The Case for Residential Seminary Training

By Justyn Terry

One of the questions that often comes up in conversations about preparation for ordained ministry is whether this needs to involve going away to seminary. Many people asking that question are settled in a church where they are doing important work and seeing fruit. They also wonder whether they need to move themselves, and perhaps their family, to another location for three or four years before relocating to the new field of ministry to which God then calls them.

I do understand that question and feel the force of it. I also realise that for some people there is simply no option of moving: the training needs to be provided without relocation. Trinity School for Ministry is committed to meeting that need and we offer the Master of Arts in Religion (MAR) degree in preparation for ministry and further academic work which can be taken without relocating to the Pittsburgh area. This can also be used as a first step towards a Masters of Divinity (MDiv), the qualification generally required for ordained ministry, in which case only one residential year would be required. So we are being flexible in helping prepare leaders for Christian mission today.

As we launch these non-residential degrees, however, I do want to make a case for the maximum degree of residential training in preparation for ordained ministry. I am convinced that we gain things from it that cannot be fully replicated in on-line or local training alternatives. Let me set this out in terms of the three great aspects of seminary education: knowledge, skills and formation.

Knowledge

Ministers of the Christian Gospel need to know many things about the Bible and about Christian history, theology, ethics, liturgy, spirituality etc. if they are to be effective. But how do we learn? In many different ways, no doubt, and those vary from person to person. In the words of a humorous definition of a lecture, however, it is not simply a matter of information, ‘passing from the notes of the lecturer to the notes of the student without passing through the minds of either.’ Education is profoundly relational. It is about knowing and trusting our teachers and being inspired by them. It is also about getting to know our fellow students and learning from them. Believing and belonging go together.

No doubt these things can occur without relocating to a seminary, but the depth of engagement that can arise in conversations between classes, over lunch, at chapel and in each other’s homes when living in a community of learning is one of the great advantages of residential training. Week-long intensives give a taste of such a life but cannot, I think, entirely replace it.

At Trinity, students, staff and faculty share their lives as they worship, study and eat together. Education is going on all the time, not only in what is said, but also in the way it is said. Some of the questions that come up touch us deeply. To wrestle with them in an intentional community committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to the supreme authority of Scripture, to the lordship of the Holy Spirit and to the need for evangelism and discipleship is, I believe, the best way to gain the knowledge we need for the demands of Christian ministry.

Skills

Knowledge is, of course, not enough on its own. Seminary life is also about equipping with the skills of preaching, teaching, leading services, caring for those in distress, counselling those seeking God’s wisdom, and praying in the Spirit on all occasions.

How are these skills learned? No doubt in many ways, but I think they are primarily learned by watching others, reflecting on what they do and internalising these things for ourselves. Much of what I learned about preaching, leading, caring, counselling and praying I learnt from my teachers at seminary and as a Curate in the four years after seminary.

I am an advocate of that second stage of training as a Curate, when the skills of Christian ministry can be learnt from an experienced mentor, but I am aware that this is a relatively rare opportunity these days. Seminaries have to equip their students to take responsibility for a church on graduation. That is a very tall order. It seems to me that residential training is all the more important in such a context, since it allows students to learn both the theory and practice of the skills of Christian ministry in the accepting and forgiving environment of a seminary chapel and its training parishes.

Formation

Formation is the hardest of the three to define and to measure. What we are talking about is really character formation for those who are preparing for the great demands of Christian leadership. It is the result of the kind of intensity of discipleship that Jesus gave the twelve apostles in their three years with him. Jesus called them apart to live with him, learn from him, minister with him, and mature under his gracious care in preparation to follow his call to proclaim his message to the world.

One of the joys of teaching at Trinity is seeing how our students develop over their years with us. These highly committed men and women from around the States and many countries of the world, including those of the Global South, mature before our very eyes. This is rarely seen from one day to the next, but it is evident from one year to the next. Our graduates have a greater depth and humble confidence than they had when they first came.

How that comes about is hard to say. People are shaped by the whole process of learning. Three or four years of praying together the ancient liturgy, celebrating the Eucharist together, studying together, serving at churches and going on missions together, and facing the joys and disappointments of life together, all have an enormous impact. It also forms the bonds of friendships that last a lifetime. Most of my closest friends are people I met at seminary. Together we learn a deep dependence on Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, and that is vital for Christian leadership.

There is, of course, much more that might be said about this. I could elaborate on how well the faculty at Trinity is prepared to impart the knowledge, develop the skills and offer the formation required, with so many of us having had years of parish and mission leadership experience as well as earning the academic credentials to teach at the graduate level. Or I could sing the praises of the library, our team of mentors and teaching parishes, and much more besides. But you can read about those things elsewhere, or find out more from our alumni.

What I have provided is, I hope, enough to encourage you to give serious consideration to residential training. It may be more expensive and inconvenient in the short term, but in the long run, I believe that it will be repaid many times over. It is a great investment for the kingdom and a sign of a radical commitment to the radical call of Jesus Christ on our lives that lies at the heart Christian ministry.