I write often about movements that are lay-led and not requiring formal theological education. I thought it might be helpful to explain that, in many circumstances, it is exactly what you might need.
You will probably not be surprised that I think this. I’ve earned two master’s degrees and two doctorates, with much of my programs in cohorts with other students. I loved the journey to get each degree. These programs/degrees provided me with the formal knowledge and training I’ve needed to serve the Kingdom of God in all that I do.
Let me share three reasons formal ministry education matters today: specifically, I want to show you how formal education can help you grow in your ability to serve in any ministry role.
First, an intentional degree directs your learning in ways that shape you as a leader, pastor, minister, or in any other ministry role.
An intentional degree is one in which people who have gone before you have thought deeply on it and created a curriculum to give you greater direction.
The classes are almost always developed by people who have walked the path that you hope to walk before you walked it and longer than you walked it. This means the topics you study will help you in innumerable ways.
The fact remains that any of us could open our Bibles or read other books to give us a better education. If I did my own study, I would probably read about historical theology all day. But I might miss some things learned by systematic theology or biblical theology.
I might not read about pneumatology and soteriology. I might not look at leadership. I might become more enamored with history than with the biblical foundation for our faith.
A smart person knows what he or she doesn’t know, and the directed education degree provides help to fill in gaps we all have.
When we direct our own learning, we focus on what we already know to be interesting and appealing; that’s why we must step out of our comfort zones and engage in learning that stretches us.
Directed study forces us to engage with authors and professors who have thought about certain topics before we showed up. These topics are usually things we need in order to excel in the kind of ministry and mission God calls us to do. It starts with directed study.
In a broader sense, directed study is a humble submission to the wisdom and insight of generations that have gone before us that say, “This is what a good leader, a good teacher, a good Bible study communicator knows.”
The second reason that formal education matters is because it occurs in a context of encouragement.
By studying and learning together, we encourage each other. For many students progressing through their degrees quitting seems like a viable option, especially during particularly stressful seasons of life.
But when we have a mutual opportunity to learn together, we can then encourage one another in our understanding. We create a culture where we are encouraged to keep challenging ourselves to learn.
Formal education first directs us into places we need to go, and then we’re encouraged by going on a journey with others. For example, you may have been called to a particular seminary or graduate school. That’s step one.
The next step is engaging with a broader community of people in your classes who are able to help you through your educational journey. In the process of doing so, we often learn from people who think differently than us, are from different backgrounds and different countries, and have experienced different things than we have.
Third, formal education prepares us for our calling.
Ultimately, you’re not doing this to put a diploma on the wall, but to be prepared for whatever career God calls you toward.
But don’t misunderstand. By earning a graduate degree, you are prepared in the areas that you have studied. You are possibly more prepared than your peers who do not have such a degree.
You are prepared academically. You’ve been stretched and challenged to think biblically. You’ve been pushed to think about the best leadership practices.
Being prepared, however, does not make you righteous. It does not make you holy. It does not make you closer to Jesus. It does not make you more filled with the Holy Spirit.
Preparedness is deeply essential; it’s the core of ministry training. Being directed, encouraged, and prepared are all essential for you. But the reality is that graduate school doesn’t make you a godly person. It doesn’t make you a holy person. It doesn't make you a Spirit-filled person.
The evangelist (and Oxford grad) from the Great Awakening George Whitefield observed: “The only way to be a true scholar is to be striving to be a true saint.” You can become that godly, spirit-filled person by earning your degree if you are walking in newness of life and seeking to grow in their faith. And formal education does give you the tools so you might excel.
Remember that you do not immediately become an expert when you earn your degree. Instead, a degree gives you the tools and foundational knowledge you need to propel you into the vocation God has called you towards.
And, it starts you on a journey of healthy, life-long learning. The long-term result of having a formal education can be a beautiful thing. It can be the catapult towards your permanent service in the Kingdom of God.
Also, remember that service in the Kingdom of God is always the goal of any education in which we are engaged. If we keep that goal at the center of our work, both in our education and in the world, then formal education will only help us take more and more steps towards fulfilling God’s call on our lives.
Like Paul, we make it our aim to please the Lord (2 Cor. 5:9). A formal education can helps equip us to do that for a lifetime of service.
Ed Stetzer is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group. The Exchange team helped with this article.
Christian History, 12, no.2: 6, 28.