The Value of Continuing Education for Church Leaders
The Value of Continuing Education for Church Leaders

Many church leaders find that continuing education strengthens their ministry. The kind of continuing education that I have in mind is a formally structured program where students address important issues in theology and ministry, engage current academic research, and have their work evaluated and commented on by senior educators.

The Toronto School of Theology offers two degree programs that are geared to professional enrichment. And in the future I hope we can expand our offerings.

Now, more casual educational experiences are also vital. These include public lectures and symposia, college reunion events, short denominational retreats for church leaders, lectionary groups that discuss the next Sunday’s Scripture readings, Internet resources, and independent study arrangements. So church leaders don’t strictly need formal academic programs to stay up to date.

But degree programs are typically more challenging and more transformative than these more informal arrangements. They can provide a framework that many church leaders find helpful, both to discipline their own work schedules and to gain the support of congregations. Formal programs connect students closely with a diverse, interesting group of professional peers. They give students the advantages of expert guidance by recognized scholars and teachers.

I think it’s unfortunate that for most of our Christian denominations, formal continuing education is voluntary. That’s different from some other professional fields like medicine, dentistry, and law, where practitioners are usually required to take regular continuing education in order to maintain their professional status.

It’s easy to see that you want your lawyer to keep up with legislation, and you want your physician to be aware of recent medical discoveries.

Now, if you think that religion is just a matter of opinion whereas medicine and law deal with hard realities, you probably won’t buy the analogy that theology, like medicine and law, changes. But actually, like medicine and law, the study of theology involves data, shifting interpretations, and contested opinions. In theological studies as elsewhere, new discoveries and interpretations unsettle the textbook approaches of an earlier generation.

For example, I remember hearing a very full-of-himself preacher at a university chapel in the U.S.A. who explained the difference between Christianity and Judaism by reference to the Council of Jamnia, supposedly a first-century meeting of rabbis which relatively few scholars nowadays think actually happened.

I’ve heard some pastors explain the development of the sacrament of the Eucharist by historical theories based on writings by Gregory Dix in the 1940s that have long since been exploded.

Several times I’ve heard pastors say that when Jesus said “Abba” he was addressing God as “Daddy.” This view, based on a 1971 book by a German writer, has hung on, though it was almost immediately debunked, and the writer himself disowned it.

And too often I hear church leaders recycling old historical narratives of Christian missions that are now recognized as disturbingly colonialist.

When Christian pastors misdirect people on the character of Judaism, the nature of the sacraments, Jesus’ understanding of God, and God’s mission for the church, that can have unfortunate effects on people’s faith, witness, and discipleship. That’s the danger when clergy stick with dated ideas that they heard in class or read in textbooks when they were taking their basic theology twenty years ago.

At least as important as correcting out-of-date understandings, continuing education opens up new vistas of thought. I think that most pastors benefit from fresh insights and broadened horizons. Otherwise they can begin to feel that they’re slipping into a rut, doing and saying the same things over and over, and feeling uninspired in their sermon preparation. The result can be burn-out, depression, and fatigue. One among many articles on this danger is this recent one in the Presbyterian Record

One very accessible form of continuing education is TST’s Master of Theology program. It requires just eight advanced courses. The courses can be taken one at a time over a period of years. A course, depending on timetables and a student’s distance from Toronto, may require just a single morning or afternoon a week for twelve weeks.

More challenging is the Doctor of Ministry program, which students take while still engaged in full-time ministry. It requires several courses and a research thesis. This gives students a lot of scope to address an issue in ministry that particularly concerns them. Our current students are interested in such things as spiritual formation, interreligious dialogue, social justice, worship, inculturation, mission, and preaching.

In addition to the ThM and DMin degree programs, we also have some ideas for shorter certificate programs. Expect some further information over the next several months!

If you’re a church leader, I hope you’ll investigate opportunities for continuing education. If you know some church leader, maybe mention this idea to them!

~ Alan L. Hayes