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Theological Education: Why Waste the Money?

       Education does not really matter.  
       Whether everyone accepts that or not is irrelevant.  In today's world, we know that it's true.

       So, the six people in the search committee looked at each other around the table.  They knew they'd found their man.
  He had a great smile and looked everyone straight in the eye when he talked to them.  They'd checked his references and had confirmed he was a real people-person.  On top of that, although no one in the group would actually say it out loud, the candidate was good looking and stylishly dressed.  Everyone knew what a plus that was.
       They'd watched his videos and knew he could hold an audience spell bound with his natural humor and story telling and practical insights.  People who had worked with him said he was a hard worker with natural leadership abilities.
       A couple of members of the committee had mentioned the lack of education.  The man's college degree was in marketing.  But, in a sense, this was understandable.  Five minutes in the same room with him left most people with the impression he could sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo.
       "Yeah, there's not what you'd call a lot of formal book learning," Stan acknowledged.  "But, when you get right down to it, how much does that really matter?  Who really cares about that these days?  Listen, we're not hiring someone to compete for the Nobel Prize in Physics.  The truth is people don't really care how you know.  People need to know how much you care."
       Everyone knew the little proverb.  They'd heard it hundreds and times.  And, by and large, they knew it was true.
       "So, that's it.  Right?"
       Every head nodded.  They had found their man.
       And, after he came, he was everything they had hoped for.  People loved to hear him speak.  He looked great up front. His quirky sense of humor and skilled story-telling made him a favorite.  A shining star that soon people were talking about in nearby towns and cities.
       Of course, a few raised the issue of his lack of education.  In fact, probe him very long and it was clear he no one would mistake him for any kind expert.  But, he knew enough to get by and everyone loved him.  And, in the end, that's what mattered.
       And so it was that the Hillside School District No. 5 hired Ronald Dennis as their star math teacher.  Oh, he could add and subtract, multiply and do fractions.  In fact, his famous story of how Mary had half a pie and needed to give equal pieces to Tom and Jane and Bill was being told and retold by everyone who heard it.
       As long as no one brought up algebra, or trigonometry, or, God forbid, calculus, they'd never realize what a completely incompetent idiot Mr. Dennis actually was.  He didn't understand advanced math and had no real interest in it. 
      And, the District leaders knew stories about other schools whose math teachers held PhD's and the classes had to suffer through long and boring lectures about obscure issues like the sum of x over y.  True, it wasn't exactly an either/or choice.  There were people who had solid math education and expertise and were still good teachers.  But, honestly, keeping the kids coming to school week after week was what mattered.  They weren't exactly trying to get these their kids in Harvard, so what did it really matter?
       In a related move, in fact, the leaders had decided to stop even bringing in outsiders to be interviewed from outside their own school district.  They'd use some of their own youngsters after they'd become young adults.  After all, they would have been hearing and watching a master-salesman week after week.  They could learn the skills of story telling.  The district leaders could look for those who just seemed, like Mr. Dennis, to have the knack for holding a crowd spellbound.  That way, they'd be sure to keep a good thing going.  
       Then you avoid having new teachers coming in who might not adore Mr. Dennis or might, God forbid, point out that multiplying negative numbers is supposed to actually result in a positive number.  Who wants staff who can think for themselves and criticize the star teacher?  And then there's the hassle of interviewing outsiders.  Some of these poor  misinformed people had managed to stack up student loans that had to be repaid.  As far as District 5 was concerned, they all could have saved their money.
       A Math Teacher and a Pastor: the comparison, of course, is not entirely fair.  Understanding the Bible and Christianity are far more challenging than mathematics.  It is true, the church doesn't require every member to be a theologian.  But, at least historically, that's exactly what it expected of its pastors: Reflective theologian-practitioners.  Many of history's greatest theologians were pastors.  Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Barth, Wright, and Jonathan Edwards all served as teaching pastors of local churches.
       The undercurrent of anti-intellectualism that runs through many churches has some justification. Theological education can become disconnected from the life of the church.  It can undermine the enthusiasm and faith of those who experience it.  No one disputes that.  But to imagine we answer this problem by simply dismissing the importance of theological education is to throw out the gnat so we can swallow the camel.
       Ross was and remains simply the most gifted worship minister I ever had the honor of serving with.  He was already on staff when I was brought in as an interim pastor.  Ross and his wife are fantastic musicians.  He could do anything from the latest contemporary to southern gospel to traditional hymns.  His enthusiasm and people skills meant the praise band always had people lined up to be a part of it.  He did things like offering to those interested from area churches the opportunity to come together and do an Easter Musical.  By the weekend of Easter we had to rent out the largest auditorium in the county to hold the people who wanted to come.
       But, as he freely acknowledged, Ross had no formal training in Bible or theology.  He did have, like our fictitious math teacher above, a degree in business.  He also possessed extraordinary people skills and a wonderful stage presence.  One of my faculty colleagues would openly tell people like Ross that ministry education would be a major waste of time and money.  After all, my friend pointed out, most churches couldn't care less, as long as you were a good enough musician.
       "That's absolutely true," I told Ross.  "Most won't ask and don't care.  But, what if God cares?  What if leadership in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is supposed to be held by people who have invested years in learning and reading and study, so that the ministry is rooted in the wisdom of revealed truth?"
       The more Ross thought about it, the more burdened he became.  The fact the previous preacher had not cared that he had no real education in Bible or theology or ministry increasingly just felt wrong.  It wasn't how it was supposed to work.  Finally, he decided, whether the church cared or not, he cared.
       He enrolled that fall in a graduate program in Bible at Cincinnati Christian University.  He would drive the hour and a half each way every week.  He would read and study and write papers and take exams - not because it made him a better church musician, but because it formed and deepened him as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
       If all we want are math teachers that can manage a few basics but pack out classes filled with eager kids who all would nominate the teacher as Entertainer of the Year, than let's hire math teachers like some churches hire ministers.  Just don't expect many of those kids to ever design a bridge or map the stars or explain the idea of the Higgs boson particle - as if that really mattered.  It is, after all, only what some in quantum physics call the "God particle."


twotentom said...

Even though the folks involved with quantum physics know of the Higgs boson particle, they still really don't know what it is or how it is......(much is the reason they call it the GOD particle).
And as far as theologians are concerned, gaining vast knowledge of scripture is important so as to model who Christ is(seeing as He possesses incredible knowledge of Torah) but unless you take it outside your walls (Matt 28:19) and put your faith into action (Matt 10:7+8), then I believe you are being self serving and Pharisaical. After all Jesus not only taught, but these things He went out and did as he required those He taught to do also.

Jeremy Schopper said...

Well timed thoughts . . . at least they are for me. Without people skills, an inviting personality and the ability to engage people from the stage/pulpit I won't be as effective in engaging people for Christ. But without some substance to go along with the eye candy, I won't have anything to give them once I have them engaged.

I have almost completed my second advanced degree. And I have experienced a minor level of discrimination because of it. Nothing major in terms of acquiring or keeping a job. But when I bring the education into the Bible class and challenge their presuppositions about the Bible, God, their faith, etc. people very quickly become defensive. Granted, others crave what they know they don't yet have. But for many, challenging people to think outside of their religious boxes is extremely uncomfortable. And often that triggers a response against the teacher, particularly if they are aware of his advanced education. So they relate their uncomfortable feeling with this extra/unnecessary, even harmful education and form their opinions and bias.

I am traveling this road now. But I wouldn't turn around for anything. We all need substance.

Tom Lawson said...

Fully agree. And, I was really hoping you could explain the Higgs boson. There's a nifty prize waiting for you in Oslo if you figure it out.

Tom Lawson said...

Good thoughts, Jeremy.

Challenging students is a fine art. The gap between the quick and the not-so-quick can be daunting. Some you want to challenge. Then, for some, you just hope they make it through and graduate. And, for a few, you hope they stay on their meds and regularly report to their parole officers.