Over the past several years, I have coached my son through the various stages of decision-making concerning his chosen vocation of ordained Christian ministry. He is the third generation of our family to move in this direction.

A key issue has been how to deal with the continuum from theological education to ministry preparation in a postmodern 21st century. Should he pursue formal theological education immediately after college? Or, should he move into full-time ministry, and then seek ministry preparation through commuting to a seminary or through distance learning?

This critical issue impacts the quality of ministry and the effectiveness of the church in the 21st century. Congregations, denominations and seminaries must jointly respond to this challenge. Here are several possibilities:

First, move from an emphasis on theological education to an emphasis on ministry preparation. Theological education tends to produce knowledgeable clergy who enjoy practicing their trade as emerging theologians. Some also learn how to minister effectively to people and how to lead congregations.

Ministry preparation emphasizes the practical skills of how to nurture people in growing spiritual relationships with God, and how to help congregations be healthy and productive.

A dilemma exists. We do not want biblically and theologically ignorant clergy. Nor do we want clergy who are knowledgeable of the historically correct ways to state biblical and theological truths, but cannot apply these truths in ministry.

Second, move away from seminary as a three-to-four-year event to a lifelong learning experience. Too much is expected from a brief, residential, seminary degree program. Often, when clergy fail to help their congregations achieve and sustain vitality, the credibility of their seminary is attacked.

Change is happening too fast to expect the specific methodologies and applications taught in a residential seminary degree program to have validity five years after a person receives his or her degree. The vast majority of faculty members in many seminaries is out of touch with present-to-future congregational ministry. These members best know past-to-present congregational ministry.

Third, reverse the frame of reference. Typically, people go to seminary and then seek some type of ministry experience. This is the residential, degree granting, theological education approach.

Begin instead by placing people in a ministry experience and then seeking an appropriate theological education experience. This ministry preparation approach says that the most important thing clergy can do is learn how to apply biblical and theological truths to real-time, real-life situations.

Within a denominational system, effective preparation requires a primary partnership between the denominational hierarchy and the seminary leadership. Unfortunately, both the denominational hierarchy and the seminary leadership tend to focus on their own survival and vitality.

Ideally, ministry preparation and theological teaching should take place over several years in a congregational setting.

George Bullard is director of Hollifield Leadership Center and Lake Hickory Learning Communities in Conover, N.C.

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