Pastoral Education

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Before 1900 the training of Mennonite church leaders was mainly informal in North America and Europe, although a Mennonite theological seminary existed in Amsterdam as early as 1735. With the exception of the Dutch Mennonites there was no Mennonite theological seminary in Europe or the Soviet Union in 1988.

In North America Bible schools, Bible institutes, colleges and seminaries have been established for the training of ministers particularly among the General Conference Mennonite Church, Mennonite Brethren, and the Mennonite Church (MC) denominations.

Among the North German and Dutch stream of Mennonites a high priority was placed on trained church leaders. The first North American school among the General Conference Mennonite Church to train young men for Christian work, Wadsworth Mennonite School, operated from 1868 to 1878 in Wadsworth, Ohio. Witmarsum Theological Seminary (1921-31) was another early venture which eventually closed its doors. In the 1990s the General Conference Mennonite Church operated one seminary (Associated Mennonite Biblical) in Elkhart, Indiana. The Mennonite Brethren Church operated Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, California.

Among Mennonites from the Swiss and South German stream, the Elkhart Institute, forerunner of Goshen College, was established by Mennonite Church (MC) leaders in 1894 to provide "higher education for our young people." There was no explicit reference to the training of church leaders although the result was that some of these students became leaders in the denomination. As with the other Mennonite groups the Mennonite church has experienced the rapid development of educational institutions for the training of pastoral leaders. In 1988 there were two Mennonite Church seminaries. Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS), Elkhart, Indiana, which they operated together with the General Conference Mennonite Church. Eastern Mennonite Seminary (EMS) is located at Harrisonburg, Virgnia. Amish Mennonites were slower to accept educated leaders and maintained the uneducated lay ministry as the norm. In the 1990s most Amish and conservative Mennonite groups avoided higher education although Bible schools were emerging in some sectors.

The Brethren in Christ have not developed their own seminary-level schools. Messiah College is the major institution providing undergraduate training for the church's ministry. Until the 20th century, ministerial training was informal. It consisted of the heritage one derived from prolonged association with the church and the personal efforts one exerted to improve his knowledge of the Bible, after being chosen by the congregation for ministry among them. Key elements of this informal training were observation of the more experienced ministers and insight gained from one's own involvements in ministry.

As college training gained acceptability among Brethren in Christ, formal training became a significant part of the education for pastoral ministry. In 1988 64 credits of post-secondary courses in Bible and related subjects were required of those seeking ordination. Included in these credits were four required courses in Brethren in Christ history, doctrine (2), and polity. The educational requirements for ordination would be fulfilled through correspondence courses (administered by the denomination's Board for Ministry and Doctrine) or through study at a Bible college, Christian liberal arts college (preferably Messiah College), or seminary. Since younger candidates frequently desire a seminary education, the denomination has made available scholarship aid to assist them, and has recommended their study at schools within the Anabaptist, Wesleyan, or Pietist heritage. Ministers transferring into the church from another denomination were required to meet the same standards noted above for ministerial credentials, including the mandatory Brethren in Christ courses.

The larger Mennonite groups in North America have followed mainline Protestant churches in opting for a professionally trained ministry with the three-year Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree as the primary professional degree. The Bachelor of Theology degree, a forerunner of the MDT degree, continues to be the primary pastoral training degree for various Bible colleges particularly in Canada.

Pastoral education in Canada took a specific shape reflecting the needs of various Mennonite groups. In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s Bible colleges, Bible institutes, and Bible schools offered leadership education for most Mennonite denominations. In Winnipeg Mennonite Brethren Bible College (now Concord College, 1944) and Canadian Mennonite Bible College (Conference of Mennonites in Canada [GCM], 1947) emerged in response to growing educational expectations. These schools, alongside the Bible colleges developed more recently, e.g., Columbia Bible College (an institution in Abbotsford, British Columbia supported by the provincial Mennonite Brethren conference and Mennonite Church BC) and Steinbach Bible College (Evangelical Mennonite Conference and Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference; Steinbach, Manitoba) provide basic training for ministry at the baccalaureate level (BTh). As Mennonites have moved to a more professional view of ministry, educational expectations, have risen as well. In 1988 educational patterns remain mixed in the smaller Mennonite groups, where many leaders serve with the basic BTh degree or less.

Regent College (Vancouver) and a variety of nondenominational Bible colleges have become attractive options to an increasing number of Mennonites preparing for service as pastoral leaders. Conrad Grebel University College (Mennonite Church Eastern Canada; Waterloo, Ontario, Canada) developed a Master of Theological Studies program in 1987 to offer a graduate academic degree for lay people interested in the study of Christianity and the mission of the Christian church in the world.

The continuing recognition of lay ministry as a viable model particularly in segments of the Mennonite Church (MC) has necessitated the development of in-service training programs. The mentor-trainee teaching model has spawned Paul-Timothy programs which combine reading and reflection with the experience of ministry. The Conference Based Theological Education program initiated by AMBS and EMS is another response to district conference interest in training leaders on location. These programs have not only been designed to train lay leaders as well as providing continuing education for those leaders with previous training but some conferences have also designed programs with academic courses leading to the basic MDiv degree. Students can take up to two years of credit in this manner and finish their final year at one of the Mennonite seminaries.

No other movement has affected pastoral training as significantly as has clinical pastoral education (CPE). Using the ministry context as a learning base this movement has incorporated the teaching elements of experience, reflection, supervision, case studies, peer support groups, action-reflection research papers, and relevant literature to provide another model to educate pastors. Seminaries have recognized the value of this form of education and have adjusted their programs in order to incorporate CPE into the curriculum. CPE has had a strong institutional bias in that training usually occurs in hospitals and prisons. Some efforts have been made to offer this training in congregational settings as well. Training for urban ministries and for ministry to socially disadvantaged groups has followed similar models of action-reflection learning.

Theological education by extension is another form of decentralized pastoral education more common in Central and South America. Church educators in North America are exploring the possibilities of training pastoral leaders in this way particularly for those people coming from other cultures or for those people who live in areas isolated from educational institutions or without high concentrations of Mennonite churches. Hesston College has developed (1980) the Pastoral Studies Independent Learning program as one response to this educational need.

The various Mennonite groups continue to struggle with the tension between the professional ministry and the ministry of the whole people of God. A common view is that all Christians participate in sharing the good news of the gospel and their ministries are varied both in the gathered community of faith and in the world. Leadership ministries are exercised by pastoral leaders who are called by God and the congregation to "shepherd the flock." Pastoral education focuses on the training of these leaders primarily for ministry in congregations although graduates serve as chaplains in institutions or in other church leadership roles, e.g., conference ministers.

With the professionalization of ministry has come a series of polity and procedural questions. Such issues as determining the length of tenure, calling and dismissal, leadership evaluations, rights and privileges, and ministerial ethics are some of the more crucial matters faced by those who oversee pastors as well as by congregations and pastors themselves. Mennonite groups have given increasing attention to the development of guidelines and standards both for those who serve and for congregations who employ pastoral leaders.

Since the 1950s major attention has been given to the nature of pastoral education in the believers church tradition. The publication of The People of God by Ross T. Bender (1971) is one major attempt at outlining a theology of the church and spelling out implications for training leaders. Two other efforts at interpretation are reflected in the Mennonite (MC) Board of Education's document "Pastoral education in the Mennonite Church" (1987), and Paul Zehr's doctoral project "The development of a curriculum guide for Mennonite conference-based education" (1987).

Pastoral education can be viewed as a combination of training elements and modalities. It embodies elements of theological education, professional training, spiritual formation and an emphasis on personal development. Modeled after the theological schools of Europe, American seminaries often emphasize the cognitive dimensions of learning, namely the acquisition of a relevant body of knowledge, the ability to think critically, and the development of an understanding of Scripture. Professional education has focused on the development of skills needed in the practice of ministry -- healthy interpersonal relationships and leadership skills (e.g., problem solving and conflict management). In recent years there has been a renewed interest in developing a disciplined and systematic pattern of spiritual growth. Attention to personal growth and a healthy personal and pastoral identity are increasingly seen as necessary for effective ministry in the church. The four training elements receive varying degrees of attention in Mennonite seminaries. There are major attempts at incorporating all four elements into the seminary training experience. It is also clear that there needs to be collaboration with related program and community resources (e.g., CPE, congregations) in order to meet the broader goals in the training of pastoral leaders.

Pastoral education is viewed as a life-long experience, For an increasing number of leaders basic training for ministry includes the acquisition of a professional degree i.e., Master of Divinity. For others it will mean a comparable level of training and experience with some in-service education. Given the demands on the pastoral leader continuing education is assumed as a norm. The growing and effective leader will want to upgrade knowledge and work at improving professional competence. In order to nurture the spiritual and personal dimensions of one's person the pastoral leader will be involved in enrichment experiences in an ongoing way.

The models and expectations related to the training for ministry continue to change. The Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches continue to wrestle with the varied and sometimes divergent needs and expectations of its constituent congregations. It is clear from current experience that pastoral education will continue to be both diversified in terms of models and dispersed geographically beyond the boundaries of the established training institutions.


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Additional Information

Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary

Association for Clinical Pastoral Education

Canadian Mennonite University

Columbia Bible College

Conrad Grebel University College

Eastern Mennonite Seminary

Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary

Messiah College

Steinbach Bible College

Regent College

Author(s) Ralph Lebold
Luke Keefer, Jr
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Lebold, Ralph and Luke Keefer, Jr. "Pastoral Education." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 15 May 2021.

APA style

Lebold, Ralph and Luke Keefer, Jr. (1989). Pastoral Education. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 15 May 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 676-678. All rights reserved.

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