Matthew Ebenezer Discusses An Apprenticeship Approach in Training Candidates for the Ministry

Matthew Ebenezer Discusses An Apprenticeship Approach in Training Candidates for the Ministry

Theological training is becoming more impersonal than ever before.  We can submit applications to institutions online and once enrolled we can submit our assignments online.  Online theological courses offer immense scope to those seeking to upgrade their education. 

One can complete a course online and graduate from a school, sometimes without actually ever seeing the campus.  During a recent visit to Washington DC I experienced another version of this phenomenon at a Metro Station.  I looked in vain for a counter to buy tickets until a kind-hearted supervisor helped me buy a ticket from one of the automated ticket machines. 

In chapter 16 of the book “How {and Why} To Be Missional and Reformed” (New Growth Press, eVersion, release date Fall 2013, edited by Samuel T. Logan Jr.) entitled “Missional Theological Education: 21st Century Challenges,” I have argued for relational learning in seminaries over learning that is individualistic.  By relational learning I mean any activity or teaching that is tangible not abstract, personal not impersonal, practical rather than merely theoretical.  This can include teacher and students together exploring and experiencing mission awareness; the opportunity and willingness to pray and play together; and a teacher’s listening ear to personal and ministry concerns of students.  Such activities probably have the greatest potential for spiritual nurture and holistic growth.   Nothing can substitute a personal approach – a type of “apprentice approach” - where students witness a ‘live demonstration’ of what it means to be a Christian minister.  My contention is that while demanding a high level of academic accountability, the teacher should model Christian character and commitment.    

The involvement of the teacher in the life of the student in theological education is imperative.  The gospels and Acts provide us with insights into the disciples and their relationship with Jesus.  Just to name two, in John 1:38-39 we read that Jesus invited two of His disciples to come and see where He was staying and also that they stayed with Him that evening.  From other references we also know that the Twelve actually had almost a regular one-on-one training.  It impacted them significantly (Acts 4:13).  Similarly, the Pastoral Epistles give us several indications to show that Paul dealt with his young colleagues Timothy and Titus with a fatherly affection.     

Early American Presbyterianism was blessed by several apprentice type training approaches. For example, William Tennent Sr.’s Log College (1727-1742), trained Tennent’s four sons as well as others.  During this period in other parts of the colonies too there were reputed pastors whose houses became centres of theological and biblical learning.  David B. Calhoun, referring to training around the same time, notes that while some students pursued divinity studies privately; others remained in the institutions where they had studied (Harvard and Yale).  He further notes, “Most students, however, received their training by living and studying with an experienced pastor . . . .”  He goes on to say that Jonathan Edwards’ was one such pastor and then comments, “Some pastors became noted as teachers and directed the study and training of several young men at the same time in what came to be called ‘schools of the prophets’” (Princeton Seminary, Faith and Learning 1812-1868, Banner of Truth Trust, 1994, 3-5).  It is therefore no wonder that this period in early Presbyterianism in America produced some remarkable signs of growth and revival.   

I am not suggesting that we abandon our seminary curriculums, but that we change our approach to theological training to include more relational aspects of instruction.   


Matthew Ebenezer, Ph.D. (Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia),  is an Adjunct Professor of Church History and Practical Theology at New Theological College and Presbyterian Theological Seminary, both located in Dehra Dun, India.  He may be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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