Flourish Institute of Theology: School of Ministry

- Mark Patterson, Director, Flourish Institute

Several years ago ECO entered into a partnership with Gordon-Conwell Seminary primarily to train those seeking to become Commissioned Lay Pastors (CLPs). We developed twelve classes and began teaching them in the Fall of 2019. This response has been better than we imagined! Not only did a number of CLP students begin taking classes, we found we had a growing number of students interested in taking these classes for credit at Gordon-Conwell as part of their pursuit of ordination. Over the last two years both groups, CLP students and those pursuing an MA or MDiv for ordination have been growing. With these increases and the growing interest we looked to how we might expand our course offerings especially for those seeking ordination. 

Unfortunately, Gordon-Conwell, which had been a wonderful partner, was unable to expand the program. This led to a great deal of pondering, prayer, questions, and conversations. Should we find another partner? Should we drop the program completely? Should we leave it at the twelve courses we had? We even began to think more boldly: could we take this on ourselves and create a training school for ministry that would prepare our people for ministry in our churches? Could training for ministry be done better? Is there a better model that could more effectively train our people for a lifetime of effective and fulfilling ministry in ECO churches? 

Questions turned into answers, uncertainty faded before hope, as we began to see that it was not only possible to do something different, but it was also vital we do so. A year and a half later we are thrilled to announce our plans for The Flourish Institute Graduate School for Ministry

This paper is the first of several introducing our thoughts and plans to the larger ECO family. In interest of time we thought it best to produce a number of shorter papers exploring the various details rather than one, massive tome that covers every area. Doing it in portions also allows us to hear, consider, and respond to questions, critiques, and ideas that may come to us. It allows us to improve and “tighten” the plan as it moves further into reality. Finally, this is a “work in progress” and we in no way have every detail figured out, every question answered, or every problem solved. As these unfold, we will continue to make them known here through subsequent papers.  

In this first introductory paper we will focus on some of the “big picture” issues that have shaped our thought and how we have come to this place. We are excited to present this to you and hope you will continue to follow subsequent papers and announcements and creatively engage with them. 

The training of effective leaders has always been a necessary and intentional part of the church’s work. This is true from Jesus’ training of the twelve—not to mention the seventy-two (Luke 10:1, 17) and the five hundred (1 Cor. 15:6; Acts 1:1-3)—to Paul’s discipling Timothy and Titus, from mentoring to monasteries, from William Tennet’s Log College to the world’s great universities. Through the ages great care, labour, and expense has been given to the raising up and training of effective church leaders. And, as suggested by this brief list, this training has taken, and continues to take, a variety of forms.  

While the early church effectively followed the mentoring model of Jesus and the apostles for the training of pastors and church leaders this changed over the centuries to take on a more institutional and academic form. This began first with training increasingly being connected to monasteries such as the great Benedictine abbey Montecassino (c. 529) and the Cluny Abbey (910). With the founding of the world’s great universities during the Scholastic period the training of pastors and leaders of the church was seen as a central part of university curriculum. This model, while seeing various adaptations and adjustments through the Reformation, the Enlightenment and modernity, and then Post-modernity (to name but a few), has remained effectively unchanged for centuries.

That is not to say that alternatives were not explored or considered. Shortly after the Protestant Reformation, a decision had to be made on how to educate clergy for the local church. There were two primary options before the university system.  One was to train clergy like academics in the humanities, the other option was to conduct training like the way physicians were trained for the practice of medicine.  But the Reformation began in the academy and it was there that its principle ideas found form and initial expression. It was natural then that the training of pastors remain in the setting and follow the methods that were familiar and had been effective. This model became normative across Europe where pastors are trained in the universities and divinity studies were a part of the larger curriculum and methodology of the university.  

This model quickly came to America and continued as the standard. In 1636 Harvard College was established, as a college but with the primary focus of training clergy for ministry. This carried over into the formation of the American Seminary/Divinity School system that has been present since the founding of our country. In established churches the preparation and training of church leaders is inseparably bound to the university model. Whether this occurs within a divinity school or in a seminary the philosophy and practice of education remains that of the university. Seminaries, while separating themselves physically from the larger university and intentionally focusing upon the training of church leaders have brought no significant change to this reality. For seminaries too are all but completely modeled upon the European university philosophy and methodology. 

Recent decades have seen a rising call for the need of something new, something different, something more helpful to the training of leaders for the local church. In 1994 The Murdock Charitable Trust in the Pacific northwest noticed that an increasing number of seminaries were applying for grants for financial help. This led the trust to do a study in which they interviewed roughly 800 pastors, parishioners, and seminary teachers with in hope of learning why seminaries were coming under increasing financial hardship. The results were a scathing critique of American seminaries that sent a tremor through theological education across America. 

In the October 24, 1994 issue Christianity Today ran an article entitled “Re-engineering the Seminary? Crisis of Credibility Forces Change.” (1) This article begins by referencing several conclusions from the Murdock Trust report. Specifically they list: 

  • Seminary students often have the same doubts as nonbelievers, see themselves as victims, and have a "deep hunger" for role models and mentoring.
  • Seminaries are producing pastors the same way they did 30 years ago, are financially weakened by administrative overhead, and take little responsibility for selecting students bound for ordination.
  • Lifelong tenure for professors and the accreditation process have, in some cases, been obstacles to strategic change.
  • Pastors today… are "largely satisfied" with their own job performance, but believe they were "poorly prepared" for their jobs.

Christianity Today went on to predict a coming crisis for seminaries, a strange message coming at the time when seminaries across America were seeing their greatest enrollments and highest incomes. Nevertheless, CT foresaw a dismal future noting that seminaries were largely out of touch with the needs of churches and the realities of parish ministry, they were out of touch with the needs and desires of their students who were considering/pursuing ministry, and they were out of touch with the times and what was needed for the church to effectively fulfill its mission within a post-Christian culture.  

Positively, CT noted examples where changes were being made and creative projects were bringing fresh perspectives and methods to the training of pastors. But, they noted these were few and far between and it remained an open question as to whether real change would occur. The article’s conclusion is worth considering in full: 

In spite of the hundreds of schools making changes affecting tens of thousands of students, some researchers maintain a clear-eyed skepticism about whether such changes are truly structural, or are a cosmetic veneer.

In 1992, Carolyn Weese, a church consultant based in Arizona, was hired by seven seminaries to travel the country in conjunction with Leadership Network (a parachurch ministry for large churches), interviewing pastors about their needs.

She spent seven months on the road, with her husband driving as she pounded her notes into a laptop computer. Weese says that after 97 two-hour-long interviews with pastors and their staffs, "I was pretty convinced that if a seminary really wanted to take seriously what these [pastors] were saying, it would take reshaping or reforming the whole structure of seminary education.

"It would mean taking it all the way down to the foundations and rebuilding it. Something's got to happen. The church is not going to wait. If the seminaries don't wake up and come along, they will be left in the dust," she says.

Some church leaders believe they have sufficient resources to train new pastors. Last year, for example, there were an estimated 3,000 church-sponsored conferences for pastors. Weese counters, "I hear some pastors say, 'Well, we'll just teach them what they need to know.' And that's okay, but that's a one-generation hand-me-down. There is a need for seminaries, but they need to do it differently. They need to put new wine in new wineskins, not something new in an old form."

No doubt, as seminaries retrofit, re-engineer, or restructure their programs, they will have the opportunity to move into a new era, where theology and church practice cooperate rather than compete.

More than twenty-five years later the words from CT and experts like Weese have proven to be prophetic. Between 1995-96 academic school year and 2015, Princeton Theological Seminary enrolled 30 percent fewer full-time enrolled students. Reformed Theological Seminary saw a 33 percent decrease to 547 full-time students while Candler School of Theology (Methodist) experienced a 39 percent drop to 414 full-time students. Fuller Seminary, the largest seminary in the nation had 1,542 students in 2015, down from 2,340 ten years earlier. Interestingly, Gordon-Conwell grew by approximately 57% during these two decades though today they too are feeling the pressures of economic realities and changing student needs and interest. 

There is no doubt that seminaries need to “re-engineer” and “retrofit” their programs. There is no question seminaries need to look at putting “new wine” in “new wineskins.” And it is obvious that this does not mean “dumb it all down” or abandon depth for relevancy or tradition for cultural pablum. There is indeed a need for seminaries, but it is also true that it is time for them to “do seminary” in a very different way. Leonard Sweet describes what Weece’s “new wine in new wineskins might look like: 

The issue is not that seminaries are “too academic.” The issue is that seminaries need new academics, a new model of academe that will make sense of what is going on around us based on what went on in the past, explore what the impact of change has been before and will be now, and suggest preparations that will enable the church to adapt. Just as the culture needs public intellectuals, the church needs public theologians who will write in the vernacular and not cast out the colloquial. (3)

One may summarize a number of reasons why this is needed, why a new academe is called for. First, the university model is largely disputational and deconstructive in method. Rather than building from Scripture, faith, and worship these are viewed with suspicion and more critically appraised than encouraged. Second, seminaries are largely detached from the church. In the quest for academic legitimacy seminaries are “now more accountable to the academy and guilds than to the church and its ministries, to religious studies methodology than to the theological studies and ecclesiology.” (4) Third, and growing from this, is the fact that too often the concepts taught in seminary are given little or no connection with the church and its ministries in real life settings. Students learn about the Documentary Hypothesis, Gilgamesh, the differences between infralapsarian and supralapsarian election, and Arianism but little of how these connect with the church (or even with one another!). Students are taught these concepts, expected to memorize them, and prove their knowledge in testing and papers with little understanding of why they are important and how they relate to ministry in a church setting. They study Barth or Calvin or Augustine in isolation from the church and without being shown how the ideas they presented address the very questions raised by today’s believers in today’s cultural context. Fourth, many seminaries are out of touch with the needs and desires of students. (5) Increasingly students are unwilling and/or unable to uproot and take on several years of graduate study. And many are unable to afford the high cost of doing so. Increasingly students are looking for and using on-line resources to train and prepare. Many are already engaged in active ministry and looking not to leave this for graduate school but to gain the tools, insights, and skills needed to minister in their context more effectively. 

Obviously, these are broad brush strokes. They may describe one institution with great accuracy and another only barely. Nevertheless, we hold that these characteristics are sufficiently common and influential across the church to justify a critical appraisal and seriously and creatively consider other options that might be better. 

As we consider our current needs and future options we have found the book Transforming Theological Education by Perry Shaw (6) to be of invaluable help. In this book, Perry makes a compelling argument that, especially in our current society, we should reconsider the training model for pastors.  His conclusion is that if we reexamine that question that was posed five-hundred years ago, we would probably model our training to more closely mirror the training of physicians. This would lead to much greater effectiveness of training pastors for ministry.  Perry goes into great detail about the designing of the high-level curriculum in this model and also how to teach individual courses. He uses his work with the Arabic Baptist Theological Seminary as a case study throughout the book. It should be noted that he has also consulted with many other seminaries throughout the world including PARS Theological Center for which many in ECO have found admiration and affinity.  

Since the early summer of 2021 Perry has been consulting with us to create Flourish Institute: Graduate School of Ministry. He is helping us develop not just another seminary among many in the United States. Instead he is helping us develop a new kind of seminary that does the following:

  • Maintains a robust, high expectation of theological and biblical education while intentionally integrating them with the ministry and mission of the church in the context of our culture
  • Trains students to synthesize a variety of disciplines as they approach complex case studies bringing the depths of Scripture and faith to the deepest needs of life
  • Ensures students implement their learning into real life ministry contexts through both the classroom and a robust mentoring element that works to join theory to real ministry in the church
  • Creates a long-lasting community that lavishly encourages with a high degree of love, challenge, vision, support, and guidance
  • Cultivates spiritual growth and reflection to ensure that students have the spiritual depth and maturity required of church leaders. 
  • Trains lay and vocational leaders that may be prepared to start new churches and strengthen existing ones.

The fundamental difference in this approach is the rigorous integration of theology and biblical truth with the real ministry of the church in order to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the most profound needs of the world. We are intentionally rejecting a “siloed” understanding of material in which knowledge is obtained but very little emphasis is spent upon application or how one course and its ideas are connected to another.  In this model theory and practice, truth and life, human questions and divine answers are continually forced to entwine. 

To do this Flourish Institute’s approach will be based more on the model of medical school than a European university. Think about the training of the doctor.  Medical students begin by spending significant and rigorous time in classroom study. This lays the foundational work but is only the start of learning. From this, students will spend more than half of their training in rotations, internships, and residences where this foundational classroom work is synthesized and integrated into real life medicine in real life settings. 

Our plan is similar where students begin by taking of their units in foundational courses which do more than educate, but require the student to engage in practical application, integrating the biblical and theological truths they have learned with real life settings and ministry. Another of the units are obtained through courses that require the students to continue to learn in the core areas and synthesize across those disciplines to focus on case studies. The final of the units are obtained through ministry in their local context that is done through the oversight of a local church mentor and the Director of Mentored Ministry in Flourish Institute.  

Let’s take a deeper look at the medical school model to describe the uniqueness of our approach. Consider two people wanting to give their lives to the treatment of cancer. One enrolls in university to pursue a research degree in oncology. Her plan is to work in a lab, develop treatments, and bring health to people by producing treatments for this disease. The other however enters medical school to earn a M.D. degree with a specialty in treating cancer. His plan is to work in a medical practice, administer treatments, and bring health to people through personal care. Both are vitally important. Both are needed. Both are legitimate. Both share a need for deep education on biology, anatomy, cell structure, the human body, cancer pathologies, etc. Both are deeply informed and highly educated. Both engage in many of the same classes and address the same theories and realities. Both seek to bring good to people through what they learn and how it is applied. 

But for all the similarities, there is a profound practical difference between them. One works in a lab largely separated from patients. The other works in a medical practice immersed in patient care. The one works more in the realm of theory, the other in the realm of human need at its most critical and complex. 

The Flourish Institute is a graduate school training people to enter the “practice” of church ministry. We intend to prepare students to bring the deepest truths of the Scriptures and our Reformed faith to the most complex questions and most profound needs of our culture and world. Our plans, prayers and labour combine in the hope of producing a completely different kind of seminary. While we are eighteen months in, it remains a work in progress. But the progress (and support) thus far has been tremendous and encouraging. We look forward to sharing more with you and to partner with you as we create a school of ministry in, with, and for the church of today.  

Have questions about Flourish Institute? Check our frequently asked questions here. 

https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1994/october24/4tc074.html The full article requires a subscription for access. )
(2) Statistics from ATS records reported in Juicy Ecumenism: The Institute of Religion and Democracy Bloghttps://juicyecumenism.com/2016/08/01/americas-largest-seminaries/)
(3) Leonard Sweet, The Decline and Fall of Seminaries, in Rings of Fire: Walking in Faith through a Volcanic Future (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2019), p. 185. This book is well worth reading in its entirety but to read the chapter on seminaries it may be found here: https://pastorresources.com/the-decline-and-fall-of-seminaries/)
(4) Sweet, p. 186.
(5)This will be looked at more closely in future paper.
(6)We highly recommend this book and it may be found here)
(7) (With some important distinctions. This will be addressed more in depth in a future paper.)