One Sunday, as I was conducting an open-air service, a somewhat worse for wear lady came and stood next to me. She started to strip off and make for the steps behind me to jump into the nearby water. My stewards did nothing but look on, mesmerised, leaving it to me while I was trying to hold the service together. When I asked them afterwards why no one had come to my rescue, I was told, “Well, they train you to handle that sort of thing in Bible college, don’t they?”’
That particular church service will no doubt live long in the memory of Rev Dr Derek Tidball, former principal of the London School of Theology.
How to react to a mid-service stripper is not the only thing you don’t get taught at Bible college. Sometimes when my other half relays tales of what his job in church leadership has recently entailed, we collapse in a heap of laughter at the madness of it all. He’s erected and climbed 50ft scaffolding towers all in the name of changing a light bulb, cleaned out a flooded church basement with the help of some friendly firefighters, raised funds for church by selling thousands of pounds worth of our parishioners’ unwanted paraphernalia on eBay ? and picked chewing gum out of the church urinals (yes, really). Last month’s escapade involved him being filmed while visiting some of our members in their central London workplaces ? dressed as the angel Gabriel, complete with a pair of giant feathered wings. (Of course.)
Narrow and outdated?
It needs no saying, but no Bible college syllabus will ever be sufficiently exhaustive to fully prepare trainee Rev Average for what may lie ahead. ‘You have to be very multi-skilled in church leadership. The more purist theological training would emphasise spiritual formation ? making sure you pray and read the Bible daily…but frankly that is only part of the story,’ says Rev Clive Hicks, curate at St Michael’s, Budbrooke in Warwick.
Tidball says former students regularly accuse him of failing to teach them certain things during their college days. But college, he says, can ‘only give representative skills training, and equip ministers with tools to develop in situ’. And, he adds, it’s often the case that students think they weren’t taught something they actually did absorb while at college. ‘I’m often told, “You didn’t teach me that!” by exstudents, when I know I did and can produce the evidence,’ he says.
Nevertheless, are there things which colleges could do to better prepare students for ministry life? Has the focus of most theological training courses ? to give students a solid theological grounding ? become too narrow, outdated even? Rev Cynthia Park, who worked as a Methodist minister in Brighton until she retired 18 months ago, tells a story shared by numerous theological college graduates. ‘At college I had lots of training in theology and scriptural studies which I valued greatly. It got me going on a lifetime habit of working with scripture for preaching purposes. But I had little training for non-preaching settings.’
But even a comprehensive theological syllabus may be perceived as lacking. Rev Jenny Park, who trained in the mid-80s on the Northern Ordination Course, UK, says, ‘I wish I had been taught more about the background to the Old Testament, especially the historical backdrop. In some ways it would help to understand the dilemma of today’s political, national situation in the East.’
Standing alone in the corner at the party, nervously scoffing the canapés, a few beads of sweat gathering on that shiny, balding head…It’s the classic (and slightly annoying) stereotypical depiction of the socially inept clergyman ? but is there a (still rather annoying) grain of truth to it? Tidball says that too many clergy leave college lacking in people skills ? ironic when arguably the one strand that unites the work of every ordained minister is the need for effective interactions with others. ‘I wish they had taught me how to genuinely love silly people with gospel-hearted love,’ says Tim Gough, director for Youth For Christ, Llandudno, who trained at Oak Hill, London, who would also have liked guidance on ‘how to deal with the portfolio of messy lives that you inevitably get surrounded by, how to show genuine compassion and yet keep a healthy distance, and how to manage a team of real human beings with families and full-time jobs.’
Leadership is partly about skills ? but it is actually much more than that
But the primary answer that came back when I probed clergy for what they wish they’d been taught was for adequate (or even just some) training in conflict management. Methodist minister Kristin Markay, who studied theology at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, said she would like to have been taught ‘how to better deflect the fiery arrows that may come our way, as clergy, when conflict happens’
Rev Tony Horsfall, a ministry retreat leader who trained at London Bible College (LBC, now LST) in the late 60s, echoes her sentiment: ‘I wish we had received more training in the whole area of leadership, and in particular how to deal with conflict in the local church. The fact that I would be called upon to be “peacemaker” in so many different situations took me by surprise, and I wasn’t ready for it. It was even more of a surprise to me when we had a “split” in the church and several people left us. Having invested so much in some of these people I was unprepared to deal with the emotional effect of this upon me. It took a long time to recover.’
Working with children and youth
There’s a growing clamour in the UK Church for better training for church leaders on how to work with children and young people. ‘In many of our churches over 25% of usual Sunday attendees are aged 16 or under, yet there is no guarantee that the vicar of the church will have any training in how to meet the spiritual and developmental needs of this group. This is a huge issue ? it means that in churches where all kinds of exciting and innovative ministry is going on, you can still find a Sunday school stuck in the past as nobody has the knowledge to notice that and start to change things,’ says Sam Donoghue, children’s ministry adviser for the diocese of London and co-editor of Childrenswork magazine.
‘Working with children was an aspect of ministry that the male lecturers thought would be beneath us,’ says Park. ‘Sunday school teachers would be “around” and we wouldn’t have to bother ourselves with such things. I wasn’t in my first church more than about a month when I realised that if the church was going to thrive, much of my time and energy would need to be devoted to working with children ? in school assemblies, in after-school groups, in youth clubs. But I had to teach myself how do to it.
Making everyday disciples
Rev Paul Bradbury spends the majority of his life as a minister in a café on Poole high street ? which he helped launch as a fresh expression of church. ‘We find ourselves working with a lot of people who are on a journey of faith, and wouldn’t dream of going into a church,’ he says. But was his time at college so academic and esoteric in focus that he left ill-prepared for simply making disciples among everyday people?
Reflecting on his training at Trinity College, Bristol, Bradbury says: ‘A lot of our time was spent learning how to run services and pastor people in church. The gaps for me have been in entrepreneurial skills, fundraising and running a business.’
‘My big frustration with Bible school is that you learn about the Old and New Testaments, about doctrine…but if you are going to be a church leader, ultimately you are going to minister to people from the ordinary workplace,’ says Dr Stuart Weir, national director of Care, Scotland. ‘How do you prepare those people to take Jesus’ teaching into very real and sometimes frustrating places? Bible college does not teach you to do that.’
Hicks, who trained at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield, says that only 2.5% of his time at college ‘had a flavour of pioneering mission, or focused on Fresh Expressions of church. What my training didn’t help me with is in community leadership and impact ? going beyond theoretical and theological sessions on ethics, to really understanding what it means to make disciples in contemporary culture.’
‘I wish they’d taught me that the thing you want to change which you think is the most controversial is actually the least, and the thing which you thought you didn’t even need to vote on and so just did will split the church. This applies especially to choosing new vacuum cleaners, teacups and the colour of the vestry carpet. I wish they’d taught me how to put down a flat-pack table without maiming a digit and the most effective way to stack chairs,’ says Rev Kate Bottley, vicar of Blyth, Scrooby and Ranskill and chaplain to North Nottinghamshire (FE) College in Worksop. It looks like Bradbury is not the only church leader who would have liked to have learnt specific practical skills at Bible college.
‘I wish they’d taught me how to lift with your knees,’ says Gough, who also wishes he had been taught how to chair a meeting. Tidball describes this as a ‘crucial’ skill. He says it can ‘help equip leaders in “how to move from dreams and plans to genuine ownership of ideas by churches” (especially in situations of congregational government)’.
Hicks’ church has recently undergone a major building project leading to the opening of a community centre; he cites diary management, project management and fundraising as skills he has had to learn on the job.
Once in post…
‘Many things happen in my job that make me think, “Wow, I never saw myself doing that!” Yesterday, I was with a woman who was being evicted from her home. But I don’t necessarily think I should have been taught about it in college. Nothing is going toprepare you for some things,’ says Rev Jody Stowell of All Saints’, Harrow Weald.
Stowell cites managing church finances as a skill that can only be learnt once in post. ‘It makes me want to poke my eyes out to look at a spreadsheet of figures,’ she says. ‘[But] it’s much better learning how this sort of a process flows in a church setting. To look at this in college would have been so out of context. It could have bred anxiety.’
‘There are some situations that you can never be properly prepared for until you are in them,’ says Rev Don Currie of Kirkwall Baptist Church, Orkney, who trained at the Scottish Baptist College. Currie does wish that he had been prepared for the crisis situations that occur in Christian ministry, however. ‘Of course one prays, looks to God for guidance and consults colleagues...But a bit more teaching and training in that area wouldn’t hurt,’ he says. ‘I’m thinking about situations such as a newborn baby struggling to live, church members being involved in a bad car crash, being asked to take a couple’s wedding before one of the partners dies, as their health has taken a sudden, significant and unexpected downturn...
‘These are not everyday occurrences, but they do happen. Had I been better prepared for such things, I would have felt more confident and competent to deal with them. I suppose the kind of training I’m thinking about is a little bit like having up-to-date spiritual “first aid” training.’
Bottley also raises the most painful, crisis pastoral scenarios as something she wished she could have been more prepared for during her training (which she undertook at St John’s, Nottingham). ‘I wish I’d seen a little coffin before I had to be strong for someone else,’ she says.
Bottley also recognises that no amount of training could ever prepare a person for some pastoral situations. ‘I’m glad they taught me that it’s not always about what we do or what we say, but sometimes about just being there.’
When did you last see a well-rested, relaxed, wonderfully life-balanced church leader? (Er…never?) Surely over-exhaustion shouldn’t be part of the job spec ? could it be abated by better training in self-care? ‘I wish I had been taught the difference between resting from work and working from rest,’ says Paul Anderson-Walsh, senior elder of the International Gospel Church, London, and founder of The Grace Project. ‘There are a disturbing number of pastors who are burning out and who are simply exhausted from ministry life. Moses was taught the secret of the indwelling life when God met him at the burning bush. The mystery of how the bush burned bright but did not burn out was lesson one, term one in God’s school and so it should be in our day. Not only would it prevent pastors from burning themselves out (myself included), it would prevent them from wearing outeveryone else in their care.’
Flawed ministry model?
‘I see the task of theological college as a place to form your character,’ says Stowell. ‘We can get fixated by which practical thing they didn’t teach ? but I’m not sure that is their job.’ Is Stowell right? Am I wasting my words by even asking whether Bible colleges need to become more practical, missional and applied in approach?
‘We’re going through a paradigm shift in how we understand ministry,’ Stowell says. ‘I think the discomfort that people are feeling is the reality of the business model not fitting what ministry is like. Ministry doesn’t have nice, neat outcomes ? you can’t put the pieces together and get a manufactured product at the end. A + B does not equal C in ministry…That gets projected into questions about what I was or wasn’t taught in theological college.’
The professionalisation of ministry was the overriding model of church that Stowell says she was presented with in college. ‘Churches such as the American Willow Creek operate on a business model; many UK churches, including some charismatic evangelical ones, have taken that model on. People from those backgrounds may then go on to teach in colleges, perpetuating the model; it all feeds into each other.
‘A lot of priests wonder what they have got to show for however many years of work. We’ve got to find ways of being satisfied with our ministry which isn’t [reliant] on measurable outcomes.’
A new training model
Rev Dr Graham Tomlin, who spent 16 years teaching at Anglican theological college Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and recently moved to London to set up a training college alongside HTB, St Mellitus, says it’s a new model of training that’s needed. ‘Often when I was at Wycliffe I felt that in order to train people for local church ministry, we took them out of the local church and put them in a seminary for three years, where they weren’t doing any real ministry, apart from the odd placement. And then we put them back into ministry situations and wondered why it didn’t always work. I sometimes felt that the people who were the best ministers longer term had learnt what they had ? not from us at theological college, but from the local churches they came from.
‘When I came to London, I thought: “Can we find a way of offering training that is as academically rigorous as a seminary, but offers a much greater practical component, so that you learn how to do pastoral ministry alongside your theology?”’
As a consequence, those training at St Mellitus spend half of their week in church-based ministry work, and the rest of their time doing theological training. ‘I believe it is a much better way to train leaders and pastors for the future,’ says Tomlin. ‘Today, if you train for many vocations ? be it medicine, business or ministry ? it is seen as the best way to train to teach the practicalalongside the academic.
‘Leadership is partly about skills ? but it is actually much more than that. It’s also about understanding yourself, and how you best operate.’
A flurry of applause should go to our church leaders ? a collective of consummate multi-taskers who turn their hand to all manner of different spiritual, practical and often emotionally demanding tasks. Bible college does much to prepare them for this, directly and indirectly, but there are some challenges here about the gaps in formation ? could they be filled? Some things simply can’t be rehearsed in a theological college setting, however. A stripper during a service is probably one of them.