How to get the most from your theological training

Embarking on formal theological training, usually three or four years of intense study, is an enormous commitment, of time, money and energy. So have you thought about how you can make the most of that investment? What are you hoping it will do for you?

Let’s back up for a moment and re-set the tone. That first paragraph is somewhat transactional in its language and assumptions, and for a start that’s not what this is about. In some languages, the word ‘training’ translates as ‘formation’: a far more nuanced and organic term than ‘training’, conveying a sense of maturing over time. And given its very subject – learning of God – theological education ought to be the most profoundly formational field of study.  But that’s not a given; theological study as a merely intellectual pursuit has been widely practiced for centuries, and that’s where any of us might lean towards unless we’re anchored into a different view about the purpose of that study.

‘Making the most of it’ needs to be about stewardship rather than self-improvement.  We want to lean into what our study might do to us and through us, rather than for us.

So how to steward your learning well?  There are several very practical ways you can approach and undertake your study that will help it to be formational in the deepest sense.

A marathon not a sprint

Start by recognising the long horizon over which your theological learning takes place. ‘Theological Education’ is not something you sign up do over an intensive three or four years in formal education. It’s not the equivalent of a doctor doing their medical training. Your theological education started when you first had help to read and understand the bible, and it can and should continue through your lifetime. Every talk you will prepare (and the study you do to prepare it), every pastoral complexity you will encounter (and the reading you do or the wisdom you seek as you walk through it) and every leadership and life decision you will make (and the theological reflection you undertake meanwhile), will contribute to your formation. Our hope is that you will never be done as a theological learner.

But the way you approach this particularly intense phase of theological learning does matter. With the right attitude and disciplines you can get a great deal more from the time you’re putting into your intensive training.  And your attitude, practices, posture and relationships during this phase of your theological education will make a difference to whether or not you’re still getting the most out of it in ten, twenty, maybe forty years’ time. Read on to understand how that works.

A place of prayer

The pursuit of any kind of theological study should be, first, about obedience to the great commandment: to love the Lord with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. If you have the privilege to do intensive study, your first goal is not to pass the course, but rather to grow in the knowledge and love of God. You’ll be making the most of your theological training experience if, as you wrestle with important theological questions, you build in the practice of pausing to pray: praise God for who he is as you understand that more deeply; thank him the implications of his nature and his work in the world, pray that these truths will be transforming you. Make your study space a place of prayer, not just progress.

A gift to share

Theological education is also a wonderful way of expressing obedience to the second great commandment, to love our neighbours as ourselves.  One of the best ways to embed what you’re learning is to teach it to others.  You’ll be making the most of your theological training if you’re passing it on to others, whether by informally sharing the wonder and magnitude of what you’re learning in the conversations you have with others in your church, or by more formally using it to run a one-off learning session or a training course in your local church. Our theological learning can be a blessing to those around us right from the outset, not just someday in the future. Rather than taking you out of your local church, what you’re learning right now can propel you into new ways of serving others. You don’t need to know everything before you teach others: a humble learner is a great person for others to learn from.

A peer group for the journey

Another way you can obey the second commandment in the course of your theological education is by investing in relationships with your fellow students.  At Crosslands, certainly, you will find yourself learning alongside people who are not just like you. Your tutor group will include men and women with varying backgrounds, prior education, and ministry contexts. We often grow friendships with people we have much in common with, but to be working through some of life’s biggest questions with brothers and sisters you might not have chosen as friends is an extraordinary gift of grace. Don’t just see these other students as simply people who happened to get on the same bus as you; love them, learn from them and pray for them.  They’re likely to become some of your closest friends, the people you’ll want to turn to when needing trusted advice and a prayerful ear in the years to come.

Learning to learn

Trying to learn everything by rote as head knowledge is not the best way to make the most of your theological training. There is simply no way you can learn all you need for a lifetime of ministry in your initial training, however intense that may be and however smart you are. But you can make the most of it by allowing the experience to form you into a proactive and discerning learner.  Become adept at digging into important questions, finding the trusted resources that will help you form your understanding. Develop the theological frames and instincts that will help you discern the true and valuable from the heretical or superficial sources. Think about how you think. Learn how to learn.

Changing your mind

Here’s a test of whether you’re really getting the most from your theological education: are you changing your mind or shifting your thinking on anything? If you come to the end of your programme without having really tested your perspective in any way, you’ve almost certainly lost out. This is not about dramatic changes in conviction; rather it’s about recognising that you may have held a position too simplistically, parroting those you respect without having thought it through for yourself.  Or adopting neatly logical positions that leave no room for dealing with messy pastoral realities. We’re not suggesting here that scripture is not sufficient; it most certainly is and we want to be enduringly confident in and faithful to scripture. But it must be the case that our understanding of scripture is always imperfect, this side of the new creation, and that our formation will include growing in our understanding of its riches and its application to life. To do that we sometimes need to let go of superficial rubrics and develop a greater appreciation of the depths of God’s revelation. That involves humility and, more often than not, repentance.

Enjoying the workout

Regular life goes on as you undertake theological studies.  Don’t resent that; the interaction of life and learning are a precious gift.  You can make the most of your theological training by really working to become agile at the interaction between theology and practice, and learn to become a skilled and habitual reflector.  Every day you’ll be reading new material and engaging with challenging concepts. Every day you’ll be encountering interesting situations, complicated people, sensitive dilemmas. You can keep life and learning separate, or you can be intentional about weaving them together.  Theological reflection is a muscle you can strengthen.  It works in two directions, with theology shaping our practice and our practice illuminating and deepening our theology.  You’re going to need to do some heavy pastoral lifting throughout your future life and ministry, so make the most of the workout that intense phases of learning can give you.

Sustainable patterns

Formal theological education brings with it a volume of work and the pressure of deadlines that you may not have lived with for a while, if ever. All the more so if you’re studying alongside a busy day-job (as is the case for most Crosslands students), serving at church, and for some caring for a young family or others.  And yes, you can even make the most of this aspect of your training.  Value those demands as a formative discipline. When you’re leading a church or in other ministry leadership roles, you’ll have more deadlines, and more competing demands for your time. If, during your training, you learn how to set aside time for deep work, to plan ahead to get the important done in the face of the urgent, to manage boundaries so that you’re not always available to every request, then you stand far more chance of establishing sustainable patterns in your future ministry.

And remember to value and cultivate the basic skills you need to succeed both at the academic endeavour and several of the other things we’ve described above. They are all vital to your future ministry. Don’t see them as necessary evils; see them as part of your formation and give attention to nurturing them as skills. Just consider for a moment how important these few skills are going to be in the week-to-week demands of frontline ministry:

  • How to read well (of course we don’t mean literacy skills here)
  • How to write clearly
  • How to present concepts and arguments effectively
  • How to communicate engagingly
  • How to engage with different opinions
  • How to interpret and discuss theological questions

And finally, bear in mind that your time in theological education can either harm or deepen your family relationships.  You will have to set aside study time, when you’re just not available. You’re likely to be enjoying fantastic intellectual stimulus while others around you may be carrying more of the burden of ‘grunt’ work to allow you to do that. Don’t just tell them you appreciate them (though you should definitely do that); think creatively about how you can give your family a window into what you’re learning.

And invite them to keep asking you how your study is helping you to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.

Written by Jen Charteris, Director