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Does college pass the test?

16 November 2012

How does studying theology prepare students for work, life, and ministry? Steve Tomkins asked graduates from Bible and theological colleges in the UK to explain


Rooms with a view: the main Redcliffe College building, in Gloucester

Rooms with a view: the main Redcliffe College building, in Gloucester

The Revd Fiona Gibson was an ordinand at Oak Hill College, in north London

I WENT to Oak Hill after being challenged to think about ordination. There was a real richness about my time there: I had time to reflect, think, pray, be trained, and be challenged.

The thing that has stood me in good stead most from my studies is that we were taught -and shown -that our own walk with God must be central to our life, and that our ministry is an overflow from that.

For me, that has been a guiding principle in parish ministry. There is always so much to do that it could be easy to neglect your own relationship with God, but we were taught above all to be prayerful, faithful, and flexible.

The lectures were amazing, but it was also about living with people in community: meeting for worship every morning in chapel, which sets the tone for the day; and praying, eating, and studying together.

Oak Hill was also good at teaching us to break things down and to put them together again; to think clearly using a synthesis of ideas from different disciplines. Whatever conversation I'm having in parish ministry, very rarely is it a case of "This is a doctrine question," or "This a biblical-studies question"; so teaching me to think like that has been really helpful.


The Revd Nat Reuss studied Theology for Ministry at St John's College, Nottingham

IT WAS while I was on a two-day drive home from university, in Australia, that I felt the call to ministry. I booked a one-way ticket to England, and enrolled at St John's. The most important thing I have taken into curacy came towards the end of my studies: I learned the great lesson that the Christian faith needs to be embodied. Are we embodying what Jesus calls us to live?

I discovered a real heart for theology, especially weighing up the Sermon on the Mount, and trying to take Jesus's teachings seriously - but not quite seeing that in current church practices.

I had some issues about serving in the Church of England, but the tutors helped me through these questions, and I also discovered some of the theologians engaging with these issues. That informs the work I do now, in my spare time, with the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship.

In academic study, I found that it was easy to fall into the trap of weighing up my level of achievement. But the most valuable lesson St John's taught me was the ability to embrace all people, regardless of ethnicity, background, or view-point.

You're assessed on how you lead services and preach, but the main thing is what people's experience of meeting you is like. Whether I'm taking baptisms, or meeting people on the street or in the pub, the big question is: am I being a faithful witness to Jesus? That is the most important thing I have taken away from my studies, and the main thing I'm working on.


Nathan Loxley studied theology at Cliff College, Derbyshire

I WENT to Cliff College because I wanted to invest in something that would change my life, and, after graduation, change other people's. I had a sense of calling, but it was for a life of ministry, not for Bible college. It was a big culture shock, living in the middle of nowhere, constantly examining myself, and experiencing such spiritual discipline, but the support I got was great.

Now I'm the Central South Divisional Youth Officer for the Salvation Army. College has prepared me for that, because you get some challenging questions, and it is nice to be able to give people some different perspectives - and to admit that you don't always know conclusively, either. On the other hand, I've found that people are not as desperate for the kind of theological debates that we had at col-lege.

While some of the theory is not often referred to, the practices of growing in my own spiritual faith have been crucial. I am dealing with people who are often burnt out, and being able to encourage them has been a real gift.



Jenny and Denham Howard studied Applied Theology at Moorlands College, Christchurch, Dorset

Jenny: I thought going to Bible college would be like being in heaven, with all Christians together; but within two weeks I was a wreck. The study was a shock, but it was the training, the getting out and doing it, that proved to be challenging.

It has been helpful in what we are doing now, however. Moorlands taught me to get out of my comfort zones, and push myself.

While we were there, God gave us a vision for theLifeCentre bridging church and community, with a gym, a coffee shop, a food bank, and crisis housing. The doors opened for church-planting with the Vineyard network, and we ran gathering events in Portsmouth while we were still finishing our dissertations.

I also learned what my theological view was, and what its biblical basis is. That has been key for the work that we are doing, because people challenge you, and you need to have some kind of thought-out re- sponse.

Denham: I studied for my MA part-time while working and being involved with a number of businesses. Apart from gaining a deeper theological understanding, at Moorlands we looked at secular leadership-theories critically, from a Christian perspective, and that has been really helpful, both for running the businesses and for work in the Church.

In May this year, as a step towards the LifeCentre vision, we started to rent premises to operate as a day centre, with a training kitchen connected to the church, called the LifeHouse. It is for people who are homeless and in addiction, so that we can feed them and encourage them to cook.



Luke Maxted studied theology at the London School of Theology, and is currently doing a part-time MTh

I HAD no clear goal when I started at LST, except that I didn't want to work for a Church, because of some bad experiences I'd had. I looked into corporate social responsibility, and I also considered teaching: I was looking for a way of furthering the Kingdom without working for the Church.

As it turns out, I have just had my induction service as associate pastor for Willesden Baptist Church.

Of course, it was a great preparation for that ministry, to study the Bible alongside people who know it, and it opened my eyes in ways I could never have imagined. Spending time in depth with the text has really helped with preaching and teaching.

What has really made the difference to what I am doing, from my time at LST, was the experience of community. Nothing has prepared me for being a pastor like functioning in a community where people needed pastoral support, and were showing love for one another.

I wouldn't be able to count the hours the faculty gave me to talk through how things were going. And the student body took care of one another. People who were struggling were never left to feel helpless, and it has really helped me with my drive to help others.


The Revd Andy Grant was an ordinand at Cranmer Hall, Durham

I HAD been in the army for 11 years when I experienced a calling to the priesthood in the Anglican Church, in 1999. It was a long process, and involved finishing my career in the army. I went to Cranmer in 2009.

Cranmer would class itself as an Evangelical college, but we had a broad spectrum of students: Anglo-Catholic, Charismatic, Evangelical, and liberal. Subsequently, I have been able to draw on goodness from various streams.

There were anxious moments, doing funerals and weddings for the first time, but the grounding from Cranmer had given me the confidence to put on a dog collar and get on with the job, grounded in theo-logy.

The preparation on death and dying - particularly in terms of being there, listening, and empathising through the Christian lens - has helped enormously in conducting funerals in the parish, particularly in ways of doing things differently at times, and in bringing some semblance of God's hope into a dark time for people.

The preaching modules, which promoted a variety of ways of preaching, and catered for the different ways of learning and listening styles that people have, have also had a big impact. So has experiencing the variety of worship styles and traditions that we were given the freedom to experiment with. It gave us the confidence to be creative.

This parish is traditionally Catholic, but there seems to be a greater Evangelical presence in the church now; so we're looking at that. There are certain things that I can pull from Cranmer - things we tried, and principles - that we can apply in this context.


Amanda Maurer studied at Capernwray Bible School, in Lancashire

WHEN I came from South Dakota for the course at Capernwray, I wasn't looking to go into ministry: I just wanted to deepen my relationship with God, and grow in my knowledge of the Bible.

The first term focused on the Bible; the second was more about how it applied to your life and your personal growth. It stretched me and grew me. And it was eye-opening being with believers from all over the world.

After I finished, I went home, and was planning to get a job, but I was asked to come back and be on the staff for a year as assistant to the housekeeper - a behind-the-scenes, do-everything kind of job.

I learned things about myself at the school which I'm taking with me into whatever I do next, about what I'm good at, and not so good at. For example, I got many opportunities to lead worship, and that has become a passion. I'm still doing it now, and I'll continue when I go home.

Being here, living in a community of Christians, isn't real life, though. Following God is normal here, but, when you go home, it's different. It's hard enough to apply what I learnt while I'm working at the school; it's going to be even harder when I'm finished. It will be a big adjustment.



Andy and Andrea Warner studied Professionals in Mission at Redcliffe College, in Gloucester

Andrea: We spent a year at Redcliffe before going to Spain with European Christian Mission. Not having a theology background, I picked some of the modules that the degree students were doing. Other parts were very practical.

We had lectures on how to help your children, and what to expect of those growing up in two cultures. That has been particularly helpful, for our two children, Jacob and Alicia, who sometimes look back on England with rose-coloured spectacles.

Andy: The most challenging thing for me wasn't the academic studies, but the small-team activities, such as making a paper bridge together. There were 80 students from 25, maybe 30 countries, so language was a barrier.

We've been in Spain for a year, learning the language and assimilating the culture, and our college experience has proved useful for our team meetings: they involve families from different countries, so there can be mis-communications.

Our studies also prepared us for being in a foreign culture: the honeymoon period, then the reality that you can't go home and can't communicate, and then the curve changes as you get used to it.





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