Intro: A little while ago, I asked Dr. Nick Willborn of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (GPTS) if he would mind writing something for the Building Old School Churches Blog on the critical subject of Theological education. He graciously consented to do so, and sent the following essay, which I hope you will find thought provoking.
Thoughts on Ministerial Education and Preparation
by Dr. C.N. Willborn
Everyone knows you can’t put into a man what God has left out. (I know; a gargantuan assumption in a day of low churchism.) Namely, I mean, ministerial gifts and supernatural calling can’t be put into a man. That seems to be a lost concept today—that God calls and gifts the men of his choosing to be his mouthpieces, his shepherds, his rulers, in his church. To illustrate, let me recount some comments I heard from a seminary professor friend of mine a few years ago. “A lot of the divinity students,” he said, “are here [at the seminary] because a job in their degree field didn’t pan out immediately upon graduation from university. Let me explain: a fellow graduates from college and doesn’t find a job right away. He sits down with his campus minister [probably not his pastor and elders as he ought] and laments his predicament. The campus minister says something like this: ‘you always liked coming to the weekly meetings and helping with activities, maybe you ought to go to seminary.’ The young fellow takes this word from the campus minister as divine revelation and heads off for seminary. Three or four years later, he finishes a M.Div. and now he is almost certain to come into the ordained ministry even if the gifts and calling are not there.” That’s what I call coming into the gospel ministry through the back door.
On the other hand, Spurgeon, Thornwell, Peck, and a host of others would advise young men this way: “If there is anything else in life you can do and be happy doing it, do it. Pursue the office of word and sacrament only if God has issued you a specific call, confirmed it through the crucible of the church, and closed all other doors to vocation.” Ah, that’s another lost word that corresponds to my topic—vocation. The gospel ministry is a vocation or calling, not a job! Don’t you get tired of hearing ministers talk about “getting a job,” instead of receiving a call? Sure you do—I hope.
Now, with those meanderings concluded, let me get to the point. Once the church, and I emphasize the church, has confirmed through a thorough testing of a man’s gifts and character, the call to the gospel office of word and sacrament, then that man is a proper candidate for ministerial training or preparation. And what should that training/preparation include? Well, in brief, it ought to prepare a man to handle God’s word, in the original languages and English [assuming I’m writing to English speakers], carefully and respectfully. It ought to prepare a man to think theologically, with a keen understanding of the Scriptures in their redemptive-historical setting and in their organic unity. It ought to prepare a man to think historically, with an acute consciousness of what has transpired in the past—how and what the church has believed, how it has dealt with unbelief, and how it has worshiped. In brief, historical orthodoxy and orthopraxy should be inculcated in the life’s mind of a ministerial candidate.
All of this ought to be carried out within the parameters of the public confession of the church. That is, the “academic” side of ministerial preparation ought to conform to the doctrine publicly confessed by the church to which the ministerial candidates are committed. For a seminary committed to “academic” preparation of Presbyterians, its instruction ought to agree with and inculcate into the candidate the Westminster Confession of Faith, Catechisms, Form of Government, and Directory of Worship. Thus, the “academic” portion of preparation should be executed for bona fide candidates for the gospel ministry, by the church (its best ordained men), in full accord with its holy religion.
Seminary is not a graduate school or a school of religion. Seminary is not university, a place where diversity of thoughts are praised, protected, and promoted. Rather it is a place where the Holy Scriptures and the theology derived from the Scriptures, as summarized in the confessional standards of a particular church, are studied, learned, and taught. Men in these institutions should be given the “academic” tools for “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15).
With this said about the proper candidate for ministerial education/preparation, and the content of the academic side of preparation, permit me to speak to the pastoral or practical side of a candidate’s preparation. In the immediately preceding paragraphs you will notice that I spoke of “academic” preparation. The quotation marks around academic were intended to make a point—the pastoral or practical aspects of ministerial preparation cannot be accomplished within the environs of the academic. Like a good conversational language program, immersion is a key to both the “academic” side of ministerial preparation and the pastoral/practical side. A ministerial candidate should be immersed in the “academic” side of preparation for a couple of years. Likewise, he (notice I said “he”) should be immersed in the practical/pastoral side of preparation for a goodly amount of time. The practical immersion should be of the apprenticeship type; working under and with a mentor session and pastor(s). What if the courses of pastoral theology, biblical counseling, Christian education, evangelism—you know, the hands on application of historical, exegetical, biblical, and systematic theology—were taken in the “classroom” of session meetings, congregational meetings, hospital rooms, nursing homes, living rooms, and coffee shops? Well, that’s my ideal world—the immersion or apprenticeship model for ministerial candidates who have completed an intensive immersion in historical, exegetical, biblical, and systematic theology. Yes, I’m proposing that we model/teach the day-in and day-out pastoral labors in the context of church life. What a novel idea!
This, of course, will require pastors to become manly again—men who take their calling seriously and exercise it fully. Committing what they know and believe “to faithful men” (2 Tim 2:2). Pastors should be men who minister rather than administrate; disciple rather than manage. They are to avoid becoming entangled in anything less than that which will bear generational and eternal fruit. Where is the Calvin and the Chalmers who gave themselves to shepherding flocks and discipling the next generation of pastors?
In the meantime, until my ideal is realized, there is a need for theological education that recognizes the necessity for an intensive immersion in historical, exegetical, biblical, and systematic theology. Coupled with this “academic” curriculum, there is a need for basic, introductory courses in pastoral ministry, biblical counseling, apologetics, evangelism, (and, perhaps, Christian education) and stiff church internship requirements.
At the same time, sessions, diaconates, teaching elders, and ministerial candidates must be committed to hard work and sacrifice when it comes to preparing successive generations of men for the gospel office of word and sacrament. Candidates must be willing to immerse themselves sacrificially and count it all joy for Christ’s sake. Sessions and diaconates must be willing to give generously and cheerfully to fund the academic endeavors and apprenticeships of their gifted and called men. Elders and deacons must be willing to invest precious time in the ministerial candidates.
It takes all of this to provide a quality ministerial education and a thoroughly qualified minister.