Church Issues, Current Issues

The Importance of Discussing Alternative Credentialing Paths

This post is part of a series of discussions on Vintage73 focusing on the PCA’s proposed strategic plan. We’ll provide both pro and con positions on different aspects of the plan. To benefit most from these posts we suggest you read the plan itself first. We’re thankful to the Cooperative Ministries Committee (CMC) for their hard work in creating this proposal and pray that our efforts here will help sharpen their work as iron sharpens iron.


While Tim and I haven’t yet met in person, I’ve enjoyed our correspondences, and I am glad that he is one of the contributors for Vintage 73. As Tim mentioned in his preface–this is our first attempt at a back and forth dialogue. I hope that as we examine different issues faith, truth and charity will be kept as central components.

Before we discuss the details of the Strategic Plan, we need to understand that it is an advisory document. Dr. Chapell isn’t pretending that he brought it down from the mountaintop. The SP is more like a pitching coach for the PCA.  A pitching coach might advise a pitcher to work on a certain pitch or to strengthen certain muscles to avoid strain.  He will point out areas where the pitcher could be stronger.  He might even suggest throwing certain pitches in particular situations, but the pitching coach is an advisor—he doesn’t take the mound. All he is trying to do is reinforce areas of strength and reveal areas of potential weakness. The SP is a suggestion of where we need to go from here.

Everyone in the PCA acknowledges that our current system allows men with out degrees to be ordained, but is making them the exception really the best policy? And is discussing an alternative important or even possible?

While I don’t have the space to respond to all of Tim’s thoughts, I’d like to interact with a few and then speak to why it was wise to include this topic in the SP.

As we talk about ordination and educational requirements we must admit that our modern path of ordination is shaped by economics, ethnicity, and tradition.  The use of “disadvantage constituencies” intentionally leaves the topic wide open.  This is the first step in the process, and if we move forward with this discussion we will get more information about exactly who is in view.

Tim seems to wonder why we need to discuss this topic now. He seems to be begging the question by suggesting that a lack of diversity in seminary proves there is no problem.

Bobby Griffith’s article on this site seems to be a good starting place. As we are roughly 30 years out from a majority-less nation, It is a very good time for our denomination to discuss what efforts should be made to disentangle itself from a single ethnic identity, in regard to it educational presumptions.

If we, as a denomination, desire in some small way to represent the future realities of the kingdom it is important for us to ask: what unnecessary barriers can we remove so that we might more easily serve alongside qualified pastors from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, as well as pastors moving from different traditions.

This discussion isn’t just about ethnic minorities, it is much broader and it has much older roots. Taking a grass roots ownership of training pastors seems to be a value that goes hand-in-hand with the spirit that founded the PCA.  During my time at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary I met many men who I would put into the category of “disadvantaged constituencies” — family responsibilities, time commitments or economic difficulties had put them at a disadvantage in that they could not relocate to attend seminary full time.  These men were fortunate enough to have a local seminary that was willing to allow them to take 5 or more years to complete a degree, but not everyone is this fortunate. I would imagine that there are countless more men who might feel as if God is leading them toward seminary, but can’t for any number of reasons move. Some of the candidates in my presbytery are in this group and none of them would diversify the culture or color of the PCA.

A more robust alternative credentialing process might make coming into the PCA more viable for men from the following backgrounds:

  • Fathers with school-age children who can’t relocate twice in a three year period.
  • Older men who feel called to ministry but will be far beyond working age after attending college and seminary.
  • Men without college degrees and the financial means to earn them.
  • Men who desire to come into the PCA from other denominations with different educational requirements.
  • Men who can’t speak English and therefore can’t attend almost all colleges and seminaries, but still feel called to work among their people groups.
  • Men who are not within commuting distance of seminary and who can’t relocate due to family responsibilities.
  • Men who feel called to ministry in their area, when there are no seminaries present.
  • Pastors from other denominations who wish to associate with the PCA and work out of bounds in their existing roles.

As I read Tim’s post there was only one thing that truly upset me.  Tim’s seems to suggest that we just don’t have the resources to change our model, since most pastors are not fully equipped to train other men for ministry. Or at least they are less equipped than professional theologians.  Here is why this is so alarming: if Tim is right and the majority of PCA pastors can’t prepare men for ministry, then the bigger concern isn’t that we introduce unqualified pastors, it’s that we are a denomination of unqualified pastors.

Paul commands Timothy that he entrust the message that he has heard to faithful men who are themselves able to teach. Elsewhere Paul makes it very clear that this is a requirement to be an elder. This means every elder in the PCA should be able to teach men who are able to teach others. Now of course we are a connectional church and so some men might be better at one subject while others are better at another,  but if we have so specialized as to not be able to prepare men for ministry without leaning traditional seminaries then we need to readjust more things in the PCA.

Tim points to history and says we just don’t have the same caliber leaders today. Yet while there are historic examples of advanced scholars running one man schools, there are other examples of local pastors teaching other men, and being very successful. The Log College is probably the most well known example. It was the 18th century equivalent to an Alternative credentialing path, and it worked.

To be clear my problem isn’t with theological schools, its with the assumption that modern seminaries are irreplaceable. The church has survived for countless generations without such places, and while I highly value the education that they offer their training can be duplicated in other ways.

BCO Problems?

Are you sure you needed that M.Div.? While some denominational position papers on the subject seem to assume that 21-4 is referring to an M.Div., The BCO is more broad (even accepting a second bachelors degree from a theological school).  Part of the challenge is that while our BCO seems to be fairly wide our actual practices are much tighter.

Tim also suggests that the SP might create a class of candidates that would fall into the exceptional circumstances clause of the BCO 21-4, but I think he is mistaken. The SP isn’t seeking to blaze new ground, it’s seeking to flesh out what the BCO already says. The SP is suggesting that the PCA consider creating a course of theological study that would fit into the latter part of 21-4a. If this part of the SP is adopted the General Assembly would need to approve the course of study, and then it would be up to individual presbyteries to also approve the courses.

The BCO already leaves room for alternative processes. All the SP is suggesting is that we more thoroughly discuss those alternatives.

The Ethics of Options.

One place where Tim and I agree is with his concern of creating different tracks that different groups would then have to follow, but I don’t think this is even in view when the Cooperative Ministries Committee advances the topic of alternative credentialing. The study of alternative credentialing doesn’t mean that we are creating short cuts or second-class pastors, it means we are recognizing the gifts of men who have a different background than we do.

To the idea that these men would be sub par, I ask why? Because their training might not be traditional from our perspective? I am confident that if this measure is accepted we will not have a hard time leveraging the technological resources available to augment and flesh out any alternative credentialing.

The Strategic Plan Made Me Do It!

Some people seem to object to the Strategic Plan because if voted up it will overnight turn the PCA into a different denomination, circumventing all BCO policies in the process. As if the The CMC was some rogue group. Like I said before, we must remember that the Strategic Plan is an advisory document. And on this matter, elders serving in situations across the PCA have come back to us (at our request) and have unanimously suggested that we spend some time thinking about our process of credentialing. Doesn’t it seem a bit rude to ask someone for advice, and then complain when they actually give it?

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  • http://twitter.com/TimTaylor_Sr Tim Taylor

    Guess I'll kick off the response here.

    First of all, Sam, I'm glad you're collaborating here too. I enjoy your insights and am glad to have a non-Southern voice here on Vintage73.

    Second, your responses as well as others I've read elsewhere have impressed upon me at least one important thing: I don't communicate as well as I thought I did! George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” I say this because what you've taken away from my post is sometimes the exact opposite of what I meant. I blame myself.

    For instance, you say, “Tim seems to wonder why we need to discuss this topic now. He seems to be begging the question by suggesting that a lack of diversity in seminary proves there is no problem.” I certainly didn't mean to convey that the lack of diversity in seminary proves there is no problem. Quite the opposite. I see the lack of diversity in our seminaries as a big problem. Since I'm still not convinced that other methods are wise, I'd like to see us make traditional seminary education more feasible for those who find it difficult or impossible right now. This is why I linked to MNA's page showing their efforts in raising funds for African American pastors to go to seminary.

    FTA: “Tim points to history and says we just don’t have the same caliber leaders today. Yet while there are historic examples of advanced scholars running one man schools, there are other examples of local pastors teaching other men, and being very successful. The Log College is probably the most well known example. It was the 18th century equivalent to an Alternative credentialing path, and it worked.”
    I think your example of the Log College actually proves my point more than it does yours. How many William Tennents do you think we have in the PCA today? I would say “VERY few” is a generous estimation. And even as impressive as Tennents “college” was, it seems he only had around 20 graduates. The Log College was a stop-gap until better options came along, as evidenced by its short-lived existence. Several of its graduates became Princeton trustees at Princeton's founding. They didn't perpetuate the Log College. They founded a formal institution instead.

    Now can PCA pastors teach theology? Of course they can! But can ordinands learn theology as well from their local pastors as I did from Douglas Kelly at RTS? I think the answer is obvious. Will a local pastor teach church history as well as Harold O.J. Brown did? You see my point. I'm just trying to be honest about the fact that your average local pastor simply can't replicate the quality of education one gets at a proper seminary. Maybe what they can provide is adequate. That's debatable. But it's certainly not the same.

    “The SP isn’t seeking to blaze new ground, it’s seeking to flesh out what the BCO already says. The SP is suggesting that the PCA consider creating a course of theological study that would fit into the latter part of 21-4a.”
    You could be right, but how can you be so certain? I never read any reference in the SP to BCO 21-4a. Again, the lack of specificity leaves us guessing. Yours is as good as mine.

    In the end, I think you and I have the same desire, just different ideas about how to get there.

  • sdesocio

    Good thoughts brother,
    I guess God has called me to be the loud Yankee in the room….

    I don't think its enough to just make it cheaper for ethnic minorities to attend ethnic majority institutions. Different cultures have different ways of teaching, and I am very happy when we make space for guys who might not otherwise be able to attend but I think that is a preliminary step that needs to be expanded. I am very happy that we have the exceptions clause, but I as my position reveals I think it would be beneficial for us to talk more about the issue.

    I think the Log College is a famous example but I don't think its an exception to the rule. I've been told that the old RPC had many such mentoring churching and it was only when many pastors felt that all their attending was being given to students and not enough to their congregations that they formed RPTS. (But at RPTS you can't be a professor without being a pastor first!)

    I think every pastor should be able with little prep time to teach any intro class at Seminary (Now I must admit I'd need a week or two for some topics and a month or 10 for other. ) Of course not every pastor will be totally proficient in everything but the real question comes down to what is the biblical requirements and what are our cultural traditions. I feel comfortable with the fact that the exception clause admits that we are somewhat defined by our traditions. As one commentator noted on your post the EC would have to be the way that the PCA would ordain the Apostles! =) I didn't flesh it out as much as I wanted to but I think we have the ability to use modern tech to fill in those gaps that any pastor might have. Things like 3mil and event itunesU allow for cheap access to great teaching.

    Finally the SP does not give anyone freedom to circumvent our courts. If we approve the SP it will still mean that BCO changes are majority–2/3–majority, votes. It will still mean that credentialing programs must be approved by the Presbyteries and the GA. If the SP is suggesting we discuss the topic of alternative credentialing it seems obvious that they have in mind partly or whole BCO 21-4.

  • http://joelws.com Joel S

    Thanks for all of the great insights. As I mentioned in a comment on another post, I'm in the RTS MAR program right now.

    Tim, I just had a question/comment on something you wrote in the comment:
    “Now can PCA pastors teach theology? Of course they can! But can ordinands learn theology as well from their local pastors as I did from Douglas Kelly at RTS? I think the answer is obvious. Will a local pastor teach church history as well as Harold O.J. Brown did? You see my point. I'm just trying to be honest about the fact that your average local pastor simply can't replicate the quality of education one gets at a proper seminary. Maybe what they can provide is adequate. That's debatable. But it's certainly not the same.”

    Do you think that a blended distance education / mentoring from local church model might be a reasonable middle ground? I.e., I'm currently taking Doug Kelly's course from RTS. I'm also meeting with an elder and a ordained M2theW director regularly to discuss it. And obviously, I must be an intern prior to being ordained, and must the same licensure/ordination exams that any other candidate must. Could not such a model serve as a middle ground?

    Now, granted, this hardly solves the problem, as I'm still paying a lot of money for my RTS education (more, actually, then on-campus students). But there are other Reformed distance programs that require mentoring that are cheaper.

    Thanks again for all the great thoughts on here.

  • http://twitter.com/TimTaylor_Sr Tim Taylor

    Joel,

    Yes, I think RTS has a good thing going with that. Having taken some distance ed myself, though, I can say it's not as good as being in the room w/the professor. A recording simply isn't the same as being there, but I think it is, as you say, a “reasonable middle ground.”