a modest proposal.
Isn’t it great pastoring has become so much easier nowa- days, so much less challenging than before? Now, if only theological education would clue in and change
Andrew Walls, the great Scottish historian of world missions at the University of Edinburgh, notes how academic
requirements for British missionary candidates rose during the 19th century. Missionaries who were to move to
China or India – and learn those languages, understand
those cultures, and connect the Christian faith properly
with those complex religious and philosophical traditions
– needed a broad and rigorous education. At least a university degree in the humanities was demanded plus specific
Into the 20th century, major Canadian denominations
continued to expect a university degree in the humanities
or social sciences plus a degree in theology for their clergy
here at home as well. “BA, BD” (Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor
of Divinity) became the standard for Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists and later United Church
pastors, with similar training required of Catholic priests.
And as educational levels increased among the Canadian
population at large, especially after 1960, smaller evangelical denominations raised their expectations accordingly.
Bible schools turned into Bible colleges, and increasingly
a seminary qualification – the Bachelor of Divinity, now
relabelled a master’s degree (MDiv), although otherwise
largely unchanged – was expected on top of a university
diploma in something, if not always in a relevant discipline.
Nowadays, however, leaders of certain popular churches in the United States and Canada mock the “semitaries”
that supposedly neutralize rather than “release” the holy
entrepreneurship characteristic of their kind of religion.
Seminaries themselves are cutting degree requirements,
paring back on biblical languages, church history, doctrine,
and other apparently optional courses so students can
finish more quickly and cheaply.
In fact more and more institutions are trumpeting the
virtues of online learning in which you don’t have to leave
home at all but can read books, listen to lectures and write
assignments (when you can make time), with episodes of
Skyping or Tweeting or Facebooking to compensate for the
loss of sustained and reinforcing contact and conversation
offered by traditional (= “old-fashioned”) schools.
It is interesting to compare the rise and decline of pastoral education with the continued rise of medical education. There wasn’t all that much physicians could do to
help before the age of antiseptics, anaesthesias and antibiotics. But as the 20th century dawned, medical training
increased apace, until by mid-century a physician was
expected to undertake half a dozen years of university-level training plus at least a year of interning before practising independently, while specialists studied for years
more. Medical challenges have always been huge, and as
medical knowledge grew, we expected our physicians to
grow with it.
Happily, however, pastoring apparently isn’t like that.
No, pastoral challenges in Canada today have greatly
diminished. You’ve noticed that, haven’t you? Canada is
becoming a more and more ethnically uniform country, so
pastors need no longer know how to understand different
cultures – say, those of India or China.
Canadians are attending post-secondary education less
and less, so we don’t need a similarly educated person to
help us co-ordinate the gospel with our lives. Just give us
a charismatic speaker with great storytelling ability and
a big heart.
Biomedical issues, political challenges, cultural currents, financial questions, technological innovations –
everything is much, much simpler to understand today,
so our pastors can be simpler people too.
Yes, let’s expect less of our clergy and theological schools.
Let’s demand, in fact, that seminaries reduce degree requirements, lower standards for their professors, drop their tuition
charges accordingly and give our next generation of pastors
what they need – an education that is cut-rate, compromised
and convenient. (Read between the lines of some of those
seminary ads. That’s what they’re offering.)
Sure, those who care for our bodies need the best education we can possibly afford to give them. Can you imagine entrusting yourself or your child to a physician who
learned medicine online? The idea is scandalous.
But what about those who teach us the Word of Life in
the era of the Internet, the global village, multiculturalism
and secularization? Do pastors need intellectually rigorous
Do they? Ft
JohN StACKhoUSE is the Sangwoo youtong Chee
professor of theology and culture
at Regent College, Vancouver.