Thursday, November 12, 2009

Qualified to Minister?

Good morning God,

The news this morning is that all new nurses in the UK from 2013 are going to have to spend at least three years being educated to degree level. Hallelujah! As someone who has to be in hospital on a regular basis, I think this is great news. But of course there are already some who insist that education has nothing to do with caring and that you don't need a degree to be a good nurse..

We have the same problem in ministry.

It will come as a surprise to many readers of this blog to know that the British Methodist Church has no formal graduate educational requirement for ordained ministry. Someone can enter training for the ministry without a degree of any sort and can complete their time in seminary without having acquired one in the time they have spent there.

The failure to achieve what is clearly becoming the minimum professional academic standard is not thought sufficient reason for the Church to reconsider the individual's suitability for ministry and delay their ordination.

But it really should be.

In the twelve years that I have been involved in training our ministers I have witnessed many who have really struggled with academic work, who would never have thought of themselves as 'clever' in any way, but who have nonetheless worked and worked to obtain the degree or diploma which forms an integral part of their seminary training. Ministry matters enough to them for them to really want to do well. They strive to be worthy of their calling by learning all that they can for the sake of those they will minister to.

Sadly I have also seen far more 'clever' students who fail to submit work at all, who plagiarise the work of others or cut and paste something from the Internet or just knock out an essay in an half hour thinking that anything will do. They often leave seminary as uneducated as when they arrived - and are usually stupid enough to think that there is nothing wrong with that!

And inevitably the work of the Church really suffers. The body of Christ is sick, but is being ministered to by some ministers who weren't prepared to learn how to take its pulse (but who do, of course, have an uneducated opinion about how to do it!)

The British Methodist Church at the moment does not seem to believe that ordained ministry requires people to be educated to what is fast becoming the national standard for a vocational profession. Obviously we presume our ministers know enough about you God by loving you and that they shouldn't need formal qualifications to prove it.

The government believes that a nurse needs a degree in order to equip them with 'the decision making skills which they need to make high level judgements'.

But Ministers...? Why would they need a degree?

What use is theology in ministry anyway God?

None of the disciples had a degree did they?

It's not just that I am ashamed of the poor standard of ministerial education compared to our European and American counterparts, I am also horrified at the biblical and theological illiteracy which we foster on our people as a result.

The lack of ability of all too many ministers to engage critically and analytically with the rest of the world using the resources of the faith, (Scripture, reason, tradition and experience) is one of the main reasons that the gospel is often deemed irrelevant and anachronistic. It is widely thought by those who must wrestle with global problems such as ecology, justice, the war on terror and human trafficking that the Christian faith is as much use in such matters as belief in the tooth fairy is.

Surely the best way to begin to change this and to recover a national voice which can speak confidently and intelligently of Your concerns in these matters, is for the Church to follow the lead of the government. All ministers from 2013 should need a minimum qualification of a recognised Bachelors degree in theology or ministry before they can be ordained.

The fear that this will prevent people from offering for ordained ministry must surely be set alongside the fear of what is happening to the Gospel because we don't!


  1. The same could be said of people 'on trial' who think that because they're called by God to preach, they shouldn't need to study...

  2. THANK YOU!!!!

    I began training with no formal Higher Education experience at all, and finished the Diploma as a part of my Foundation Training, I was then switched to the MA and have not only enjoyed but also been equipped by the demands of the course. Reflection and critical engagement are crucial tools for ministry, and we must become relevant preachers and folk able to make informed comment when asked ( as I was only last week by a local reporter)regarding an event which affected the neighbourhood).

  3. With government targets of 50% of the population accessing Higher Education what is going on if our ministry is drawn from the other 50%? It's not a popular thing to say but I agree that we are in real danger of a theologically illiterate ministry. The cause is not that we don't believe in education and training but that we can't/won't pay to do it properly.

    How many ministers now know any NT Greek at all? Whilst I do not think this is essential, I do believe that ministerial training (including the part time courses) should at least contain an opportunity to study Biblical languages.

    Stan Brown

  4. I have just read your last two blogs.
    I whole heartedly agree, Angie.

    The research I did for my MA dissertation suggested that the training of Superintendent ministers is an area that needs particular attention because of impact poorly trained leaders have on all those around them.
    I wonder if there is too much opportunity in the church for idiosyncratic leadership and insufficient accountability?

    If a degree ought to be the minimum requirement for any minister, then all the more so for those who are to lead them!

    Anne Ellis

  5. When I trained for ordination in the 1990s I was told that I was not suitable to complete a University Course, despite my desire to do so: it was clearly then not deemed necessary. Since moving into circuit I have completed study to Masters level, which has enhanced my ministry and given me a desire to study further and deeper.

    A theologically literate and competent ministry is vital for the future of the Church, alongside a ministry with a deep, relevant and practical spirituality, able to discern the mind and heart of God for God's world and church.

  6. I couldn't agree with you more, Angie! As I see it, the obstacles are: 1) The Church's reluctance to pay enough to train its ministers properly; 2) An 'anti-intellectualism' that says that somehow education will distance 'good, faithful disciples' from 'ordinary' folk; 3) An increasingly aged intake who feel they know it all already and if they spend too long in training they will not have enough years left before they retire.

    Having seen some of the excellent work that Cliff College do in offering people with little or no previous academic background to achieve amazing things, I see no reason why anyone deemed suitable for ministry should not be able to earn a degree. Also, we should make more use of training patterns which enable people to begin to practise some aspects of ministry whilst carrying out their studies.

  7. Theological study is good, useful for training, equiping and preparing people for ministry. However I suspect that of more importance is to see all the ministers of the Church (not just the ordained ones) empowered by the Holy Spirit of God and I don't think there is enough emphasis on this essential requisit for Christian ministry. I suspect that it is the lack of Spirit filled Christians that hampers the work of God and churches that seem to replace the work of the Spirit with human adminsitration that cripple kingdom growth more than anything else.

  8. I beg to differ Angela ... like anon said above I'd much rather see spirit-filled leaders (ordained and otherwise) than insisting on a uni degree ... I'm not against the degree of course (that's why I've been doing the MA and loving it) but head knowledge without the love and power of the Holy Spirit does NOT make for good Christian leaders ... and I would like to see a lot more practical theology and real training along with the educational requirements -as well as evidence of a life changed by one's relationship with God. Too often that seems to be glossed over too.

  9. Thanks for the comments on this challenging but important topic. I was ashamed to hear of anyone being told that they unsuitable for a university degree. As an Open Unversity tutor, I believe that is shorthand for 'I am too lazy as your tutor to work with you to help you obtain the skills you need.'
    Not all degrees are the same - a vocational degree such as the new foundation Degrees(see especially what is being offered at Roehampton and Wesley College Bristol) are a recognition that there are different ways of learning and being assessed.
    I am more disturbed however by the comments that suggest an either/or situation: that it is more important to have 'Spiritual' or Spirit Filled ministers than educated ministers. This smacks of the sort of anti-intellectualism which has always been rampant in our Church. I expect BOTH educated AND Spirit filled ministers.
    Surely the more Spirit filled I am, the more I love God's people, the more I would want them to KNOW the truth of the gospel - as it has been handed down through the generations, not just as I see it in my own humble opinion?
    I wouldn't dream to presume that my love of science would qualify me to teach science so that others can know enough to love it and practice it safely for the benefit of others

    I long for people to hear the truth of the gospel, but the evidence suggests that we are becoming a silent people because too few know enough to speak confidently and 'spiritually' about God.

  10. As a theological educator I am obviously biased on this issue. The trend in Spain is to want an accredited theological degree, even though it is not required by most denominations. People want more rather than less, so it seems quite odd that in UK Methodism the standards are so "lax" in this regard.

  11. You are right, Angela, and I would add that congregations long for Ministers/Preachers who are both educated and Spirit-filled. It is when they are not Spirit-filled that talk of anti-intellectualism arises.

  12. I think you have something in this, Olive. I would say you're spot on.

  13. I agree with Angie that there should be no disjunction betweed spirit filled and educated. To be empowered and called by the Holy Spirit is an essential criterion to begin training for recognised ministry - our discernment processes are there to uncover the Spirt at work. What is at issue here are our training processes - quite different! I've spent a lot of time serving in Methodist Church "candidating" processes and Local Preacher Training. One of the marks of a genuinely Spirit empowered calling is a willingness, indeed a hunger for training and knowledge to enhance and exercise that calling.

  14. If you are serving God then he will give you all the answers and intellect you need. I honestly believe the majority of those who seek such a degree for ministry purposes do so because they are not receiving enough answers through the Holy Spirit.

    Why not take the time you'd spend in a class and instead spend it praying and fasting to grow closer to God? I have received so many eye opening answers from fast alone. The only one who gives you the TRUTH is God. The fact that a person would need a degree to get away from their "own humble opinion" exhibits the fact that they are not fully led by the Holy Spirit. When you are led by the Spirit, your flesh is taken out of it. This takes time and effort. Some people think they deserve all the answers before God wants to give it to them. Man is always seeking knowledge; that is not a love of God but a love of Man. Let God teach you on his own time schedule.

    Someone filled with the Holy Spirit is indeed educated and intellectual on the subject of God. Being a speaker on behalf of God is a calling; not a profession. In addition, those who do not know God need the most help. Those are the ones who do not need "intellectual" talk but instead need the basics. If it's God's word then it will indeed sound intellectual.