A Mixed Up Minister?
What insights does the book of Jonah have for ministers today?
Led by The Revd Tom Stuckey, a former President of the Methodist Church.
The course consists of about 18 units (the course is evolving, hence the use of the word ‘about’!). The first one is introductory; the second is a good introduction to the practical aspects of preaching; the third is a study of Mark’s Gospel, followed by preparation and delivery of a sermon based on this Gospel. These three units are for the preacher ‘On Note’. Then come four blocks of 3 or 4 units each. After each unit is a written assignment, which is submitted to, and marked first by, the local tutor. On completion of each of these four blocks, the written work is submitted to ‘London’, together with an exegesis of two given verses, a written report on a service led by the candidate, notes on two services the candidate has been present at, but not been involved in the leadership of, and other forms. Each block is then assessed connexionally. In parallel with the Faith and Worship course, the candidate will lead a number of ‘Trial Services’, which will be discussed in the Circuit Local Preachers’ meetings. In a typical situation, the candidate will meet with the tutor twice per unit for a couple of hours, plus a separate session preparing for the exegesis passages. The candidate will take around 20 hours per unit in study and responding, not including the time spent in preparing services. The commitment is very considerable - perhaps 400 hours over two years. The recent change from assessment by examination to ‘continuous assessment’ has not greatly altered the time involved for the candidate.
The course is designed and written by a committee…and it shows! Parts are evangelical, and parts are liberal. Parts are clear and parts are frankly woolly. Parts are exciting, and parts are dull, and felt by some to be irrelevant. But, having said that, I feel it forms a good overall basis for training. The task of the tutor is central; I feel it is a great privilege to meet with people who are responding to God’s call, and to have deep fellowship with them regularly, and share God’s word with them, over a couple of years.
But how does this relate to the suggested priorities for the trainee preacher? Here I shall get into hot water with some, no doubt, but I will risk it!
Regarding the personal encounter with the risen Christ, I feel Faith and Worship does not do a good job. There seems to me to be far too little emphasis on the preacher’s personal walk of faith. The Scottish preacher McCheyne said ‘My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness’. When I raised this point at a recent gathering, I was told that this is covered at the Local Preachers’ Meeting. I am not convinced! At our tutorials, we have a time of prayer, and a brief time for spiritual feeding and challenge. But I would like to see far more challenge to spiritual life and growth in the written course.
With regard to biblical theology in the couse, my feelings are mixed. Most of the units are definitely Bible-based. Most involve looking at many scripture passages, considering their meaning, and how to express their meaning today. That’s great! But there are times when I feel that the lack of respect for scripture as the inspired Word of God is intrusive. For example, in Unit 3, the first ‘mainstream’ unit of the course, we look at Mark’s Gospel quite extensively. But the emphasis is very much on ‘Why did Mark include this story?’, or ‘…express it this way?’, or ‘…link these events together?’ or whatever. We never acknowledge the inspiring work of the Holy Spirit. Yes, of course, analysis of the human origins of the scripture is useful; but it must be coupled with, and be subservient to, an appreciation of God’s work as the ultimate Author. Somehow, in the revised version of Unit 3, the predominantly human approach to scripture seems to have become more intrusive, and I have had two students, of evangelical persuasion, drop out after grappling with this section of the course. Please can we have a more theologically balanced approach to this unit?
I have just been studying Unit 12 with two students. This unit is about atonement – a topic at the heart of our faith. Although we are taken to key scriptures to study, which is excellent, the subsequent section on theories of the atonement seems quite weak, and does not appear to take on board the full import of the scriptures studied in the first section. All three of us found it less than satisfying, which is a pity.
There are inevitably gaps in the coverage of the biblical faith. One I would highlight is the lack of teaching on the Second Coming – a topic that the New Testament (backed by the Old) highlights repeatedly. Peter certainly feels the expectation of Christ’s return has very practical implications (2 Peter 3 : 11).
Concerning a sense of mission, I do not find myself greatly inspired by the course. On the whole, it does a very good job on the mechanics of service preparation. There is some excellent practical material on service structure, on sermon preparation and delivery, on choice of music, and so on (also some rather unrealistic stuff on the involvement of congregations, assuming a large, highly talented and motivated, group of people…a far cry from the small village chapels that my tutees will be mainly ministering to!). But the sense of the gospel being ‘the power of God for salvation to all who believe’ does not frequently jump out of the pages. And the wider impact of the gospel as being relevant to, and needful for, all nations, and people from any or no religious background gets scant coverage. Jesus is exciting to know, and knowing him is the only way to salvation. Proclaiming his word is a tremendous privilege, responsibility, and joy. Let’s get across this wonder more consistently, please.
Regarding the need for the preacher to be Spirit-filled, we have something of an inconsistency. The unit on the person and work of the Holy Spirit (Unit 11) is, I feel, one of the best. Perhaps it is too good, in that there are just so many references to look up that the student becomes overwhelmed. The content is great. Where I have a problem is the seeming lack of application of the teaching of this unit to the rest of the course. It is as if the Holy Spirit is to be studied thoroughly, biblically, in one unit; but his work is to be very much on the back burner for the other twenty-odd months of study time! I would appreciate a more seamless approach to the work of the Holy Spirit.
So, overall, the course is quite good. Well studied, and well tutored, the students will grow in their understanding of the faith. It is a very fair basis for the preparation of preachers. But I would plead for a higher profile for the evangelical approach to scripture, and for a greater emphasis on the need for the preacher to be in personal, daily, contact with the Lord, and look to him to enable the proclamation of the gospel to be truly of the Lord, and in the power of His Spirit.