Accurate statistics are difficult to find, but I would estimate that there are more paid staff positions in evangelical churches today than ever in the history of America. Where do these church leaders come from?
In the 19th century, American churches were using the European method of preparing pastors: college or university training. As some universities became increasingly secular, even hostile to the church, the pastor-training endeavor might be isolated to a “divinity house” or separate institution within the university. This pattern continued into the 20th century and is still used by mainline Protestant denominations.
At the same time, there were always pastors without a university background. They may have learned their trade under the tutelage of an older pastor or be largely self-taught. Such individuals were more likely to be found in rural situations where their lack of college education was similar to the members of their churches. But city churches demanded well-educated pastors.
Part of legacy of the Liberal/Fundamentalist controversies in the first half of the 20th century was the perception that the mainline seminaries were no longer to be trusted to train church leaders. The graduates of these seminaries were seen to be theologically liberal and to have lost confidence in the authority of the Bible. A reaction to this was the rise of the Bible college movement, the establishing of autonomous colleges whose curriculum centered around the Bible and whose focus was to produce pastors for conservative evangelical churches. In 1947, the Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges was established to bring credibility and standards to these Bible colleges. In 2004, the name was changed to the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE).
In the post-war years, a stream of evangelicalism dissatisfied with the educational standards of Bible colleges and still distrustful of the mainline seminaries began to establish seminaries and graduate schools to bring a higher level of training for evangelical pastors. These included Fuller Theological Seminary (1947), Dallas Theological Seminary (founded 1924, expanding with the ascension of John Walvoord to the presidency of DTS in 1953), the merger of two schools to become Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (1969), and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (so named in 1963). These seminaries began to attract faculty with Ph.D. degrees from top-flight institutions, often British universities. These seminaries adopted a Master of Divinity curriculum as a graduate level method of training pastors for evangelical churches.
Many evangelical churches today have pastors who are graduates from an ABHE school or from an evangelical seminary. However, it is easy to see that a disconnect has developed between the evangelical institutions of higher education and the churches they were founded to serve.
Why is this? I offer three reasons.
- In some ways, the evangelical project in colleges, universities, and seminaries has been unsuccessful. This is true for a couple of reasons. First, many Bible colleges and seminaries focused on producing graduates who were theologically orthodox Bible scholars and not on producing pastors with ministry skills necessary for the church. There was an idea that if students were drilled in Bible and theology, that they would figure out how to do ministry once they got a job in a church. This has sometimes succeeded, but has had some spectacular failures. Bible knowledge and people skills are not the same thing.
Second, the Bible colleges in particular became isolated from the churches they were founded to serve. This can be seen in a couple of ways. One was that the faculty members of some Bible colleges were academics, not pastors. While able to teach history or theology or Bible with great precision, they had little but theory to offer students in pastoral studies. They were not successful church leaders, but sometimes refugees from failed ministries.
Another factor was that churches were increasingly reluctant to send their best young people to be trained as pastors. The reasons for this are complex, but Bible colleges were more and more tasked with rehabilitating church misfits rather than molding high-potential students.
Simply put: too many of the wrong faculty and the wrong students to be successful and respected as a source for churches looking to hire staff members.
- Larger churches began to groom and hire staff members from within. The reason for this is articulated in many ways. Some churches believe paid staff members must be permeated with the church’s particular “DNA,” meaning its methodology that has proved to be successful. In other cases, this has been little more than the hiring of family members of the lead pastor or other influential church members. Often this is seen as less risky, assuming that a person will be observed in action as a volunteer for several years before an offer of employment is made.This has been successful, very successful for many large and growing churches. It seems to me, though, that we are living on borrowed time here. Large churches often have a core of older staff pastors with theological training from a college or seminary, but this store of training is being stretched thinner and thinner. It feels like a few professionals working with many skilled amateurs.
- Lastly, formal theological education is not valued by many churches. A pastor with a master’s degree or doctorate is not respected because of their education, only because of their performance. So, in many churches, the preaching, while it may be entertaining, is shallow, repetitive, and with little biblical content. Proof-texting reigns. Biblical literacy among evangelicals is at dismal levels. Theological contradictions, mild heresies, and non-Christian teachings are all too common. The popularity of “preaching without notes” has sometimes devolved into “preaching without preparation.” Commitment to Christ is sometimes superseded by commitment to the congregation.
I don’t think it has to be this way. Colleges need to do a better job of preparing students for ministry rather than for careers as Bible scholars. Bible college teachers should be practitioners who love the church. Churches need to value both theological education and ministry skills. And we desperately need to design delivery systems for theological education that will be used by the many church staff members who have had none.
We all need to do better in this.
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University
The views in this blog are those of its author, not necessarily those of his employer.