An interview with Dr. John Johnson
The Master of Divinity (M.Div.) has long been perceived as the gold standard of formal training for ministry. But an increasing number question its necessity for contemporary ministry. The commitment of time and demand of resources has made it less popular. Other degree programs with less requirements have become more attractive. There is also a growing assumption that future pastors can learn on the job. Who needs formal theological training if you have natural leadership and communication skills?
We put this and other questions to Western’s Master of Divinity program director, Dr. John E. Johnson, an associate professor who has taught at Western for seventeen years, and recently retired from church ministry after 32 years as a lead pastor.
Transformed: Why does the church need pastors who are formally trained? Share with us from your experience.
JJ: Before I came to seminary, I led a campus ministry in San Diego. I was not convinced I needed formal theological training until a particular Tuesday night. I had just finished a Bible study with a large group of high school students, and my associate gave me this feedback—“You really blessed the kids tonight—but your interpretation of Scripture was weird.” It was then I realized I was dangerous. I needed training. I needed seminary.
I entered the M.Div. program at Western, but I had no real interest in being a pastor. In fact, I told everyone that becoming a pastor was my last objective. I simply wanted to get a basic foundation in order to carry out future ministry. Ironically, by the end of my M.Div., the only thing I wanted to be was a pastor. I also realized that pursuing more training would better equip me, so I went on to complete a Th.M. at Western and a Th.D. at Dallas Theological Seminary. I’ve looked back at each step as being critical to my pastoral formation.
Transformed: Is there historical precedent for this idea that pastors ought to also be theologians?
JJ: In recent years, I have invested more time in reading pastoral theologians. It’s important to recognize that throughout early church history, pastors have also been theologians. If you asked church leaders like Chrysostom, Gregory, or Baxter–“Are you are pastor or are you a theologian?”—the question would have made no sense (sort of like “Do you wear a shirt or pants?’). From their perspective, a person wouldn’t be a pastor without being a theologian, and vice versa.
Unfortunately, for most of the twentieth century, pastoral studies got off the rails. Ministry was informed by sociologists and psychologists. Pastors were trained to be therapists, care givers. In more recent years, corporate leadership has had a significant impact on what pastors do. Pastors have become confused as to their pastoral identity. Thankfully, there has been a renewed emphasis on the need for pastors to return to their original identity as theologians. Writers like Thomas Oden, Eugene Peterson, and Andrew Purves have made a significant impact, along with Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan and movements like the Center for Pastor Theologians.
Transformed: What would you say to someone considering whether or not an M.Div. is worth it?
JJ: There are some today who think, “I have got good people skills, leadership skills, and a basic understanding of Scripture. I don’t really need a seminary education.” At the risk of sounding like some academic elitist, I do not believe this serves the church well. The church deserves leaders who are carefully trained. The age we live in demands pastors who have been taught to think deeply.
If pastors are physicians of the soul (and we are), then our work, in one sense, is far more critical than that of medical doctors. And yet, we expect physicians of the body to be highly instructed, having gone through the rigors of medical school and residency. Why do we expect less of pastors?
Early pastoral theologians, like Gregory and Chrysostom, understood the magnitude of soul care, and it unnerved them. They realized that pastors are dealing with eternal realities and will one day have to give an account to God (Hebrews 13:17). So, they ran from the responsibility and had to be tracked down. What would they say today to those who are less sober in their approach and preparation?
Transformed: So then, in light of the magnitude of pastoral ministry, where does Western’s M.Div. program fit in?
JJ: We are committed to a degree that is substantive. We have pared down our M.Div. degree to be more lean and efficient, but we haven’t cut out the essentials. In addition, we have added more options to complete the degree, including online courses, intensive courses, and offerings on multiple sites.
Transformed: What are the benefits of going through a full-fledged degree program like the M.Div., as opposed to seeking to acquire ministry competencies in a less formal way?
JJ: There is a difference between something that has been cobbled together, and something that is built out of careful design. Our M.Div. has an ordered sequence, each part building on the next. We believe students should complement their education with practical experience in the field, and we see a future where education will be even more contextually based. However, we also believe there is no substitute for formal training under trained pastoral theologians. Only then will ministry be approached in a more holistic way. Tomorrow’s pastors need the skill sets to capably preach, lead, and extend pastoral care, while having a theological mindset and a spiritual heart. The body of Christ deserves nothing less.
Transformed: How does the depth of theological training that takes place in an M.Div. program impact the practice of pastoral ministry?
JJ: Those who do not have a well-established theological foundation will be driven by trends. Without theological reflection, ministry will be reduced to something utilitarian—to what works. Pastors will fall prey to meeting parishioner’s expectations—to be their therapist, the church’s CEO, etc. If you don’t have the theological skills to determine your identity, you can get off track real fast.
Transformed: Talk a bit about the significance of the M.Div. program for preaching.
JJ: Without going to seminary you can learn how to communicate, how to speak, and, to a certain degree, how to preach. You can look at techniques, how to use your voice and gestures and tone and body movements – and you can be a good storyteller. But, the real question for those of us in ministry is this–can we faithfully declare what Scripture is saying? And biblical, faithful-to-the-text preaching, requires trained skills, those an M.Div. degree is designed to develop.
When I was in pastoral ministry, I probably averaged 22 to 25 hours a week to prepare a message. The exegetical and theological and cultural work demanded this. Without the skills I received at Western, I would have been far more prone to read in rather than read out. I would have been unable to critically read a commentary, and I would have been much more swayed by what the people wanted me to say.
Transformed: How can the contemporary church move beyond mediocrity?
JJ: In part, by preparing leaders who are godly, highly-trained, and deeply skilled. My fear is that all too many students (and churches) are looking for short cuts, for what is convenient, and for that which is cheap. What we need are churches that will realize that the hope of the world is the church, and the hope of the church is its leaders. There is no greater investment. We need a next generation that will buck the trend and demand nothing less than excellent training, the kind that requires sacrifice. Imagine a day the M.Div. is only the starting point to ongoing pastoral preparation. Imagine evangelicals gaining a reputation as those who have depth.