My Concern With Private Christian Colleges Training The Next Generation of Leaders

Before I say anything else I want to say that I am not certain that the concern I am going to voice is valid. I am asking whether or not it is as much as anything else in this post. If you remember that Ken Robinson video I posted some time ago he believes that our education system in America and in Great Britain are so far behind the times it is not even funny. It is not just that they aren’t able to quickly maneuver to adapt and get students ready for a job market that is vastly different than it was 5, 10 or 20 years ago but that the very model they are based on is well over 100 years old. Now that would be great if the world we lived in mirrored the 1880s but it doesn’t. Our public education system has a problem and the path it takes to fix it is enormous and covered in red-tape, politics, and agendas that trump actually making the changes to make our educational system effective.

Now that brings me to Christian education. We rely on our private Christian colleges to train ministers that fill congregations in capacities varying from professional song leaders to preachers, teachers, small group coordinators and more. Private Christian education has done a fantastic job for decades. But how well are we currently training the next generation of leaders? Do our models actually match contemporary congregational and cultural needs in a world that has changed culturally and religiously from what it was 5, 10 or 20 years ago?

The concern I have with our private universities and their Bible departments is that it is entirely possible that many of those who are teaching ministry classes and who are equipping those in their teens and twenties to be ministers may not be aware of the shifts that have happened in ministry because they have not been in the trenches in years. In effect, some may be teaching ministry methods that are 10 or 20 years old that just don’t work today due to all the change that has taken place congregationally and socially. I don’t know how big of a problem that is but I do know that the world has made a dramatic shift in the last decade and I doubt that our institutions have been nimble enough to address it and re-position their approach to continue to be effective in training people for a new mission field. Outreach methods that worked in the 80s and 90s does not always prove effective today.

What is more many young people today do not have a high regard for institutions and learning ministry through those methods and yet private Christian colleges are where we continue to pour our time and financial resources into in hopes that they can help us ready ourselves for the future. Many young people are instead opting for short term missions, vocational ministry and para-church organizations and non-profits to feel like they are making a difference for the kingdom of God because they just don’t see how their talents can be used by the congregations they grew up in, which is what they know about congregational life.

In my mind a couple of things need to happen:

First, we need more equipping on the level of the local congregation. We cannot rely on the “big guys” to train people and send them to us. When churches hire people they are looking for a degree from an accredited university to make sure they are getting someone who is qualified and who has been adequately trained. Again, that is the old assumption that a degree means you have adequate training and that the institutions handing out degrees actually adequately train people. We have to be training people young and old on a congregational level and not just have the professional ministers do the ministering. That takes a shift in thinking and in how ministers spend their time. We need to do more equipping.

Second, the universities need to evaluate what is being taught and how effective it is in the real world. Tenure is a killer here. Sometimes the guys who are untouchable and unchangeable have been teaching the same thing for decades and it is required you take some of their classes to graduate whether they are teaching it effectively or not. Universities need to poll their recent graduates who are “out in the field” and find out how effective their training was…what worked and what didn’t. What did they need more of and what did they need less of?

Third, if the universities want to be more effective it would be wise for them to get more grass roots where they help congregations learn to train their own people without having to send them off to school. We get stuck in thinking things can only be done one way. Universities would be wise to learn from groups like Kairos and others who are planting churches on a regular basis and make sure their curriculum is up to par.

Again, I can’t point at a single Christian college and point out specific issues but I am concerned as a whole and maybe someone out there can shed more light on whether or not this is a valid concern. I am a product of Christian education and have a great deal of respect for these institutions. I have also known and respected dozens of professors who have taught Bible and ministry. I hope none of this sounds like a gripe fest because it isn’t. It is a concern and only that. It is out of that love and concern that I mention any of these things in hopes that if there are things we need to improve we can be open and honest about that and make the necessary changes.

What has been your experience in regard to these things? What steps can congregations and universities take to ensure their effectiveness?

About mattdabbs
I am a minister, husband, and father. My wife and I live and minister in Saint Petersburg, Florida. My primary ministry responsibilities include: small groups, 20s and 30s, involvement, and adult education.

12 Responses to My Concern With Private Christian Colleges Training The Next Generation of Leaders

  1. Jerry Starling says:

    Matt,
    What a can of worms you are opening with this post! I will have more to add later, but just for now, most of us expect others to receive training the same way we ourselves did. I differ a little from most, in that I attended private Bible School (1 – 12), two different Christian colleges (before they were universities, which both of them are now), Sunset School of Preaching before it was Sunset International Bible Institute, and Cincinnati Christian Seminary where I received my MA. This gives me a range of experiences that I will try to share later.

    Right now, I’m getting ready for a conference call and do not have time to elaborate, but thanks for bringing up a much needed topic. I believe Jay Guin over at oneinjesus.info had a recent series on preparation for mission work, which is a specialized sub-category of what you have raised. You might like to link to that as well.

  2. Jerry Starling says:

    The link to Jay should be http://oneinjesus.info.

  3. Royce Ogle says:

    Very good observations Matt. I agree with your concerns.

    Another concern is this one. Not every young man (or woman) who enters ministry training should ever do full time ministry. I think the most important thing is usually left off. The spiritual health of the candidate is much more important than what is learned in the class room, and that is often overlooked.

    We insist on pre-marital counseling for those who are planning to be married if we’re smart. Why not some pre-ministry counseling for those who entertain the idea of being a preacher, youth minister, or even a missionary? Isn’t it important enough?

    A person who is half hearted and sloppy in regard to spiritual disciplines in college or seminary will not suddenly become a maturing believer once he has earned a degree. I’m still of the opinion that God still calls some to full time ministry just as He did the prophets and the disciples. Who of us cannot spout off a list of people who failed miserably in ministry?

    I’m just suggesting that some caring, spiritually astute person should help a young person who wants to pursue full time ministry to count the cost “before” he gets into the fire.

    Royce

  4. Wes Dawson says:

    Matt,

    I agree completely with your assessment of preacher and leader training. I will be looking closely at comments you receive.

    I attended three semesters at a Christian college, now a University. Although it was not the only reason I dropped out and began preaching I became disgusted with the training I was receiving. I had no problem with the Bible Studies, they were scriptural. My only problem with Greek was that my ability to measure up to the standards of a tough teacher, but I learned a lot more Greek than I would have in other teachers classes anyway and have been able to improve my Greek on my own.

    The problem was that they taught me nothing about understanding and dealing with people. I tried to enroll in a psychology class hoping it would help, but my counsellor who taught history told me that the last thing a preacher needed was a psychology class and insisted I enroll in his Survey of Civilization class. The only thing I learned there about dealing with people was not to argue with his view of a Christian’s relationship to civil government, which I still contend is not the Bible view.

    I learned much more about dealing with people from the elders and preachers in my local congregation as Paul instructed (2 Timothy 2). Unfortunately, I have surprised people when I wanted to do that kind of training in local congregations. They didn’t forbid it, meaning I went ahead and began training anyway, but they seemed to think that was why they supported Christian schools and para-church groups.

    Meanwhile, the congregations I can preach for are very limited in spite of almost 50 years experience, because I do not have a degree from a recognized college.

    Peace always,
    Wes Dawson

  5. James Wood says:

    Good points, Matt, Wes, Joyce and Jerry.

    What I want to add to the conversation is that mentoring has always been the biblical method for training leaders. It is the responsibility of leaders to train and equip the church NOT to do the majority of the ministry for the church. How can the next generation of leaders know how to train and equip if this generation isn’t mentoring them.

    I don’t think that the college model is hopelessly broken, but it does have many flaws. I’ve had a dream germinating about starting a college that would teach bible classes, but also teach practical skills by putting the students in a mentoring relationship with teachers and other adults. This would require that the professors live in close proximity to the students and share more of life with them than just some hours in a classroom, but that is the way that God has shown us to develop leaders. It’s what the church needs.

    I learned almost nothing about mentoring in all of my education. I think I had one class that talked about it, but there was no focus on making it anything more than an academic subject. I sought out mentors through my time in grad school, because I was beginning to see how important they are. Colleges aren’t preparing graduates to be mentored or to be mentors. That is, in my opinion, the root of the failure.

  6. Ken Sublett says:

    Sometimes I hate myself! You cannot fix organizations that violates the commands and examples of Christ beginning in the prophets and ending with the apostles. The “audience” has always been detached.

    Luke 11:52 Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge:
    ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered.
    Luke 11:53 And as he said these things unto them,
    the scribes and the Pharisees began to urge him vehemently,
    and to provoke him to speak of many things:

    Christ names Scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites (performers) by naming rhetoricians, singers and instrument players in Ezekiel 33.

    Matthew 28:18 And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.
    Matthew 28:19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations,
    baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:
    Matthew 28:20 Teaching them
    to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you:
    and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

    Titus 1:9 Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught,
    that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.
    Titus 1:10 For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers,
    specially they of the circumcision:
    Titus 1:11 Whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses,
    teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre’s sake.

    Paul marks the true evangelist in 2 Corinthians 6.

  7. Jerry Starling says:

    One of my problems with the Christian College (University) as a place to train preachers is that their programs are academic, not necessarily spiritually oriented. Many (if not most) of the teachers are school men, not church men. That is, their orientation is not in the trenches of church life. Often, their head is in the clouds more than it is in the day to day life within a real-life congregation. This is not to say that they have nothing to offer us. They do. However, what they offer – if not supplemented with some very practical training – is simply not sufficient.

    The preacher training schools, for the most part, have teachers who have been in the trenches. They have a weakness as well, though, in that many times they are mere indoctrination centers. There are exceptions to this, but the majority share this weakness to a greater or lesser degree. They are often stronger than the Universities in the shear hours spent in the Biblical Text – but many times they are weak in providing context in a way that draws out the essence of the Biblical teaching so it is meaningful to 21st century people.

    Many good men have come through each of these training models successfully – but it has been my observation over my five decades of ministry that the best people have risen above their training.

    I remember when I was young, we used to attend gospel meetings at the Black congregation a few blocks from my neighborhood. Frequently, the evangelist would have one or more young men with him assisting him in his work. This was much like the Paul-Timothy/Titus mentoring arrangement in the New Testament. These young men, many of them anyway, developed into outstanding preachers & evangelists as well.

    I remember reading somewhere that someone asked Billy Graham what he would do differently if he had his life to live over. He replied that he would spend time with a few, maybe a dozen (does that number seem familiar) and pour himself into them without neglecting the multitudes to whom he did preach. That model, I believe, is the one that our Lord used in training his initial followers into men who would turn the world upside down. They went out and did likewise.

    Maybe that’s what we should do as well.

  8. Jay Guin says:

    Guys,

    While I share many of Matts concerns, my experience with some of our universities gives me great encouragement and hope. Many of the men who teach ministry majors at such schools as David Lipscomb and ACU are remarkable ministers in their own right and the course work has been transformed over the last few years to become more practical.

    I don’t think this is true of all our universities, but the trend is certainly in the right direction. Here’s the undergraduate Bible faculty at Lipscomb: http://bible.lipscomb.edu/page.asp?SID=22&Page=2742. I don’t know all these men, but I know several, and they are exactly the sorts of professors a ministry or Bible major should have. Several are or have been pulpit ministers.

    Here’s the undergrad faculty at ACU for Bible, Missions and Ministry: http://www.acu.edu/academics/cbs/programs/dbmm/faculty/index.html. Again, I know a number of these professors, and they are not just academicians. Notice the number of men who presently serve as elders in their churches.

    Now, I attended Lipscomb 30+ years ago, and the faculty and coursework today is nothing like it was back thing. There’s been a revolution in terms of both the quality of the faculty and the course work.

    Here’s the ACU course catalog. http://www.acu.edu/catalog/2011_12/2011-12-catalog.pdf Ministry major course requirements are on page 93. Look at the list — internships! a course on church leadership!

    This is not to say there isn’t room for improvement. For example, Kairos won’t send someone out as a church planter without doing an intense evaluation of his maturity and personality to make sure he’s fit for the very challenging work. I wonder how much psychological evaluation work like that is done for future ministers? (I have no idea, actually.)

    Even if not a graduation requirement, many a minister would have been well served to have been told of some flaws in his psyche that he should work on. For example, many failed ministers might have made it had they realized their resentment of their fathers would keep them from serving under an eldership.

    In short, things are getting much better than they used to be. I’ve been very impressed with recent trends. I just wish they would have more generous scholarships — funded by cutting out football scholarships, for example.

    • mattdabbs says:

      Jay,

      There are certainly many competent and capable men out there who are teaching ministry. I am very good with friends with several. At the same time I find a similarity between the issues I bring up here and the traditional model of youth ministry. We view those institutions as the places were training is done and congregations as the place where trained/polished ministers come to do their profession. This is the same type of mindset that we have instilled in parents for decades to drop their children off in youth groups in order to have their children mature in their faith but little happened in the home to help them grow. Our congregations need to take a more active role in training people to minister. Instead we have relied on others to do it for us and we are weaker because of it, not stronger. I am not faulting the universities. They are doing what they do. But we can’t hope that they can get all of this done for us and send the finished products our way.

  9. K. Rex Butts says:

    My comments are both a reflection of the post as well as the comments on this thread…

    I think over all, the way we train ministers through academic education is still a valid method. Are there ways that this method can be improved? Sure, there always will be. Can some professors be to focused on the academic to the neglect of the spiritual? Yes but in my experience, this was not the norm. I speak as one who, having began my graduate studies after going through the death of a child and nearly losing my faith while pursuing graduate studies, would probably not be a believer today had it not been for being located in an academic setting. I had serious intellectual questions that needed to be attended to in both academic and spiritual ways. I am thankful for the professors who had the academic knowledge to deal with my intellectual issues in an intelligent manner. I am thankful for the professors who also encouraged me to participate in daily chapel (even though it wasn’t a requirement) as well as taking their own personal time to listen to me, pray with and for me, etc… I am also thankful for the Christian community of my graduate studies who for the most part were very spiritually minded and helped (without often knowing it) to reaffirm my faith and hope.

    From a ministry training stand-point, I still believe that ministers still need to be trained theologically with regards to being good exegetes of scripture, having an awareness of Christian theology and history, and learning how to think missionally. I think one of the problems in much of contemporary Christianity is that there are too many “CEO” ministers who lack a good theological foundation. If there is one thing that in my experience, my education lacked in was good leadership development and so yes, there is still room for improvement.

    One thing that the institution could do a better job of is partnering with churches to be practical labs of learning as well as providing further discernment for the student as to how he/she has been called to serve God as a minister/missionary. For example, when I lived in Minnesota there was a young man working part-time in a coffee shop. He had two bachelor degrees, one in American History and the other in Bible. He was also volunteering for two years as a part-time apprentice with an Evangelical church under the supervision of the Senior Pastor. At the end of the two years, if he still felt that God was calling him to the vocation of church ministry and the Senior Pastor as well as the church elders discerned the same, then the church would not only begin paying him a p/t salary but also help finance his seminary (M.Div) education. That certainly isn’t a perfect model but I think it is a better way of churches and seminaries/Christian colleges partnering together to provide a place for practical development of those being called into ministry.

    As for me, during my undergraduate years I preached for a small church and volunteered in the local jail doing Bible studies with the inmates. While this was certainly helpful it was not supervised and therefore it provided no constructive feedback as to how I was doing, what my strengths were and where I had room for improvement.

    Grace and Peace,

    Rex

    P.S., Sorry for the long comment but I hope it helps contribute to the discussion.

    • mattdabbs says:

      Good stuff there Rex…I really value your thoughts and experience on that. I think the leadership development part really is a missing piece. I can tell you I wasn’t ready for a class on leadership development when I was 19 or even in my middle 20’s. I wouldn’t have said that at the time but looking back I am sure that is true. You can’t really understand some of those things without experience. We need to get more supervised experience/apprentice or mentor models into our training and our training of others.

  10. Darin says:

    Interesting. My experience was at Lubbock Christian with Masters work. They understood very well the need for practical as well as biblical training.

    My issue with private schools is cost. IMO not a very practical way to educate someone who will have a large debt when finished and few churches that can help him get out of that debt.

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