I was recently intrigued by a student who shared with me his primary reason for coming to study at Austin Graduate School of Theology. While heavily involved in prison ministry, he found himself on the receiving end of questions that he had a hard time answering. And these inquisitive prisoners, who had quite a bit of free time on their hands for reading and contemplating, asked some tough questions. The prison minister admitted that he was getting tired of saying, “I’ll get back with you on that one,” and he sensed a little frustration from the prisoners who also noticed this continuing refrain. He acknowledged that he needed to be better equipped if he was going to benefit these men. But who is there to answer the minister’s questions?
He made a wise choice for remedying the problem: he enrolled in a degree program at Austin Grad. As with prisons, so it is in churches—well, at least in this one respect: Church members can tell when they know more about the Bible, theology, church history, and liturgy than their minister or Bible class teacher does. And it is not a happy situation. Churches have the right to expect those who stand before them and who represent them to have rigorous training and a discernible depth of knowledge. Would-be ministers and teachers may be on fire for the Lord, but if they lack the training and study required for ministry, they will not be doing their congregations any favors, and they will likely hit a wall and burn out before they know what happened.
Students come to Austin Grad because they recognize that they need more. Our bachelor’s and master’s and auditing students range from full-time ministers to part-time volunteers. They include preachers and elders, youth workers and Sunday school teachers, prison ministers and chaplains. Some are not (yet) involved in any ministry, but, seeking to answer the call that is common to all disciples, they simply want to learn more for their own personal growth.
We all realize that if we feel a call to “equip the saints for works of service” (Eph. 4:12), then we ourselves need to be equipped for this awesome task. Part of that equipping is intellectual, inasmuch as having and expressing faith implies being able to say something intelligible about it.
Effective ministry certainly involves more than intellectual chops, and it requires more than can be learned in any traditional classroom. The sort of training and equipping that we provide at Austin Grad may not include absolutely everything that one needs for effective ministry. There are intangibles that cannot be learned in a classroom, God-given natural and spiritual gifts that must supplement the understanding. But even these gifts are encouraged and shaped in the classrooms and halls of Austin Grad.
One thing is evident: people skills and the gift of gab, though helpful, are not sufficient to sustain an effective, long-lasting ministry. Quality seminary training in Scripture, tradition, theology, and practical ministry is an indispensable component of effective ministry and service in the kingdom. Although we grant accredited degrees, our mission at Austin Grad is not ultimately about credentialing or handing out diplomas. We are here to help people who recognize their need for it, in order to equip the church for its challenging mission in this world.