Training Pastors

Balancing Scholarship and Practice

A brief examination of the history of theological education in the Western tradition reveals that traditionally it has swung back and forth like a pendulum between two poles—the practical on one extreme and the abstract, academic and theoretical on the other. On the practical side, this involves the demands made by churches that its ordinands and ministers be trained and equipped for ministerial and pastoral tasks, such as preaching and teaching and other pastoral tasks. On the academic and theoretical side involves the demands made by universities and theological schools upon their students for more academically rigorous training, particularly to meet the demands of religious education in this current multi-cultural and globalised society.[1] In order to meet such demands, within the last few decades theological schools both in the UK and North America have gradually begun “to set higher standards for faculty in the ministry fields. Once seen as merely ‘applied theology’ or ‘helps and hints for church leaders,’ the practical theological disciplines now involve critical and original thinking about theologically saturated religious practices.”[2]


Theological Education: A Brief Historical Overview

Scholasticism, theology and knowledge 

The tendency for theological education to swing between the poles identified above can be witnessed from church history. During the late medieval period (1000-1500 AD), for example, European universities were dominated by Scholastic methodology—a combination of Aristotelian metaphysics, Aquinas’s method of commentary and Abelard’s synthesis of dogmas by means of rigorous critical examination. Theology, it was claimed, was the Queen of the Sciences, and the universities sought to produce students who were masters of a wide range of knowledge. Such academic rigour had a downside, however. “Unfortunately,” points out Rowdon, “since the whole course might extend for anything up to 17 years, including not only disputation but also lecturing, it became less and less related to the work of the ministry and more and more the route to a life of academic scholarship. High ideals proved to be self-defeating.”[3] To address this lack of practical pastoral and homiletical training by the universities, preaching orders such as the friars were established, with corresponding training centres; later on, however, these schools were absorbed into the university system and their impact upon practical clergy training was largely lost.

The Reformation, allegory and grammatico-historical exegesis


The Reformers called attention to this lack of practical preparation on the part of the clergy, and to that end established their own universities to train potential ministers. Reacting against the late medieval scholasticism of the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformers made use of the methods of humanism in their schools: grammatico-historical exegesis as opposed to allegory, study of the original biblical languages and sources, philology, etc. Such academic training, however, was not completely disconnected from practical realities. Universities such as Cambridge, for example, provided a flexible and cooperative method of ministerial training, bringing together scholars trained in the humanities: classical history, Greek and Hebrew philology, rhetoric, logic and comparative exegesis. Each week students would learn from one such scholar in seminar sessions. As time went on, however, into the later Reformation era, university ministerial training became more about social advantage gained from a degree and serious study and examinations became more of an option.


 19th-century practical theological training


By the early 19th century, repeated calls were made by church leaders for universities to become more academically demanding, and as a result entrance examinations became more rigorous. Again, however, as with the earlier swing toward the intellectual, “The study of theology at the older universities became more serious and scholarly—but it also became more abstract and theoretical.” [4]

Theological Training Colleges

The nineteenth century also witnessed two new developments: first, the origins of theological colleges to equip ministers, often in the evangelical and non-conformist traditions. Oftentimes these centres were started since the founders could not support the aims of traditional universities, which were consistent with the Anglican church. Such schools “were primarily intended to supplement the very inadequate preparation for the ministry given at the universities.”[5]

“On the job” christian ministry training

Second involved a move for experienced ministers to train young ordinands “on the job” in practical ministry tasks such as exegesis, preaching and pastoral duties. Although clearly worthwhile in terms of practical ministerial preparation, the fact that such training did not result in a degree qualification could potentially end up hurting the minister should he desire to pursue higher education or a career in academia.

Contemporary trend: pastoral ministry and scholarship

This cursory overview of theological training in the Western tradition demonstrates that as theological education swings from practical to theoretical pole, there are both negatives and positives associated with such moves. Overall in the history of theological training, the tendency has been more toward the pole of the hypothetical and theoretical and away from the practical. Rowdon comments that whether “for good or ill, theological training has tended to be cast in an academic mould.”[6] In recent decades in theological schools both in the UK and North America, the trend has developed to emphasise academic standards, involving a sharp increase toward the academic and the theoretical, which correspondingly means a move away from the practical. This is the case for two distinct reasons: first, many long-serving professors and lecturers in the “practical fields” such as pastoral ministry, homiletics and counselling, retire or accept more lucrative ministry positions. Second, in seeking to fill such vacancies, theological schools seek candidates who are both academically trained (ideally at a PhD level) who also have real-world ministry experience. This is proving to be a difficult task, as Long indicates:

Theological schools are looking for a rare commodity: teachers of the ministry arts who are able practitioners as well as well-trained research scholars able to move nimbly across interdisciplinary and even interfaith lines. This raises some eyebrows. Some in the church wonder if this move toward research scholars in the practical fields represents yet one more instance of the widening gap between the academy and the parish.[7]

While it is certainly true that at times, and in certain traditions, there has been a trend toward anti-intellectualism within churches, balance must be maintained between the practical and theoretical. Rowdon argues that “when intellectual pursuits become an end in themselves, or a substitute rather than a spur to personal devotion, they turn to dust and ashes.”[8] The above study demonstrates the difficulty universities and theological schools encounter in trying to strike that precise balance between the academic and the practical. If theological education is too theoretical–despite the benefits of academic rigour and discipline–it can result in merely reinforcing the differences between a “professional clergy” class and the laity, and moreover serve to widen the so-called “gap between the pulpit and the pew.”

Sources Used

[1] Burns, Judith. “Over Half of Schools Failing in Religious Education, says Ofsted.” 6 Oct. 2013: (accessed 10/14/2016).

[2] Long, Thomas G. “A Crisis in Practical Theology.” The Christian Century (24 Feb. 2004): 30.

[3] Rowdon, Harold H. “Theological Education in Historical Perspective.” Vox Evangelica (7), 1971: 79.

[4] Rowdon, “Theological Education,” 82.

[5] Rowdon, “Theological Education,” 84.

[6] Rowdon, “Theological Education,” 86.

[7] Long, “A Crisis in Practical Theology,” 31.

[8] Rowdon, “Theological Education,” 87.

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October 14, 2016