The Future of Pastoral Training

By Thomas Lambrecht –

Dr. William J. Abraham

In a ground-breaking development, Baylor University in Waco, Texas, this week announced the formation of a Wesley House of Studies at its Baptist-oriented Truett Theological Seminary.

Dr. William J. Abraham has been named the inaugural director to establish this new center of pastoral training at a Division-I university reaching students from 90 countries. It will be able to combine the resources of a school solidly committed to an orthodox, evangelical understanding of scriptural Christianity with the dynamic Wesleyan tradition.

“We are on the cusp of a new day for the future of the Wesleyan network of families across the world,” Abraham said. “In order to fulfill the promise in store for us, we urgently need fresh ways of providing the spiritual, practical, and intellectual resources that are essential for the work up ahead.

“Baylor University is a world-class institution, and the creation of a Wesley House of Studies at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary is a landmark development,” he said. “I can think of no better place to be home to a vibrant Wesley House. I am thrilled to play my part in making it a stellar center of excellence that the Holy Spirit can use for reform, renewal, and awakening on a global scale.”

The significance of this development can hardly be overstated. It is in part a response to the acknowledgement that, in general, our United Methodist seminaries have failed the church. That is an overgeneralization, to which there are exceptions, but the truth remains that our seminaries as a whole have not formed a generation of clergy leaders who have led the church to growth and vitality.

In the words of leadership guru John Maxwell, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” The fact is that our denomination in the U.S. has experienced a consistent decline in membership since 1968 and a more recent drastic decline in participation. Membership in the U.S. is down over 37 percent. United Methodists in 1970 made up 5.8 percent of the U.S. population, but now it is less than half that percentage. Dozens of churches close every year. There are many factors that play into this decline, but one of the most significant is the leadership provided by the 30,000 clergy persons in our denomination. Some are highly effective, but many are not.

In my experience, a major reason for clergy ineffectiveness is the training that is offered to our pastors. Most United Methodist seminary preparation gives insufficient attention to United Methodist doctrine, biblical studies, preaching, and the practice of ministry. Although some steps have been taken to address the need, there is also insufficient mentoring and supervision for clergy in the first ten years of their active ministry after seminary.

Regarding theology and doctrine, nearly all of our UM seminaries take a pluralistic approach. Rather than teaching theology from the viewpoint of our UM doctrinal standards (the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith), seminaries are teaching a liberal/progressive theology that downplays or even contradicts our Wesleyan doctrinal foundation. The message that is often proclaimed in our pulpits is a nebulous theology that may be unobjectionable but is also uninspiring and undemanding. Too often, it seems as though the Wesleyan message of the need for personal salvation and the urgency to return to God through the crucified and risen Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit is replace by a message about how we can make our world a better place through living better lives personally and advocating for a particular kind of political change in our country.

Unfortunately, most of our UM seminaries have become inhospitable environments for students who believe in the primary authority of the Bible and in the validity of our Wesleyan doctrinal heritage. Teaching of the Bible is often destructive rather than constructive. One seminary leader once described the goal of the seminary to deconstruct the faith of its students before putting that faith back together in a new way.

In my experience, UM seminaries are often better at the former than the latter. Students are given many reasons to question the historical accuracy and divine inspiration of the Bible. They are taught that scholars can be the arbiters of what parts of the Bible should be accepted and what parts relegated to irrelevance. Certain key passages are lifted up as the parts of biblical teaching to emphasize, and the Bible is read in light of modern experience, rather than allowed to speak with its own voice — the voice of God. The ability to do proper exegesis and discern the validity of various interpretations of Scripture are often not emphasized. As a result, we have heard from people in the pews that their pastors seem unable to “correctly handle the word of truth” (II Timothy 2:15). Many sermons end up being the pastor’s opinion, perhaps quoting from some recent books they have read, rather than winsomely communicating the teaching of Scripture with passion and power.

There is no question that a prospective pastor cannot learn all they need to know about the practice of ministry in seminary. It takes years of experience and the input and guidance of more experienced pastors to learn how to do ministry. However, seminary can teach the basics and how to think through issues pastorally and theologically. Unfortunately, many seminaries seem unable to do even this, and many pastors make decisions based on “gut feelings” or what might be least offensive to others, rather than being informed by Scripture, theology, and the tradition and experience of the church.

The onset of Covid-19 has upended higher education in general and theological education and the practice of ministry in particular. Suddenly, pastors are being asked to do ministry in ways they were not taught in seminary. Seminaries are being forced to offer education in ways that they were not designed to offer, emphasizing online education and revamping the curriculum to deal with the new ways of doing church. Where previously seminaries have been dipping their toes in the water of online pastoral training, they are now being forced to bodily dive in. The whole model of pastoral training is up for reexamination, and the business model that supported seminary education may not survive the pandemic. In addition, seminaries have seen a drastic decline in the number of students interested in a traditional, three-year on-site seminary education.

In the midst of this ferment in pastoral training, a new Methodist denomination is being prepared. If the 2021 General Conference enacts a plan of separation such as the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, the need for trained pastors in the new denomination will be acute. I am encouraged by the directions that are being developed by those tasked with preparing the skeleton of a new paradigm for pastoral training.

As previously reported by the Wesleyan Covenant Association, the process of ordination may be dramatically shortened, so that nearly every local church will have an ordained clergy person to serve as its pastor. At the same time, there is a commitment to an educated clergy who may be prepared for effective ministry in a variety of ways. In addition to a traditional seminary education, provision would be made for a more comprehensive Course of Study leading to elder’s orders and a hybrid online/in-person program for obtaining a seminary degree. Some of these learning environments are more suitable for combining experiential learning, mentoring, and classroom learning that might lead to greater pastoral effectiveness.

Significantly, the commitment to an educated clergy is being backed up by the intention to provide denominational loans to prospective pastors attending seminary before and during their pastoral service. In return for serving as pastors in the new denomination, those loans would be forgiven over time. The goal is to both incentivize continued education and growth and to eliminate the problem of seminary student debt. Considerable financial resources from apportionments will be needed to ensure effective clergy leadership for the future. Such resources would not go toward blanket grants to schools, but be used to directly support individual students at whatever approved seminary they attend.

Not only will existing seminaries need to shift how they do pastoral training, but there may be a need for new training programs and seminaries that foster education that is biblically based and promotes our traditional Wesleyan understanding of the faith. The new Wesley House at Baylor is one example of this trend. In countries outside the United States, there will be a need to strengthen and further equip existing Methodist seminaries and start new ones where there are none, as well as offer the same support to students preparing for the ministry as that offered to U.S. students.

New developments like the Wesley House at Baylor and new models for pastoral training envisioned by the Wesleyan Covenant Association for a new Methodist denomination give me great hope that God will raise up and equip effective clergy leaders for the next generation to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ and build his church across the globe. It will be gratifying to be part of a growing, dynamic church once again!

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.  

Comments

  1. Matthew D Rowe says

    Excellent stuff. It seems to me that the most basic need and skill set that is lacking in pastors is the training to be able to effectively disciple a single individual. If that can’t be done effectively, we have a system where the smallest cell of the organism is not healthy. The church is not healthy at a cellular level because we are not interested in the basic building block for the Christian life: one-on-one or small group discipleship.

  2. w.f. meiklejohn says

    The statement: “Such resources would not go toward blanket grants to schools, but be used to directly support individual students at whatever approved seminary they attend: seems almost in direct conflict with the words: :seminary can teach the basics and how to think:. It almost seems that the effort is more of the ANTI-baptist approach; viz. “we don’t want anyone to say, do, believe anything except what some nebulous group of pharisees and SADucees “approve”, we don’t anyone to say, do, believe anything except the ‘approved’ company line, we don’t want to be methodists we just want to use the label because we perceive it legitimizes us”.

    • W.F. Meiklejohn,
      Thanks for your response, but I had trouble trying to understand your point(s). Was your main concern that the seminary attended must be approved in order to receive the loan/grant? If that is the case, I hope you will reconsider. That is only reasonable in light of the fact that the new Methodist denomination will more than likely be connectional. UM seminaries, though supposed to have been serving our connection, dropped an emphasis on our doctrines many decades ago (probably before UMism even began in 1968). Those Methodist doctrines are vital to any denomination or local church trying to be Methodist. Without a clear understanding of, and a strong committment to our doctrines, we will eventually become another directionless denomination as UMism now is. I would hope the new denomination would not give approval to any seminary that would stand against historic Methodism.
      I also don’t understand your concern about the Baptists. Do you honestly think the new Methodist denomination would actually be anti-Baptist? Certainly our polities and distinctive doctrines are different, but we will be no greater than the Baptists—just different. As a teenage kid I visited Baptist churches a lot and wondered why the Methodist churches were not “spiritual” like the Baptist churches were, though I never joined one nor felt compelled to. None of the Methodist churches I was exposed to during that time were evangelical. When I finally came to discover evangelical (“spiritual”) Methodist churches, I eventually discovered that the Methodist understanding of salvation was far more comprehensive than what I had heard proclaimed from the Baptist pulpits.
      For the most part, Baptists seem to be much more open to the good found in other denominations, though they still retain their distinctive beliefs. I grew a lot as a Christian from my exposure to the Baptists, though I am now incurably Methodist.

      • w.f. meiklejohn says

        Terry; thank you for your gracious and thought-provoking opportunity to share.
        On the issue of ‘approved’ seminaries my concern is the basic question: “Who/what is doing the approving?” If the idea of ‘thinking’ is not encouraged, if the concept of questioning is not acceptable we risk making pulpit-robots who only echo the ‘approved’ theology and risk losing the opportunity to learn and
        grow in faith. In my idealism, I hope and pray that seminaries will expect and encourage efforts beyond; ‘you’ve got to tell the
        powers that be exactly what they want to hear (approve) in order to be allowed into the club’. I’m very distressed at the idea that seminaries “dropped an emphasis on our doctrines many decades ago”. I’m still searching for proof of that allegation. In order to become ordained, candidates are still asked the historical questions;
        ” 1. Do you know the General Rules of our Church?
        2. Will you keep ;them?
        3. Have you studied the doctrines of the UMC?
        4. After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines
        are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?
        5. Will you preach and maintain them?
        6. Have you studied our form of Church discipline and
        polilty?
        7, Do you approve our Church government and polity?
        8. Will you support and maintain them?”
        It is my understanding that these very basic questions are still asked of each and every candidate in order to be ordained, and will be the very basic philosophy no matter what ‘new denomination’ or old is in place

        I have no intention of being ‘anti-Baptist’. My statement was
        “ANTI-baptist” as I feel so much of the effort is to form a ‘new
        denomination’ that is more Baptist and is very negative (i.e. ‘ANTI’) toward anything and everything that is United Methodist. There is a great line in the movie “A River Runs Through It” where the Presbyterian clergyman’s son starts dating a Methodist girl from a town down the road. “Dad had some problems with that because he believed that Methodists were just Baptists who knew how to read”. “We’ve a story to tell to the nations!”

        We both can celebrate that we have grown ‘a lot as Christian from our exposure’ to other beliefs and denominations. I, also, am incurably Methodist and rejoice in that. We have a common ancestor, John Wesley, who said; “If your heart is with my heart, give me your hand”. Terry, I extend to you my hand and celebrate we each have the opportunity and challenge to be able to walk arm-in-arm even if we don’t see eye-to-eye.

        • Thanks for your kind response. I think I can. understand your points more clearly. I don’t know the answer to the question as to who will pronounce seminaries acceptable or not. All we have now are only proposals as to polity for whatever results from GC 2021.
          Regarding my misunderstanding of your use of “Baptist,” I read your saying something like [local colloquialism] “…just like them Baptists!”
          Yes, you and I are different on probably many Methodist issues, but, regardless of our convictions, we both have much yet to learn from the One who is the Truth. Thanks!

  3. The Master of Divinity at the Candler School of Theology— Emory University:

    The Master of Divinity is a professional degree for persons preparing for service in ministry and church leadership, social services and a variety of chaplaincy settings.

    The program fosters students’ understanding of church and ministry in the contemporary world, and students’ ability to work meaningfully and creatively in a vocation of religious leadership. It increases students’ knowledge and strengthens their ability to integrate their understanding of the various disciplines of theology and ministry with their experience of God, the church, and the world.

    Through their study for a Master of Divinity degree, students will gain:

    Formation in reflective practices of leadership.
    Grounding in Christian texts, traditions, theologies and practices.
    An informed sense of one’s self and one’s ministerial vocation through appropriation and integration.
    A sense of vocation as practitioners, leaders and public theologians who will be generative of positive change and new possibilities for the church and world.
    Knowledge and experience of a multi-ethnic, intercultural, ecumenical and religiously diverse world.
    Skills in critical and imaginative thinking, responsible interpretation and effective communication.
    Basic proficiency in practical skills for ministry plus specific competencies in pockets of theological expertise.

    • The Master of Divinity — Asbury Theological Seminary:

      What to Expect from the Degree

      As you complete your degree, you will

      Receive a solid, biblically-based, spiritually formative theological education and demonstrate an ability to interpret Scripture within your contemporary ministry setting.
      Preach, teach and disciple in an effective, transformative way, with particular attention to the Wesleyan-holiness tradition.
      Conduct anthropological studies to help you interpret the gospel for your context and to develop fresh methods for preaching and leading.
      Develop habits to practice a Wesleyan understanding of personal and social holiness.
      Learn and apply practical skills through internships and immersion experiences in a Christian ministry setting.

  4. One of the faults in the Discipline is that education equates to pastoral ability. I know many doctors of divinity that can lecture for hours on what professors pumped into their heads, but some of them miss the mark on being able to minister to the needs of their congregations, manage and effectively administer their charge.

    Too many pastors spend too much time worrying about maintaining their credentials and not nearly enough time maintaining their relationship with their congregation. I know Baptist pastors with no formal theology educations that can preach circles around many well educated UMC pastors. The UMC turned preaching into something it was never intended to be and institutionalized it.

    We visit and are involved with several mega-churches in our area. They are all non-denominational, and they all started in a garage. Their pastors have not spent years studying theology, but they have spent years preaching the Gospel.

    As I look back on my time in the UMC, I find that it was possibly just too rigid for me, too confining, to controlling. Churches don’t need layers of DS’s and Bishops (at great financial costs) telling them what they need to do when it’s already being done well. But when things do go wrong and churches start to fail, you couldn’t find a DS or Bishop even if they had GPS locators on.

    We at New Wesleyan continue to pray for the UMC and the WCA.

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