Theological Education and Formation


I have to confess that this quote variously republished irritated me. One reason for that is that I am involved in theological education – so my bias and self interest I confess. The second reason is that I am involved in theological education and I do not recognise what is described.

This is a very ‘preachable’ quote – it sets up something to knock down in fairly sound-byte terms. My questions is whether it is accurate and if not whether it is helpful in achieving what the author desires – the formation of Christian leaders.

So in response I want to ask – how long do you say that this has been going on (a long time – is this about history or the contemporary situation) , who are these people and seminaries (I have never met teachers in colleges or seminaries who have thought this) , and also just as important what do you mean by Christian leaders – unfortunately one persons strong leader is another persons autocrat.

I understand that this is a critique offered from the perspective of the missional over and against the inherited or the traditional Church – I have no issue with that – I have always held a missional perspective before I knew what it was called.

I think that it is important, however, that the critique that is offered to the way things are is accurate and that missional rhetoric is exposed to the same critique as other rhetorics so that we are not simply still following the path of our own rhetorical sound-bytes rather than something with more nuance and complexity.

I accept some of the comments made on facebook and in so far as the point being made rather than said is that seminary based theological education is not sufficient on its own to form Christian leaders – I would have no gripe – indeed I think that some forms are probably better than others in doing this – at least in intent – (I have no real evidence in terms of outcomes).

On the other hand I am not sure that other supportive and sometimes competing alternatives are without their problems: – a good mentor is a great thing a bad one who wishes to make a person in their on image rather than letting them become what God is birthing them to be is a real hindrance. A Church placement can be no more than spending time in a place you hate if it is not supported with appropriate learner centred pedagogical and educational supports in a context where life-long learning is mutual. So again – let us be as thorough in critique of proposed alternatives as we are of the traditional approaches if our concern is to get at the heart of things for the sake of our mission and ministry.

So rather than keep on griping about what was probably a bit of hyperbole – accepting that the question of exactly what is that we think we are forming remains open to a wide variety of opinions (as indicated at least in some American research) – I really like the ‘ecosystem’ model of the formative contribution theological education can make – whereby in effect – college or seminary based theological education (classroom or distance based) plays a part, just a part but an important and necessary part, in what is a complex system of inputs into a persons life as we seek to help prepare them for ministry/mission/leadership. (As will be seen I hope – this approach is probably very close to the intention of the quote if not its actual content, which is where my gripe lies).

‘One can think of a natural ecosystem as a series of interconnected parts, none of which can exist without the other. In this ecological environment, all of the different species, plants, insects, and other biotic entities regulate the flow of inputs and outputs through reciprocal forms of interaction and accommodation. It is a highly dynamic setting that when working properly stimulates the nourishment and growth of all living things. Instead of looking at individual plants or animals (reductionism), an ecological perspective recognizes the powerful interconnections that individual elements have to the larger whole (holism). Looking at the created order or at human beings (human ecology) from an ecosystems orientation encompasses both the part and the whole. One is not sacrificed to the other because both are important for a more complete and thorough understanding of reality’.

‘If student formation empowered by the Holy Spirit takes place in a variety of settings and contexts, some of which involve physical proximity, some of which involve virtual community, and some of which involve individual encounters with texts, images, sounds, and their own mental constructs, then we need an explanatory model that enables us to consider all of these as potentially beneficial to student spiritual development. Rather than adopting a myopic view of student spiritual formation that only considers what a given Christian institution may be doing to facilitate whole person transformation or focuses primarily on the exclusively spiritual aspect of Christian development, we serve our students best with a broad purview to account for the realities of student existence rather than an idealized notion that is a carryover from a bygone era’.

Spiritual Formation in Theological Distance Education: An Ecosystems Model‘, Stephen D. Lowe Erskine Theological Seminary and Mary E. Lowe Erskine Theological Seminary, Christian Education Journal, Series 3, Vol. 7, No. 1 (2010).

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