My Bible College Thoughts

There are very few educational institutions that deliver high quality ‘experts’ in their field upon graduation.
  • How many doctors graduate after 6 years of med school as specialists?
  • How many teachers graduate from teachers college with the ability or reputation to get a job as a Principal?
  • How many scientists who graduate with a science degree get high level research positions in universities?
 
There seems to be some kind of expectation from some quarters within the church that when a bible college does not ‘deliver’ ‘quality graduates’ to be senior pastors upon graduation that there seems to be something wrong with the college.
I assist in the running of the Australian College of Ministries (ACOM) here in WA. There is many a conversation had with pastors about how we are not ‘producing’ the kind of leaders they require.
 
What are the kind of leaders they require?
It would seem that the denominational structures are wanting ‘just add water’ kind of leaders. They type that are slotted into a job after a degree, or even during a degree and off they run, ready to run their own church. For many years we have operated on this model. We have thrown young or inexperienced people into positions that demand the world of them. Sometimes they get put into solo pastor jobs, sometimes they land in team positions as the senior or an associate pastor. Either way, they expectations on them (and indirectly on the college in which they trained) are that they ‘perform’. There are not too many caring positions in which a graduate is expected to be a ‘top gun’ within the first decade after graduation.
There is a strange paradigm that ACOM works under. Most people we train are already working inside some ministry context, most often a local church. This ‘train as you minister’ concept has some difficulties, as it adds pressure to the student who juggles their life as student and as part time (and sometimes full time) minister. But the upshot is that the student has a place to be actively working out their learning, a place of ‘practice’ if you like. Action learning model. You learn, you act. It is not as one person mistakenly said a couple of years ago at a graduation ceremony that ‘now you have finished your study you can do ministry’. This person was doing ministry way before they entered college, college was just a place of refinement, challenge and upskilling, both academically and personally. I think the expectation of many churches to see ‘top guns’ on graduation will go unmet, and if they do find them, I may suggest that the college was not responsible for producing them, they most probably were highly gifted leaders when entering college.
 
Who then is really responsible for ‘producing’ them?
The ‘production’ of a quality leader happens in life and in practice. maybe college refines, challenges (and sometimes dampens!) these qualities. These student come into their places of ministry and begin to apply the skills being learnt, or that have been learnt in college. In college (so said one of my lecturers Dr Nutt) you don’t come to learn primarily, you come to learn how to learn. So the real learning takes place in the context of ministry, not college, in the context of life, not a classroom. The classroom (or study) simple provides you with the skills to go into life and apply skills to your gifts and talents to be the person God has designed you to be.
So local church, you want us to ‘produce’ top gun leaders? You ask me ‘where are all the quality ACOM graduates?’ I say to you, take a look around you, they are right there amongst you. What is your strategy to disciple them, coach them, work along side them as they train for ministry (inside or outside of a college framework). It’s the local church that is lacking, not the bible college when there is a dearth of leadership in the Christian community.
Yes the colleges should take some responsibly for training and shaping, but I believe that local churches should take more responsibility for the college. Be more involved, coach students, ask questions of the college, get on a college board and so on.
 
Why do I keep putting inverted commas around the word produce?
I have a small issue with the concept of ‘production’ that’s all. It’s very consumer driven. A leader in my mind is a disciple who disciples others. Sure some have giftings that may well enable a great influence, abilities and calling that place them in positions that teach and pastor a group. But ultimately we are called to disciple others. This is not production like some have turned it into, this is relationship. A college is ultimately an intense disciplshipping community, it should involve coaches and mentors and intentional formation of character of some sort as well as learning environments that enable people to engage at deeper levels with information and concepts do with life and faith and ministry etc
 
Why do people study theology and ministry in the first place? What is their own expectations when entering college?
I think this is a key question that goes unasked too many times.
We think that people come to college to become pastors and leaders with in the institutional church. We are mistaken.
Some come to college because they have failed at every other attempt at study and life and end up in a place that ‘will accept anyone’. Oh come on, don’t tell me you hadn’t thought about this before!
Others come to gain a greater understanding of issues of theology and faith.
Others want to be better in their lay ministry around the church and to serve better in their local church.
Still others see themselves as ministers in their life and their circumstances of life, work and residence as places of mission. They come to gain the equipping for this mission of life, no matter if they are or ever will be paid for it.
 
The percentage of people coming to college for reasons other than ‘professional ministry’ are increasing all the time.
Regent College in Vancouver Canada actually major in training non-professional ministers who are professional in their vocational life. I was in a meeting with a group of senior pastors once in which they had what I can only call a ‘bitch session’ about this world class college in Canada because of a lack of ‘fruit’. All their graduates end up back in the workforce and not in ‘ministry’ they said. These people (including my own brother) that I know have graduated from Regent are some of the most influential, effective (whatever that means) Kingdom citizen that I know! But obviously they are a waste of ministry space according to some peoples twisted measure.
 
What kind of people does it take to study at ACOM?
ACOM, the college I know best as I work for them, operates off a very different model. It is almost a distance education model, it does have some face to face but it is minimal and decreasing. It involves a great deal of self discipline, and self motivation as a strict ‘self-timetable’ is required.
People just wanting a degree in something are wasting their time here, there are far easier ways of getting a degree in anything than self-directed learning. I would say in ACOM West we have a far too young average student body. Students under 20/21 generally speaking do not have the discipline to handle this type of study. Most of our students under 21 struggle from day one to effectively engage in both the reading/assignments and with the days of residential facilitation (like a tutorial).
Our personal formation is the one thing that currently is a no-compromise ‘do or die’ kind of subject. We have massively strict guidelines on attending the Formation groups and heavy accountability within them. If a student can’t make it to one for some reason (apart from the sudden onset of severe illness) we ask them to ring around to all the students in their group, explain why they can’t make it and re-arrange the meeting for a time when they can all be together.
I get frustrated with ACOM sometimes, not just with students, but with us, our system. We are 1/2 way between a distance education model and a class room model, sometime I wish we were one or the other. But I have seen where we have come from and see a vision for where we could go, so I hang in there with my various frustrations and hope and work toward a bright future…’producing’ the kind of leaders God has created them to be…a diversity of missional leaders!!
 
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6 thoughts on “My Bible College Thoughts

  1. Scott, where do I start! This is an absolutely BRILLIANT post, very well thought out and pieced together. Bravo for simply getting these thoughts down in such a sensible order.

    I completely agree with you on every level. I am 3 years through a 4 year degree at .ACOM and i have no illusions that I will be ‘fully formed’ when I graduate(one day:P) In fact that is definately NOT what i signed up to when I started bible college.

    I very much agree that their are certain trains of thought around the traps that expects this but I really think this is placing way too much on the bible college. Where does one learn to be a leader? Learning the theory in a classroom or putting it into practise? I feel it is the latter and that, more often that not, takes place in a local church context. Therefore, i definately agree that the local church themselves must be a major playing in the development of strong Christian leaders.

    When I remember back to why I signed up to bible college I have to admit to being quite naive about it. I expected to do a degree and come out with all the answers. This doesnt mean i expected to be a fully formed leader, because I didn’t, but my understanding definately was that i would get answers and head knowledge. However, my train of thought has definately change. Bible college in my mind is much about, as you said, ‘learning to learn’. It actually asks more questions than it gives answers, but it teaches us the skills to grapple with those questions ourselves and hopefully come to some sort of answer. This is a much better philosophy as it is reproducable when a student leaves bible college.

    I am very greatful to .ACOM for their style, as difficult as it can be. I started at the age of 19, however I was fairly studious to begin with so didn’t feel I stuggled with the style as much as some. It is absolutely wonderful to be able to be in a local church context putting into practise what I learn as I learn it. I think this style is a lot better than learning everything in theory…then learning what it really looks like in practise.

    Scott, your a champ and ACOM West is lucky to have you as its director:)

  2. A timely post scott. i was speaking to ben today about ACOM. I’m looking into starting a course next year.

    my resons.. i want to move into a full time ministry position. I feel God calling me to give more to him, be it on a mission field or as a pastor i’m not 100% sure yet. But i’m looking into ACOM because i see it as the means to get into the full time ministry i feel led to.

    If God shows me missionary work as the way to go i guess i have other options. But ACOM is a means to a pastoral/youth work role, and i’m right at the begining of my search…

  3. Mate all I can say is I am fortunate to be blessed with a senior leadership that over the last 1.5 years has started unlocking the difference between being a slave or a son in the house.

    I have moved to such an empowering environment as I have started to walk as a son and they as spiritual fathers. My senior pastor is walking in the revelation of Mal 4:6. ‘before the day of the Lord that God wants to turn the hearts of the fathers to the sons, and the sons to the fathers’

    It has changed the way we do ministry/life, how we view success/failure. All I can say is God bring on the spiritual fathers to the often fatherless generation and you can take that ‘to the bank’

  4. Thanks for your comments. Very encouraging. Maybe if others read this who have not had such a good experience of ACOM could also add som thoughts, happy to hear. We do have a national survey going out today, so be ready for lots of questions, even if you graduated ages ago!

  5. We need more Pastor Buck…

    The thing I appreciate about ACOM is lecturers are practioners…
    They critique the Church from a pragamtic view and endeavour to equip those to intiated the change.

    My previous experience of bible college had good people as lecturers but who were so disatified and frustrated with the church that they couldn’t function adequately in them and all they did was be negative and pick holes in the existing structures. It left students with an anti-church mentality that I know that I had to consciously deprogram myself and it caused a number to leave church. It didn’t prepare me for the realities of everyday. It also left me with the idea that Preaching would change the world. (give me a break, I was young)

    Our ministry structure don’t lend themselves well to newbies and I know too many that have been blown out of teh water before they gain the real qualities that make good leader. (and some will never be leaders and that OK) Unfortunately this will always happen where you have a group of people.

    What we need is an understanding with students and church leaders that BMin, BTH, Grad Dip, MA, PhD will not solve all your problems, wil not guarantee a job, wil not make them spiritual gurus, will help them get on with people better, will not solve their marraige problems…and so on. Oh it will equip them with tools but the skill of using them in practice is in experience.

    Big Dave

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