Ministry Training for the Majority

This paper challenges us to train church leaders in a way that best serves the church in its mission even if that is not the standard method followed in Bible colleges and theological seminaries today. It addresses a key question: what kinds of ministry education will best serve the church of the twenty-first century as it plays its part in the mission of God? The article addresses this question through a series of sub-questions: Who is teaching what, to whom, why, and how?

David Burke has been a pastor and ministry educator since 1979, with ministry education experience in Australia, Asia, and Melanesia. He is Lecturer in Ministry and Practice at Christ College in Sydney, Australia. (


Ministry Training for the Majority

Mission Round Table Vol. 13 No. 3 (Sep-Dec 2018): 15-19


I write this article from a comfy office in the theological college where I teach. A recent multi-million dollar building project gives us ample buildings that combine the old and the new in elegant harmony. Our spacious library spills over two floors, we have good IT, and classrooms are fitted with the latest gadgets. Our students typically have a degree and profession when they arrive at college and leave with anything up to a doctorate. Our well-qualified teaching staff is supported by able administrators.

In short, I teach in a typical, western theological college.

Later this year, I will teach in a pop-up college in western Ethiopia. The students will be pastors of churches serving South Sudanese refugees.[1] The pastors and their congregations have lost land, family, and possessions. They are traumatised by war and dislocation and depend on the UN and NGOs for almost everything.

This Ethiopian context is an extreme example, but it is closer to the reality of majority world ministry training than the college where I am employed. What kind of ministry training is suitable for the rest of the world—the growing majority world church outside of the declining western church?[2]

It is tempting to think that the western college is the gold standard of ministry training.[3] In reality, that model may not be fit for purpose even in the West. Perry Shaw is just one among recent writers who are asking whether the traditional seminary is relevant in the post-Christian West, let alone in the rest of the world.[4] The traditional seminary is critiqued as being expensive, taking a lot of time, dislocating students from their ministry contexts, promoting an academic rather than ministry focus,[5] and being unable to train the number of pastors needed in the majority world.[6]

The traditional college-based model of ministry training has another problem identified by Richard Pratt:

Let me describe a challenge that the body of Christ often faces in areas where there has been little or no educational opportunities for church leaders. Many of these communities have senior, experienced church leaders who have much to offer younger students and pastors. Their strengths, however, are typically much more in the areas of ministry skills and personal development than in theological and biblical content. In fact, senior leaders in these regions are often in as much need of theological and biblical content as their less-experienced counterparts. As a result, these senior leaders often hesitate to form learning communities for less experienced leaders because they feel inadequate to provide the content that is often expected.[7]

Is it time to move on from the comparatively recent phenomena of the detached theological college to something more church-based and missional? The western model has been critiqued from the perspective of ecumenical and mission agendas and is being challenged by a range of alternative educational models.[8] This question is especially potent in majority world contexts that are remote from the context of western churches with traditional seminaries.

A moment’s reflection suggests that ministry training should be missional. As Shaw says, “For theological education we must seek a theological answer to the question of purpose: good theology should drive our pedagogy. The Scriptures make clear that the ultimate goal of all we are and do as individuals and as a church is to participate in the Mission Dei: more specifically, to work and serve for the extension of the kingdom of God and the proclamation in word and deed of Christ as Lord.”[9] Indeed, if ministry training is not serving the Lord’s mission, why are we doing it?

The Lausanne Cape Town Commitment linked the themes of ministry training that arises from God’s mission and serves the church: “The mission of the Church on earth is to serve the mission of God, and the mission of theological education is to strengthen and accompany the mission of the church.”[10]

And so, we ask a key question: what kinds of ministry education will best serve the church of the twenty-first century as it plays its part in the mission of God? The rest of this article will address this question through a series of sub-questions: Who is teaching what, to whom, why, and how? [11]

A central conclusion to this discussion is that ministry education should be context-sensitive, mission-driven, and church-centric.

Who is teaching what, to whom, why, and how?

The Who question concerns the identity and desired qualities of ministry educators. As several note, the nature of the teacher is vitally important and good teachers will know their material, build good class relationships and embody what they teach.[12]

Increasingly, ministry educators are subject specialists with little educational training and who have little or no exposure to the role for which they are preparing students. The PhD is the typical route to a lectureship or Dean’s post, rather than having planted or pastored a church or served in a missionary post.

Clearly, subject specialists should be respected for their scholarship and it is important to have a continuing flow of theological academics who advance scholarship. God’s church needs men and women of learning who can discover new wonders about his being and works and express and address these to a changing world.

However, it is concerning if the whole of ministry training is done by silo-specialists, especially if there is little connection to church or mission life. Some colleges address this by insisting that teaching staff have an active church involvement as part of their KPI, or by encouraging teachers to spend part of their study leave immersed in the life of a church or Christian organisation. Another approach, particularly with teachers of pastoral skills, is to recycle teachers between church and college appointments, such that a teacher of ministry skills has a maximum of, say, ten years in a college environment.

However it happens, the mission of a college in serving the church is strengthened when teachers are familiar with, committed to, and competent in the tasks for which they are preparing students. As one Principal said to a prospective staff hire who was a reluctant applicant: “We want someone who would rather be doing the job that they are preparing others to do.”

While teachers constitute the primary Who of ministry education, they are not the only parties. Other partners who have a stake in ministry education (and desirably a voice) are churches and other agencies that send students, provide field training venues, and then receive graduates into their service.[13] How can these extra-college partners, especially the church, become partners in the design and delivery of ministry training?

Who is teaching What, to whom, why, and how?

This question concerns the content of ministry training.

Traditional content consists of Bible, theology, church history, and, more recently, practical ministry. Each of these elements have a deserved place in the What of ministry training, but the questions of how they are packaged and connected and what perspective they are taught from are pertinent.

For example, what church history is being taught in a particular context? Does it make sense to focus heavily on early and reformation church history in majority world contexts where the past story of the local and regional church shaped the immediate context into which graduates minister?[14] Again, is church history just taught as background to historical theology or as a series of case studies in practical ministry from which students can draw lessons for application in their contexts?[15]

Decisions on What will be taught go beyond the formal curriculum. Recognition is needed of the hidden curriculum (which may undermine the intentional curriculum) and the null curriculum.[16] What we don’t teach, or barely teach, says much about what we value or devalue. Further, are there ways to recognise non-class activities (e.g., leading chapel or participating in a pastoral care group) as gaining credit towards program requirements?[17]

Curriculum design or revision is a fraught process, for there is simply more to be taught than is possible in the time available. A move away from teaching reams of content towards teaching skills, including skills of learning by reflection,[18] can ease the pressure, as can recognition that there are some things that really cannot be well taught in college programs and are best left to post-training apprenticeships.[19]

Who is teaching what, To Whom, why, and how?

This question concerns the identity—in church and community contexts—of those being trained for ministry.

The nature of our learners in their contexts should impact what we teach and how we teach it.

What are the entry points of students in terms of home, community, church, and educational backgrounds?[20]

How do people from different cultures learn and how should that impact teaching?[21] What can we learn from literature on different learning styles, multiple intelligences, and gender differences?[22]

The life stage of students is also relevant to pedagogy. Ott gives a useful summary of key principles from present adult education theory (known as andragogy and pioneered by Malcolm Knowles[23]) but also warns that a student entering ministry education may be adult in their wider learning profile, but at a basic learning level in theology.[24]

The point of this is that some attention to the profile of individual students, cohort profiles, and cultural context is important to help ministry education be delivered in a way that connects to students and fosters learning that will transform them and their ministries.

Who is teaching what, to whom, Why, and how?

This questions the purposes or outcomes of ministry training.

It is commonplace in education to start with the end product and reverse engineer to develop learning content and design of delivery.[25]

In asking the core questions of ministry education noted above, it is important to begin with questions of purpose and outcomes (the Why? question) and work back from them to the contributing questions of Who is best placed to teach What and How. As Shaw says: “Only when all the above questions have been answered are we in a healthy place to build the curriculum. We need to be diligent in keeping ‘What?’ and ‘How?’ as the final questions, as curriculum must always remain the servant of the fulfilment of our purpose and not the master of our decision-making processes.”[26]

As noted above, ministry education is there to serve the mission of the church as it participates in God’s great plan of reconciling all things in Christ. That is, ministry education is instrumental, not teleological, in nature. The test of its effectiveness is not in exam results, degrees awarded, or publications, but in how well it serves the church in its mission.

This sense of purpose prompts a re-think of the balance in the ministry education curriculum. Educators typically speak of the cognitive, affective, and psycho-motor domains which loosely correlate to knowledge, attitudes, and skills, or head, heart, and hands.[27] Traditional curricula are heavy-headed with much emphasis on the text of Scripture and theological tomes! Of course, there is a point in this, for a Christian doctrine of Scripture sees a godly mind of orthodoxy informing a godly heart of right worship and these together shaping godly actions. However, too often, cognitive learning alone becomes the dominant focus in theological college.

A little theological reflection reinforces the nature of learners as unified beings who are called to love God with all of who they are (e.g., Deut 6:5). In particular, the Bible upholds the place of the affections as fundamental to personal being (e.g., Prov 4:23). This is quite a contrast to the Greek-shaped nature of western education with its privileging of cognitive learning. Many majority world cultures emphasise the wholeness of a person in ways far better than western cultures and in a way that better echoes biblical anthropology.

And so we ask, how can ministry education be designed so as to achieve purposes of Christian maturity, godliness of character, Christ-likeness, and such like which are central to the being of church leaders (e.g., 1 Tim 3:1–13) and to their role in the mission of the church? The cognitive and behavioural (or skill) components of ministry education are comparatively easy to achieve but are of little point unless the affective domain has been well addressed.

Perry Shaw suggests a process that asks: “What is the ideal church in our context?” “What are the contextual challenges” that we face? And “What might an ideal Christian leader look like?”[28]

The college where I teach developed the following core headings as graduate attributes.

Loves God in Christ
Knows God in Christ
Knows self in Christ
Loves people like Christ
Leads God’s church under Christ
Preaches and teaches Christ from the Scriptures.[29]

These were detailed into 72 specific descriptors which were used for a ground-up redesign of our programme at the levels of “introduce, develop, and apply.”

In designing a graduate profile, the earlier point about the instrumental nature of ministry education needs to be kept central. The end game is the contextualised shape of the mission of God as implemented through local churches, mission agencies, and other Christian bodies. The mission of the Lord should shape the kinds of mission workers that are trained in our schemes of ministry education and that, in turn, should drive the content and means of teaching. The end determines the means in ministry education and the end is in both global and local contexts.

Who is teaching what, to whom, why, and How?

The How question is the pointy end of education. Teachers want to know how to teach this or that material to these people in this setting. Sometimes that is accompanied by a vague sense of “How can I teach in a way that holds interest?” or “How can I teach in a way that gets through the syllabus in the time available?”

The How question is an important one to answer well, for the answer will shape whether learning happens and what kind of learning it is. However, to reiterate what Shaw says: “Only when all the above questions have been answered are we in a healthy place to build the curriculum. We need to be diligent in keeping ‘What?’ and ‘How?’ as the final questions as curriculum must always remain the servant of the fulfilment of our purpose and not the master of our decision-making processes.”[30]

The way we teach is not neutral. It will either serve the mission of the Lord through his church or it will not. It also expresses and reinforces foundational assumptions about what is important to learn, how the learner is viewed, and why we learn.

Consider a typical “sage on the stage” or “guru in the room” class where students sit at desks and chairs facing the teacher who teaches from an elevated platform by giving a summary of material in books written by western scholars and then assesses the learning by a written exam that asks students to recall and re-present what they heard. Such a class is teacher-centred, privileges cognitive learning, and shows a high value for maintaining a traditional canon of content from generation to generation, irrespective of context.

Consider now another class. Students are seated in an open horseshoe pattern facing a visual display facility. The teacher sits at their level, begins the class with a real-life case study and then asks questions, uses buzz groups, debates, and such like to dig behind the case study to the foundational biblical and theological issues and push forward to multiple ways of addressing the issues posed by the case study in ways that are context-appropriate. At times, a student leads a class discussion or presents a group finding. The class ends with preparing some action steps relevant to the case study and a time of group prayer to embed the learning before the Lord. This second class shows features of being learner-centred and integrative, and promoting active learning that is applied to life and ministry contexts.

It is also worth noting that teaching methods can become a matter of forming an unwelcome apostolic tradition in pedagogy. A teacher may teach in a way that they were taught or according to their preferred (and probably highly academic) learning style. Their students may well copy the master and teach the same way in their ministry contexts. And so, a group of oral culture learners seated on a dirt floor may end up having a lecture which is a poor echo of the original teacher’s experience in Cambridge or Deerfield, Illinois!

At a program level, attention can be given to curriculum planning that is context-specific, mission oriented, and integrated.[31] The linear block curriculum can be replaced by spiral or integrative models that can foster more holistic and deeper learning.

At the level of individual lessons, attention to higher purposes and values can help shape “fit-for-purpose” lessons by starting with first principles: Why am I teaching this? What are the learning objectives? What are the most significant points in the lesson? What is the best structure for this lesson for these students in this setting?[32] Once these questions are answered the teacher can select from the variety of specific methods to plan the lesson.[33] One point to remember here is that no one teaching method is the gold standard. The gold standard is to choose and use teaching methods that will help prepare these students for their part in the mission of the church.

In choosing teaching methods, it is important to consider ways of fostering integrated learning (as mentioned above) and avoiding the common silo-split of disciplines where theory and practice are kept well separated. As the saying goes: theory without practice is empty, practice without theory is blind. Bernard Ott and Perry Shaw give some good suggestions on how to foster integrated leaning in the classroom.[34] A particular concern is how to foster learning that is actually applied to ministry contexts. Some newer approaches to ministry education attempt this by physically locating at least part of ministry education in field settings.[35] When this happens churches not only send students to college and receive the end product, but also share in the process of ministry education. That’s ministry education from, for, and with the church.


The now-traditional western model of ministry education is said to be in crises in the West and has, perhaps, never well-served the rest of the world. However, if we put the mission of the Lord and his divine agency of the church back at the centre of ministry education, we can be well-placed to design new forms of education that have a mission-fit purpose and which are fit for purpose.[36]


For further reading

The following are good starting points on contemporary ministry education with a global perspective:

  • Bernhard Ott, Understanding and Developing Theological Education (Carlisle: Langham Global Library, 2016).
  • Perry Shaw, Transforming Theological Education (Carlisle: Langham Global Library, 2014).

For a guide to recent literature on alternate approaches, see my bibliography in:

  • Hanna-Ruth van Wingerden, Tim Green, and Graham Aylett, eds., TEE in Asia: Empowering Churches, Equipping Disciples(n.p., Increase Association, 2018).

For a stimulating survey of global innovations in advanced ministry training, see:

  • Perry Shaw and Havilah Dharamraj, eds., Challenging Tradition: Innovation in Advanced Theological Education (Carlisle: Langham Global Library, 2018).


[1] 400,000 South Sudanese refugees inhabit five refugee camps in western Ethiopia. Within just my denominational tradition, 60 pastors serve churches of between 100 and 300 members. Six of the 60 pastors completed theological training in college and another six started but were disrupted by war and exile. Some have a TEE certificate and the rest have no formal training.

[2] The latest global statistical profile documents the continuing shift of the Christian heartland to the majority world. Todd M. Johnson, Gina A. Zurlo, Albert W. Hickman, and Peter F. Crossing, “Christianity 2018: More African Christians and Counting Martyrs,” International Bulletin of Mission Research 42, no. 1 (2018): 20–8.

[3] A question outside the scope of this paper is whether ministry training is needed at all. A provocative US study found an inverse relationship between the level of ministry training and the growth (or otherwise) of churches! Christian A. Schwartz, Natural Church Development: A Guide to Eight Essential Qualities of Healthy Churches, 4th ed. (St Charles, IL: ChurchSmart, 2000), 23. I contend that ministry training does not produce a pastor any more than a musical score produces a concert, but that it is not irrelevant to the development of pastors and helps guard against some of the perils of untrained pastors leading churches with large numbers of new believers.

[4] Perry Shaw, Transforming Theological Education (Carlisle: Langham Global Library, 2014), 17. An older text which is highly influential in calling for a missional shift in ministry training is Robert Banks, Reenvisioning Theological Education (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999). A recent publication calls for a contextual and missional approach and supplies global case studies: Stewart Brooking, ed., Is it Working? Researching Context to Improve Curriculum (Carlisle: Langham Global Publishing, 2018).

[5] Shaw, Transforming Theological Education, vii.

[6] Richard Pratt Jr., “Opportunities and Challenges at the Beginning of the Third Christian Millennium,” Presentation at the July 2013 meeting of Asian Theological Association. Pratt estimates that, assuming one pastor for every 100 Christians, 16 million pastors will be needed in just Africa and Asia in 2050, based on present growth projections. Pratt, “Opportunities and Challenges,” 4. Participants in a 2016 Bangkok conference were told that there are 2.2 million pastors in the world and only 5% have any formal training.

[7] Pratt, “Opportunities and Challenges,” 9.

[8] Bernard Ott, Understanding and Developing Theological Education (CarlisleLangham Global Library, 2016), 18–23, 83–5.

[9] Shaw, Transforming Theological Education, 19.

[10] Lausanne Movement, The Cape Town Commitment: A Confession of Faith and a Call to Action (The Lausanne Movement, 2011), II.F.4, (accessed 2 October 2018).

[11] Shaw and Ott avoid a purely pragmatic rush to the How question of education. I have used these questions with profit in my educational activities over many years. Shaw, Transforming Theological Education, 19; Ott, Understanding and Developing Theological Education, 268-281.

[12] Shaw, Transforming Theological Education, 1, 41, 71–72; Ott, Understanding and Developing Theological Education, 281. Shaw gives a help list of the qualities of good teachers on 261–71.

[13] Ott, Understanding and Developing Theological Education, 284–6.

[14] Of course, early church history is universally relevant for its story of how the universal church laid foundations in doctrine, organisation, and devotion and the story of the later western evangelical movement is important for giving the missionary background from which most majority world churches were born. However, the problem arises when a traditional western curriculum in church history is taught to the comparative neglect of local and regional church history.

[15] An obvious example of this is to connect classes to the experience of persecution in the early church to the growing number of majority world contexts where persecution is normal.

[16] Shaw, Transforming Theological Education, 7, 81.

[17] Shaw, Transforming Theological Education, 6.

[18] Shaw, Transforming Theological Education, 7.

[19] Ott, Understanding and Developing Theological Education, 257. See also David Burke, “Time to Leave the Wilderness? The Teaching of Pastoral Theology in South East Asia,” in Alan Harkness, ed., Tending the Seedbeds: Educational Perspectives on Theological Education in Asia (Quezon City: Asia Theological Association, 2010), 263–84.

[20] Shaw, Transforming Theological Education, 36.

[21] Ott, Understanding and Developing Theological Education, 236.

[22] Shaw, Transforming Theological Education, 231, 236, 238.

[23] Malcolm Knowles, The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species, 3rd ed. (Houston, TX: Gulf, 1984).

[24] Ott, Understanding and Developing Theological Education, 110–13.

[25] Shaw tells the story of how ABTS Beirut re-designed its curriculum by starting with questions of outcomes and then working backwards. I have recently been through a similar process in the college where I teach. This can be a difficult process, but if done well it can result in ministry training that is fit for purpose to serve the church in its mission. Shaw, Transforming Theological Education, 1–11.

[26] Shaw, Transforming Theological Education, 141, cf. 143–4.

[27] These can also be styled the “ABC” of learning: affections, behaviours, and cognitive. Shaw, Transforming Theological Education, 67.

[28] Shaw, Transforming Theological Education, 21–25.

[29] Christ College, “Graduate Attributes,” (accessed 2 October 2018). Shaw gives the graduate profile from ABTS Lebanon. Shaw, Transforming Theological Education, 31–3.

[30] Shaw, Transforming Theological Education, 41.

[31] Shaw, Transforming Theological Education, 42.

[32] Shaw, Transforming Theological Education, 166–7.

[33] Shaw gives a useful survey of different methods and their (dis)advantages. Shaw, Transforming Theological Education, 183–9.

[34] Ott, Understanding and Developing Theological Education, 320; Shaw, Transforming Theological Education, 95–103.

[35] Ott, Understanding and Developing Theological Education, 108, 131–3. See also Hanna-Ruth van Wingerden, Tim Green, and Graham Aylett, eds., TEE in Asia: Empowering Churches, Equipping Disciples (n.p., Increase Association, 2018).

[36] The following sites give access to some cutting edge thinking about missional and church-centric ministry education: Increase Association: (accessed 2 October 2018); Third Millennium Ministries: (accessed 2 October 2018); International Council for Evangelical Theological Education (ICETE): (accessed 2 October 2018).

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