version of the Pipe-dream

We were sitting on the end of the dock at my parents’ lakeside cottage in northwestern Michigan, Jordan and I, talking about our hopes: his to continue his education while in ministry and mine to one day foster a career of teaching in and for both the Christian college/seminary and the church. While we each have different goals, they seemed to complement one another. He wants more education and I want to teach in an institution that could provide it.

Jordan already has both a B.S. in Christian Ministry and an M.Div. from two good schools—Great Lakes Christian College and Emmanuel Christian Seminary—who share a common mission to train ministers of all kinds for the worldwide church. I have the same degrees from both of these schools and, like Jordan, benefited greatly from the foundational training they both provided. But if the goal is to train up lifelong ministers for an ever-changing worldwide church, can foundational training alone ever be enough?

First, a caveat: In my view, the foundation for a lifetime of ministry laid by both the B.S. and M.Div. is absolutely vital for faithful and effective ministry. I hold both these degrees, and I hope to one day teach at an institution that grants one or both of them, so let me be clear: I’ve got no beef with the Bible college or seminary and the degrees they each offer. Rather, my concern is that cutting-edge ministerial, theological, and biblical education ends for many students at graduation. This is a tragedy.

Neither the B.S. nor M.Div. could ever hope to be comprehensive preparation for a lifetime of ministry. As I understand them both, they each provide a foundation upon which the minister will spend a lifetime building. Yet my gut-feeling is that many students see either or both of these degrees as totally terminal: you finish the degree and then you’re done with school—forever. In fact, I knew some folks at both GLCC and ECS who were looking forward to never going back to school after graduation. At the end of rigorous degrees that take upwards of four years (each!) to complete, one can readily sympathize with being excited about closing that chapter and moving on.

But why would—indeed, why should—the minister’s education end after graduation? For many or perhaps even most ministers, it doesn’t: they never stop reading and learning about the Bible, theology, and ministry. But this education, I think, tends to be mostly self-directed and I think that’s really unfortunate. Our Bible colleges and seminary faculties are staffed by people whose job it is to stay up-to-date with and contribute to scholarship on the church, its Bible, and the whole of the Christian tradition. Thus I have to ask:

Why would you only tap those resources for four years? 

Why not continue learning from your Nugents, Howells-Douglases, Peters, Ramsarans, Perkinses, and Matsons for years to come? No matter how much extra credit you earned in your B.S. and/or M.Div., I guarantee you did not exhaust the expertise your professors have to offer. You have much more to learn and, speaking freely on their behalf without any sort of permission, I think they have much more to teach.

The Tragedy and Opportunity of Continuing Education for Christian Ministers

If it sounds like I’m being hard on B.S./M.Div.-holding ministers, it’s because I am: I am being hard on them because I’m one of them. I submitted myself with them to the long process of education and ordination in preparation for ministry. Furthermore, I care about the church. The church needs good ministers, and ministers have a better shot of being “good” if they never stop learning.

Now I’m going to be hard on the Bible colleges and seminaries, too: they don’t always do a very good job of providing avenues for ministers to pursue continuing education. Most of their students are in pursuit of terminal degrees, which leaves their alumni to fend for themselves after they graduate. This makes it all too easy for the M.Div. student to choose to end her education after graduation. For lack of opportunity, the minister does not pursue further education. This is tragic.

But it’s also an opportunity. Ministers need continuing education and Bible colleges and seminaries need continued interaction with ministers. The Bible college and seminary serves the church; to do so, it should be in contact with the church at multiple levels and not only in the capacity of teaching young would-be ministers. Older ministers could learn from scholars in the classroom, but I think scholars could also learn from those ministers in the same setting.

I’m not a college or seminary administrator and, at this point, I wouldn’t know the first thing about creating or implementing a non-degree program at a degree-granting institution. But I do know that there’s a real need for creative continuing education opportunities for ministers. In addition to simply finding a place to teach one day, it is a dream of mine to think creatively about ways to bring the church and its scholars into a closer and more mutually edifying relationship. This model I dreamed up with my buddy, at the end of a dock in Birch Lake, MI, might be a possible way towards that goal.

I toss this blog post into the ether of the Internet, among friends and strangers, ministers and scholars, in the hopes that it might drum up some positive dialogue about how best to promote lifelong learning among lifelong ministers and engender a more fruitful and vital relationship between Christian scholars and the church they serve.

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