More Than a Degree: Reflections on Theological Education

Author: Dr. Anna Robbins

I hung up the phone late in the day while a storm raged outside my window. It was dark and cold as the snow swirled around the streetlights, but the call I’d just finished had warmed my heart. I was speaking with a new potential student, who was smart, successful, well-educated and globally connected. She had come to realize that for all of her specialized knowledge and education, for all of her passion and sense of call from God to serve him and teach the Bible to spiritual seekers, she was missing something. She had a need for an education that would equip her to understand more deeply, serve more fully, and teach more competently. She realized without a doubt that if God is calling her to serve him, he deserves the best she can give.

Just a day before, a newly retired university professor spoke with one of my colleagues about his sense of call to ministry. A lifetime of teaching and research did not allow him to brush lightly over the basics of theological preparation. Despite his education and experience, he knew he needed to be equipped for his call. At the same time, a young man, fresh out of university, was deciding to spend the next three years of his life focusing on gaining the education and experience he needs to serve God for a lifetime.

They all hope to enroll in the Master of Divinity program, which they can access in ways that fit into their diverse lives and availability.

But are they wasting their time? Why not just find a place that doesn’t expect many theological qualifications, why not rely on your intelligence, knowledge, and spiritual experience? Won’t the Holy Spirit teach you everything you need to know?

In recent years, I have heard two dominant refrains about seminary education. One comes from those leaders who think that theological education is valuable, but not too much. They think it is good to learn the basics about bible, theology, and faith practice, but they believe most of the best lessons are learned in the field, making mistakes, and learning from successes. They think that it is unnecessary to spend too long being equipped for something you either have a spiritual instinct for, or not.

The other view is championed by those leaders who know first-hand the value of a thorough theological education, not just to provide head knowledge, but to offer personal preparation for God’s vocational call. Most of us who feel this way know by experience that being equipped means learning with depth and breadth, building a foundation that will withstand the storms and challenges of ministry life; one that will nurture the joy and courage of leadership.

It’s not simply the old traditionalists who feel this way. Increasingly the brightest and most capable emerging leaders feel passionately about the need to be best equipped to serve, whatever that might look like in their church context. Just recently, a new grad who has been serving in her first full-time church leadership role shared her biggest lessons of the year on social media. Amongst them was this: Never underestimate the power of good theological education. The wisdom in the remainder of her list exemplified the fruit of this education.

This view is echoed by an increasing number of young leaders. At one large meeting where I hosted a discussion, I asked those present whether they felt the MDiv degree was too long. At first, I was met by silence. I thought they were too polite to tell me what they really thought! But soon I realized they were simply stunned that anyone could ask the question. One by one they opened up and expressed almost universally that if anything, it is too short. They came to recognize early in their service that any learning that equipped them to speak into the lives of students and children, adults and families, and help them to know God better, was worth it!

Never has the need to be well-equipped for service been more relevant to our culture than it is today. In a divided world, where some seek to ally their faith with the principalities and powers of this world, we need to learn to interpret and apply the Word of God well; consider other viewpoints with humility; understand that our primary agenda is to serve Christ and him alone; and pursue unity amongst believers. For there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all. (Ephesians 4:4-5)

One of the great gifts of theological education has been highlighted by theologian Dr. Willie Jennings at Yale Divinity School. In his book, After Whiteness, he suggests that you come to seminary not to build up a doctrinal arsenal that you will then be able to throw around later. It is instead a place where you can safely explore and pursue questions you have of God, in good company. A place where your own faith is deepened, and you are given a gift of learning to share with others.

You will find this gift at Acadia Divinity College in a willingness of the faculty to wrestle with God – and your questions – right alongside you. We have many years of faithful seeking and finding behind us. Yet we know there are ever new depths, heights, and mysteries of God to plumb. God’s work in us is never done and it is a privilege to be discipled even as we teach others.

One of the ways this has been happening for us is through an exploration of what it means to embrace the whole people of God. We have taken steps towards reconciliation as we seek to learn to walk well with Indigenous people in Canada and around the world, while acknowledging the truth of our Christian history and the abuse and neglect our ancestors visited on First Nations people. We are still on this journey.

We also are trying to learn what it means to hear the Christian story told by non-white people. In particular, we are learning to hear about the racism Canadians of African heritage experience and how Jesus-followers ought to respond with love and justice…and transformation. I invite you to join this journey with us and learn how to equip the wider church for Christlike action in our communities today, whether here in Canada, or elsewhere in God’s world.

Learning to care for people has never been more urgent in our living memory. As we face a mental health crisis and increasing levels of depression in the midst of a pandemic, ADC is equipping chaplains to serve in nursing homes and hospitals, and global field staff and pastors in churches and communities where they are ambassadors for the hope and reconciliation of Jesus Christ. Seminary offers so much more than a degree. It offers a formation for life and mission.

The word ‘seminary’ literally means ‘seedbed.’ It’s a place where seeds are planted and grow into mature plants bearing fruit for the church and the Kingdom of God. I am so excited by all of the seeds that are growing in our midst and in our own hearts. It is an exciting time to be involved in theological education as God’s Spirit speaks and leads us forward in our mission to equip women and men for transformative Christian service.

Of course, not all theological schools are created equal. ADC is increasingly known for our commitment to ministry preparation with faithfulness, excellence, and innovation. Lots of places can give you head knowledge. Not all want to know your heart. Lots of schools provide adequate equipping. Not all push you to be your best.

Theological education includes head knowledge but is also a skill and a shaping. It teaches you to reflect and think in ways that are formed by the Word and the Spirit, so that you can lead with knowledge and wisdom. It helps you to understand yourself better, so that when you serve others, you can be fully attentive to their needs, rather than projecting your own. An excellent theological education gives you skills to preach better, teach better, and love God’s people better.

There used to be a phrase applied to new divinity college students to test their call: Only pursue ministry preparation if you simply cannot do anything else. For some, this seemed to mean you should only consider ministry when you lose your job or find yourself incapable of any other vocation.

Ministry should never be a last resort, but rather the thing you turn to when you have run from God and tried to avoid him as best you can, but his Spirit has so disturbed you internally that you can resist the Lord no longer. If this is you, then you may have gifts and a call. The church needs the best and brightest to step forward for leadership at this moment.

Pursuing theological education is a life-long activity. You may already be in ministry, and are feeling a need for a deeper equipping, or a theological power-up. We can help you grow into the next stage of service. Whether you have a desire to grow into a new capacity for excellence or you are feeling a need for renewal, theological education can refresh your heart and mind as you are equipped for the next stage of ministry.

You may be at a very different stage of life. You’re not trying to discern a call for a vocational ministry career. Rather, you have been serving for a long time from within the congregation and are at a stage of wanting to go deeper, serve more. We can help you be equipped for that, too. Whatever your age and stage, if God is calling you to serve, we can facilitate what you need to learn to fulfil that call.

The future is going to be an exciting ride for the church. You can hang on for dear life and maybe survive the roller coaster. Or you can learn to steer through the ups and downs in a way that is innovative, creative, prophetic, and engaged.

Passive coasting or transformational impact. How the church survives or engages this key cultural moment depends on the sorts of leaders who come forward to serve God’s people. If God has called you, you can go along for the ride. Or you can enroll in a program of study to become an active change agent for impact in this world.

The choice is yours.