If we were to survey church leaders around the world and throughout history about the best way to train pastors, what do you think they would say?  Would there be a consensus about how it should be done?  Would they generally agree on the content or the goals of pastoral training?

If we look at the Bible, we can get a clear idea of the type of church leader that God desires for his church.  Qualifications for elders are laid out in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 and we have wonderful New Testament examples of leadership in the lives of Jesus (of course) and Paul.  The qualifications list that we see in 1 Timothy and Titus say a lot about a man’s character and his relationships with those around him.  We learn about the type of man he must be.   However, we don’t learn a lot about how he is to be trained or equipped for his role as a leader of God’s church.  Certainly, he must be “able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2) “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3) but what specifically does that include? How should he teach it?  Where is he to learn what he is to teach?

The model of pastoral training that we see in the New Testament is the apprentice model. Jesus and Paul trained men for ministry by having them follow them around and they trained them on the job.  We see Jesus teaching them in small groups and Paul wrote letters.  As far as specifics, we don’t get a whole lot more than that.  While we might wish for more information, perhaps we should be thankful that the New Testament doesn’t lay out a detailed pastoral training regiment to be used inflexibly at all times in all places.  Throughout history, there have been a wide variety of cultures and circumstances (and personal temperaments!) that necessitate one type of pastoral training in one location and a different type in another.  And the type of training that people hold up as ideal is not always possible, so alternative training options need to be developed.

During the post-apostolic period, some catechetical school were upgraded into theological and pastoral training schools.  Students were taught Bible, natural sciences, geometry, astronomy, and philosophy.

In the middle ages, monasteries and then cathedral schools took up the task of training the next generation of church leaders.  In the latter, a bishop taught students in church dogma, liturgy, and common law.

At the time of the Reformation, many priests had minimal training and few taught the Scriptures.  To correct this, Luther, Calvin, and other Protestant Reformers emphasized training in teaching and preaching the Scriptures, including study in the Greek and Hebrew.   A high level of formal education wasn’t possible for everyone however.  Informal training of pastors in England focused on the study of the Bible and a book of sermons.

In colonial America, aspiring pastors received a general education at a college or university and then lived with a current pastor who tutored them in Bible, Greek, and Hebrew and gave them practical training in local church ministry.  John Wesley’s circuit riders were given a book of Christian literature that they were expected to study and meditate on as they rode around preaching the Gospel.

In the 19th century, a bachelor’s of divinity became a common degree for some pastors in the United States.  However, as the country expanded westward, the demand for pastors couldn’t keep up with the output of the seminaries.  Would you rather have no pastor or an untrained pastor?

With the rise of theological liberalism and Pentecostalism in the 20th century, there was rising tide of anti-intellectualism that questioned the value of formal theological training.  The universities were making our children lose their faith or were quenching the Spirit.   Do we just need our Bibles and the Holy Spirit?  No training required?

Is the university and seminary model of pastoral training too focused on head knowledge, to the neglect of personal godliness and practical skills?  In the 1930s, North China Theological Seminary had only a 5-month school year to allow more than 6 months of practical ministry training and evangelism per year.  Are there any schools that do that today?  Should they?

How do we do pastoral training among people who can’t read or prefer to learn orally?  When the Word of God is given to us in a book, how do we train oral learners to be pastors?

This short blog post may have raised more questions than it has answered, but I trust that it is long enough to help us see that pastoral training has been done in many different ways throughout history.  How SHOULD it be done?  And how CAN it be done effectively in our various contexts in Southeast Asia?  If you’d like to learn more, please join me at the Southeast Asia Network for the Gospel conference in Bangkok, Thailand from 9-11 November 2017.  I will be doing a presentation on “A Brief History of Pastoral Training” that will go into greater depth on this topic, and including time for questions and discussion.


The above post is by Rev. Karl Dahlfred, one of our workshop speakers for our 2017 Annual Conference. 

How Pastoral Training Should Be Done

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