Why “Distributed” Pastoral Education Is Not The Solution

There are problems with the traditional model for preparing pastors but some of the proposed alternatives are worse. One of those is “Distributed Education” model.

The traditional model is that you have 20 professors on campus and all the students have to live there. That’s great for faculty—no night courses, no weekends, no travel. But it is extraordinarily expensive now to do it that way. And it eliminates candidates who have a day job or a family to support. Distributed instruction would also benefit lay leaders, Sunday School teachers, unconventional ministry candidates, and others.

The Distributed Ed model de-centralizes ministerial preparation by sending the profs to the churches and makes use of distance-ed technology. In some ways this Is a re-hash of the “Distance Ed” (DE) debate of the last 15 years. After the initial flurry of hype about the potential, the results are much less encouraging. Before churches plunge into this adventure, they would do well to take the time to assess the actual state of the question.

My experience is that students who have tried DE for pastoral ministry find residential education to provide a much richer educational experience. As I have been arguing for a number of years, there is a right way and a wrong way to educate pastors. Until parishioners are prepared to see physicians or surgeons who earned their medical degrees online, they should not accept ministers who have only an online degree. There is a reason why we send physicians to brick and mortar schools, because we know from experience that to do otherwise is to cut corners and we are not prepared to do that with our physical health. Why then are we willing to consider training the physicians of our souls with less care?

Night classes? At my school we offer night classes. I taught them for many years. Travel? Again, one has the sense one’s leg is being pulled. One of the more objectionable features of this caricature of the traditional seminary, however, is the way it plays to American anti-intellectualism. Anyone who has been engaged in ministerial education knows that there is a strong bias in the American evangelical culture against ministerial education. Though I disagreed with him at the time, Mark Noll was largely right in Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. My contention is that the DE and Keller’s “Distributed” model do little to address the fundamental problem and arguably contribute to it.

The basic question is whether Christians believe or should believe in an educated pastoral ministry (clergy). From the earliest post-Apostolic period pastors sought education, first in local catechetical schools (e.g., Alexandria’s famous catechetical school featured Origen as its teacher), then in regional cathedral schools such as that in which Anselm of Canterbury taught. Those were all found, for various reasons to be inadequate. The university developed as a collection of faculties, theology, law, medicine, and art for a reason. For a time scholars were able to teach arts and theology but by the 10th and 11th centuries they needed to choose between them. That need to focus eventually called for a degree of specialization. Arguably, in Modernity, we have given into hyper-specialization but the universities developed for a reason. Students traveled to them for a reason: education is not a consumer product that can be distributed by Amazon. Education is a process. It is a culture. It is a habit that is formed in community. It takes time in a community of scholars. In our late-modern age of deconstruction, we need to realize that not everything is a mere convention subject to deconstruction. Some things are actually rooted in the nature of things. Residential education is one of those things. We travel to study with scholars (rather than putting them on planes constantly) because we expect them to be learning all the time. They do that in residential school, amidst scholars (i.e., students and teachers).

Distributed education seeks to disconnect the outcome of education from the process: initiation into a culture and the formation of habits. It assumes that education is what happens when a prof travels to a church and delivers lectures thereby transmitting information. That is not itself education. The lecture is only a beginning of education for the student. Lectures are clues to a world of learning but they are rudiments, bread crumbs that invite the curious to continue learning.

The traditional university or seminary—the seminary faculty is nothing but a university department exiled by modernity—is centralized for good reasons: efficiency and community. Where will the decentralized student go to do research? It takes tens of thousands of dollars annually to keep together a respectable theological library. Relatively few of them exist. I have served on our library committee for 20 years. Our library is much better than it was but it is a constant struggle to keep up. The local university library will not do. Very few church libraries can begin to offer what a seminary demands nor should they try. Online library access is improving and online resources (e.g., Logos) are marvelous but they still only supplement a brick and mortar library.

The decentralized model lacks the other essential component: community. When my students ask questions that are beyond my professional competence, I send them to one or more of my colleagues who teach in other disciplines, biblical studies, systematic theology and apologetics, practical theology and they rely on us historians to do our jobs. On the decentralized model that aspect community does not exist, at least not in the same way. Again, there is a reason why the cathedral school model was replaced by the university model. The flying-prof approach pastoral education appears to be a de facto return to something like the cathedral school approach.

As to cost, why is it more efficient to fly faculty to students than to bring students to faculty? Perhaps the objection is true but that claim certainly cannot be accepted at face value without evidence. At my school generous donors subsidize not only most of the cost of education but a significant portion of their on-campus housing. An investment made in residential education will help to educate generations of pastors, elders, missionaries, writers, and teachers. Those facilities allow us to educate students properly to fulfill their high calling.

Asking students to move to school is asking much of the ministerial student but that is only the beginning of sacrifice. Churches will ask ministers to work for a lower salary and to accept a slightly lower standard of living than many of the members of the congregation are prepared to accept. There are other less tangible costs to pastoral ministry. Pastoral ministry means time away from family. It means answering the phone when others would let it go to voice mail. Ministry means service and self-sacrifice but seminary students are not alone. Faithful believers whom they will likely never know are praying for them and supporting them because they have seen the fruit of ministerial education done the right way.

Distributed education is an illusion. It looks like education but we may fairly ask whether that model is laying the sort of foundation for lifelong learning required by pastoral ministry. Is it preparing the student to fulfill the call to ministry in the most suitable way, in the way forged through centuries of experience? I say that, like its cousin Distance Ed, the temptation to replace brick and mortar schools with Distributed Education, ought to be resisted for the sake of the church and her people.

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  1. Every pastor I have ever known made fast friends with fellow students and professors that lasted a lifetime and greatly aided them in their ministry to the benefit of the churches they pastured. You are right on the money with this Scott.

  2. I had not realized how important ‘Seminary’ training is for the spiritual health of our culture and communities until I came to a Church without a Pastor whose training included Church History, Theology (Systematic, Covenantal, Christo-centric, Confessional), languages (Hebrew, Greek, Latin), Biblical Couseling, Apologetics, Hermanuetics, Soteriology, and a rigorous testing standard that determines soundness of preparation. The world cannot appreciate or define the role of a man called by God to minister to and guide His Flock. The definitions and distinctions in your articles regarding the preparations of God’s Ministers provide a clearer perspective on the work and partnership God prepared for His people, lay and ministers, as we labor together for The Gospel. Thank you Dr. Clark.

  3. I think there are some really great points here (not surprisingly). On-campus, in-person is ideal. I would like to hear what you recommend as an alternate solution, however. The church needs more WSC theology. The simple fact that many aspiring pastors (many of which are in their 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s with full on careers) cannot simply uproot their families and move across the country to study theology for several years, however, seems to be limiting the number of pastors who are able to learn, and subsequently disseminate, WSC theology. Is it your opinion that a theological education is an “all or nothing” scenario? Is there no room for lateral movement here? What would you recommend, for instance, for an aspiring church-planter/ pastor who intends on being bi-vocational, so as to not burden a new congregation with supporting his family 100%? What if this planter/ pastor is currently employed in the position he intends on holding (say he owns his own business) while he pastors, and that he is not able to leave that position? I appreciate your feedback.

    • Scott,

      I’ve seen lots of people walk away from lucrative careers, pack up their families, and go to sem. I’ve seen several men leave their congregations to get the education that they didn’t get the first time through. I’ve seen men in the 30s, 40s, and 50s go to sem at great personal expense.

      It can be done. It should be done.

      Should physicians, who can’t go to med school, get an alternative education? Would you let that person treat your children?

      I think we need to think about bi-vocational ministry in future but those men need to be especially well prepared since they will have less time than the full-time pastor to prepare.

      I really think men need to become as well prepared as possible. I understand the pressure to meet current demands (the urgent) but a well-prepared pastor will serve generations of families.

      The church needs to step up. One of our problems is that churches often step up after men go to seminary. We need churches and individuals to step up on the front end. This is a more pressing need now that university grads are now carrying such a large debt load.

      • Dr. Clark,
        Individuals and Churches need to step up to help seminarians and seminaries; it’s the right action. How does this begin?

  4. As a non-church officer, I sympathize with your main points. However, in the experience of our small-town church (n=1), the best of our four pastors was very well-read but lacking a seminary education. (He was also our only pre-boomer.) (He was good with the “cure of souls”.)

    • Dear Anon,

      It’s the exception that tests the rule. I’ve seen lots of non-seminary educated pastors. Most with a measure of humility wish that they could have done it the right way. The others made their congregations wish that their ministers had gone to sem.

  5. This article is very encouraging Dr. Clark. Churches should be alarmed that there is a great need for aspiring Pastors to be educated, correctly, in a very formal Seminary where sacrifices(for students) are inevitable for them to be engaged and learned efficiently. I myself could say how terrible are the results of men doing the ministerial work as a Pastor without any formal training from a Seminary.
    Well, WSC, I would highly recommend it, because I’ve seen its product from my friends Kirby Figueras and Jude Atas. I hope, Lord willing, to be trained as well in WSC.
    Thank you, Dr. Clark! Blessings!

  6. Thank you for a thoughtful and timely article. I look forward to hearing you and maybe meeting you in Lincoln in a couple of weeks.

  7. RSC — Thanks for your post. It’s a topic that needs really serious reflection. During my time in seminary education, there was widely known data pointing to a significant shift in the late 90s and early 2000s in the demographics of seminary students from mobile male singles and “dinks” in their mid- and late 20s to less-mobile married men with 2 or more children in their 30s and older. The effect of that demographic shift was to push seminarians to seek their education closer to home. Relocation costs were greater. Simultaneously, there was less clarity about the nature of one’s call to ministry, not merely in the individual seminarians but in the churches who purportedly recognized the seminarians’ call. One effect of the confusion about a call to ministry was the failure or inability on churches to help the men financially whose call to ministry they have recognized. Meanwhile, some seminaries began multiplying the number of non-MDiv degrees just to keep the flow of tuition income coming in, or else expanded course offerings away from the “main campus.” This too changed the nature of the seminaries’ mission — some more than others, to be sure — and the students they attracted.

  8. If the wider church, e.g. Presbytery, is involved in the call to ministry is should also be involved in meeting the cost of training. In the Free Church of Scotland we would not expect the full cost of training to be met by the candidate and his family. It helps that State grants pay for tuition costs at all our universities for Scottish students. If we are connectionally united that will involve in some measure the wider church sharing or bearing the cost of ministerial training.

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