What I wish I had learned at theological college

A minister’s thoughts at 50

Theological education is the site of so many of the contemporary church’s anxieties, isn’t it? Whenever we encounter a minister who seems ill-equipped for their role, or when we hear another dull sermon, the cry goes up: ‘what are they teaching them in college?’

As a result, Bible colleges and seminaries can have programs overloaded with special interests: pastoral counselling, church growth techniques, or courses in management – whatever it is that the many frustrated people in the pews think will mend the problem of incompetent or inadequate ministers.

That anxiety has increased of late as the theological colleges of our nation have realised that they are in a highly competitive market for students. No longer can they survive through denominational monopolies – ordination is no longer a carrot they can dangle. Contemporary students are very picky about their experience. They want excellent pedagogy and, rightly or wrongly, maximum flexibility to choose how they will complete their studies.

I am rapidly reaching one of those landmark birthdays. I graduated from theological college 20 years ago and my ministry since has included a significant time in theological education as a teacher. I’ve also been a School Chaplain, a church planter, and the Senior Minister in a parish.

So, looking back: what should I have learned in college? Now, notice I haven’t said ‘what should they have taught me in college?’ They may have taught it, but I didn’t necessarily learn it! The business of studying is always a partnership between students and their teachers. And as an adult, I have to take responsibility to some degree for what I did and didn’t learn. I also realise this is a sample of one – these are not the experiences of everyone. Nevertheless, I think these reflections could help shape theological curriculum.

The most powerful thing I can do is pray

I needed to be told this again and again, for my own survival in pastoral ministry. What I didn’t learn in theological college was to love prayer; to see it as necessary and basic for my spiritual fitness; and to trust in it over and above my own gifts and competencies. I did not become aware that leading people in prayer and helping them to learn to pray was the most powerful thing I could offer them. I was not able to see that the church is, if anything, a people who gather to pray to the Sovereign Lord of all history in the name of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

On reflection, I think this is because I didn’t deeply understand just who I was praying too. Was I captivated by the immensity, eternity, and mercy of the Lord God? Did I really grasp at the dimensions of God’s love for me? I certainly heard it. But I didn’t learn it as I feel I know it now.

The word of God is not chained

If prayer is the weapon in my left hand, the weapon in my right hand is the Word of God – the gospel of Jesus Christ committed to the pages of the Holy Scriptures. I know lots of other things, and have learned lots of other things. But knowing the Word of God at depth so that I can feed Jesus’ sheep and preach the gospel to the unsaved is what makes the pastor a pastor and not some other thing. By his Word, God brought worlds into being. At his command, death released Jesus from its grip. And by his Word, light overcomes the darkness.

If only I had trusted the Word of God more, and not my own ability to be charming, or to be managerially effective, or to appear intelligent! When Paul was in chains for the gospel, he had every reason for despair. And yet, he wrote, ‘the Word of God is not chained!’

I think our colleges, by and large, do a decent job at teaching students this. I think the problem here is that our congregations wish our pastors knew other things – which is a confusion of expertise.

People are sinful and broken in ways you can’t imagine

One thing you learn as a pastor is that humanity is deeply marred. You should know it already, in theory. But the pastoral ministry brings you face to face with human evils small and great – from petty squabbles to deep perversity – all within Christ’s church. I wish I’d really learned that.

I was naïve, but I shouldn’t have been. I have trusted where I should have been more suspicious. I’ve been stunned by vindictiveness, greed, and lust – vices that are like a cancer on the human soul. I’ve been lied to and manipulated. I’ve been bullied. I’ve witnessed casual racism and openly misogynistic attitudes. I’ve also had to remind people of the clear teaching of the Word of God about sin, only for them to wave it away as if it was a suggestion that they could dismiss.

I wish I’d realised just how deeply affected by sin and evil people are, especially as victims. It’s taken me years to recognise patterns of trauma and abuse playing themselves out in people – how they hand on their hurts to others in so many ways.

To know this about people – and myself – means we can have a Christ-like empathy for people in their pain and lostness. And also, it means that we can learn to apply the healing words of grace.

Keeping the church one, holy, and apostolic is gospel work

I wish I’d realised growing the church and seeing people converted is only part of the job. Dealing with division and pain within church – keeping the church unified with Christ and with each other – is also a work of the gospel. Of course, the unity and the holiness of God’s people is God’s work by his Holy Spirit. But he uses pastors (and others) to do this, so the church can be an emblem of the reconciling love of Christ. That’s what I signed up for!

In the midst of very difficult times in church life, I’ve consoled myself with the thought that this is not a distraction from the work of Christ – it IS the work of Christ. It’s the gospel that brings the church together, and the gospel that keeps us united – as forgiven sinners who forgive one another.

I am also signed on for keeping the church ‘apostolic’. By which I mean: the church of Jesus Christ must dedicate itself to knowing the teaching of the apostles and living it out – even when it is difficult.

My first evangelical duty is as a husband and a father

I wish I had learned this and I probably would have been a better husband and father. I think I was prone to a kind of ministry-careerism. Ironically, living the gospel in my own home with and before those I love is key to the role I have. So often Christians have cast this domestic role as a matter of ‘leading’ or ‘teaching’. Whereas, the New Testament talks about the gentleness of fathers and the self-sacrifice of husbands – as they imitate Christ.

In my weaknesses God is often most visible

This deep truth is so hard to learn, because it goes against everything we naturally think about ourselves. We count our gifts. We feel most productive and useful when we have success, even in ministry – when we are recognised and acknowledged. And yet, I wish I had learned that it is often our failures which are our greatest opportunities to show to the church – and to the world – the gospel of grace. Now, this is not a counsel for incompetence or a strategy of disaster. That would be ridiculous, although sometimes you do wonder if churches have chosen to be woeful in everything from some notion that Christ will be more clearly seen if we are really terrible!

But we do and will fail. I have failed, many times over. Sometimes because I am just not capable. Sometimes because I am sinful. I have hurt those I’ve been called to love. I have been guilty of misjudgements that have had terrible consequences. I’ve let people down. I’ve preached the wrong thing from the pulpit.

What I needed to know was, once more, another theological, deeply Biblical reality: that where I am weak, he is strong. I needed to know that his treasure is in a jar of clay. My fragility is real and is my strength. And God is not thwarted in his purpose by either of them.

I think these truths were taught to me. But I don’t think I was able to hear them in a way that I now have.

And so that, I think, raises the question: how are theological colleges going to teach so that I can learn what I needed to learn at the depth that I needed to learn it? My own view is that theological colleges have overloaded programs. There’s too much on the timetable. Adding on extra things is not the answer. Clearing up space for a deeper, more spiritual and prayerful engagement with the Scriptures is what we most need right now.

Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of several books.

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