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I Understand
Volume 7.1 / Incarnational Pastoral Training in the Majority World: An Interview with Dr. Paul House, Author of "Bonhoeffer's Seminary Vision"


Incarnational Pastoral Training in the Majority World: An Interview with Dr. Paul House, Author of "Bonhoeffer's Seminary Vision"

Paul House and Joost Nixon

1.    Introduction

When her leaders lack basic training in Bible, theology, and pastoral ministry, the church is vulnerable. The need for pastoral training is urgent, especially in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where the church is growing fastest. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon Conwell Seminary estimates that only 5% of pastors worldwide have any formal theological training.[1] If this estimate is correct, this is a staggering figure. In the face of such need, institutions can be overwhelmed by the temptation to be pragmatic and “industrialize” pastoral training.

Can the church provide rich, incarnational pastoral training when facing obstacles like war, hostile governments, disease, doctrinal compromise, and poverty? Paul House highlights one particularly relevant example in his book, Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision. In it, we see Bonhoeffer struggling against many of these challenges in World War II Nazi Germany.  I asked Dr. House some questions about Bonhoeffer, and how some of his principles of pastoral training would apply to training contexts outside of the West.

2.    Interview Questions

Paul, your book seems so relevant to the task of theological education today, and particularly to the different challenges we face in both the West and the East. What is “Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision”? 

Bonhoeffer’s seminary vision is a comprehensive approach to finding, shaping, resourcing, and supporting ministers for the renewal and advancement of Christ’s church. It is anchored in Christology (the study of Christ), especially the incarnation and the cross. It reflects a high view of Scripture. It assumed a hostile environment and significant challenges for Bonhoeffer and the 181 students he had in ten sessions from 1935 to 1940.

Bonhoeffer considered seminary work a sacred trust from God for the sake of his people and the world. Since Jesus did this same work with disciples and apostles, Bonhoeffer took Jesus as his model. Like Jesus, Bonhoeffer sought to shape servants of God, his word, and his people who would follow Jesus to the cross as his body on earth. To him, ministry was a vocation, a calling, not a profession.

Following Jesus and the Bible, Bonhoeffer believed this work needed to be done in person, in community, in a family relationship, with shared resources. He thought this work should shape new ministers through practiced habits of worship, learning, rest, service of one another, hospitality, practice of ministry, preparation for ordination, and ongoing support. This approach was flexible enough to fit a city or rural context.

Bonhoeffer did not do this ministry alone. He worked with other seminary directors and those responsible for their support. He always had an associate director to help with teaching, practice of ministry, and administration. For two years he also had former students helping.

Bonhoeffer thought seminarians should support one another after graduation. They should read a common Bible text and intercede for one another daily. They should also visit one another so that no one would be alone. Ideally, they would gather for retreats periodically.

You write that Bonhoeffer advocated for the “church-monastic” model of pastoral training. We might ask, “as opposed to what?”  What was pastoral training like in 1930s’ Nazi Germany?

I meant as opposed to the majority of our American models, which are data-driven, convenience-oriented, market-produced, consumption-based imitations of commuter colleges and massive universities. As opposed to the model of open enrollment and churches hiring independent contractors who have finished professional credentialing. As opposed to a disconnected curriculum and a disconnected student body and faculty. As opposed to churches and seminaries not working together.

In Bonhoeffer’s time, the major German Protestant groups required four years of theological study at university, a successful first written examination, a year of ministry internship, a semester of seminary intended to connect theology and ministry, and a successful second written examination before ordination. Seminary was most often done in a community. Churches paid seminarians’ expenses. Bonhoeffer took the community aspect more seriously than most seminary directors, but the model was already in place.

The “monastic” model expects a serious process of discerning a call, serious theological and practical training, and living in community with other prospective ministers. It expects serious churches to provide serious financial and prayer support for students.

You said Bonhoeffer’s philosophy of pastoral training was “anchored in Christology (the doctrine of Christ), especially the incarnation and the cross.” Could you elaborate on why a robust Christology, and especially incarnation and the cross, are so critical to ground the work of pastoral formation?

I am willing to be corrected, but I sense that Bonhoeffer based his theology and practice of ministry on the incarnation. God came to be with us. He took on humanity, not just flesh. He lived, taught, died, resurrected, and ascended to heaven. He chose and prepared people to be his disciples, his successors, as his body on earth. Those who preach, preach his words. Those who visit homes, bring his presence.

Bonhoeffer’s best-known book was never titled The Cost of Discipleship in his lifetime. As best I can tell, that title came from a good marketing decision in an English edition. The original title was Nachfolge, which can mean “discipleship” or “succession” in German. Christ’s disciples are his successors on earth. This means that ministers are not training for a profession. They are preparing to continue the great line of Christ’s body on earth. While the same is true of all Christians, the minister has an even greater responsibility.

Ministers share Christ’s words, Christ’s comfort, and Christ’s cross. They give themselves for others. As Bonhoeffer wrote in August 1944, the church is not the church unless it is there for others. Bonhoeffer expected that he and his students were likely to suffer. They thought this was part of following Jesus on the way of the cross, which is also the way to joy.

It seems institutions of higher education like to use the words “incarnational” and “community” in their recruiting literature. But true incarnational training does not seem possible without paying a personal price. If I remember correctly, Bonhoeffer left the relative safety of a pastoral ministry outside of Nazi Germany to be present with his students, share their danger, and prepare them for what they might face: being drafted as a soldier, ministry amidst war, possible harassment, and persecution. Even the possibility of being unemployable. What costs can those involved in incarnational pastoral formation expect to pay today, personally?

You are right to be wary of US marketing ploys that use good old words and re-define them beyond recognition. For example, I know of one seminary that advertised itself as “personal” because a human being answered the phone when prospective or current online students called with a question. I am not joking.

Bonhoeffer came from abroad to seminary work twice, once in April 1935 and once in August 1939. He left a solid pastorate in London to begin a seminary in 1935. He gave up a higher salary for a lower one, a big house for a room among students, and a generally settled life for one with a lot of upheaval. At the time, he had hopes that the Confessing Church congregations and hierarchy would support the young theologians. Face-to-face educators in many places will have to make similar sacrifices. Many of us in the West have no idea what it costs our family members in other lands to serve as they do. Bonhoeffer knew.

In 1939, he came back from the United States and from England. He could have stayed in either place. His twin sister and her family had already resettled in England, and he had many friends there. Instead, he rejoined the students and his fellow seminary instructors, Eberhard Bethge and Fritz Onnasch in Pomerania. By this time he had few illusions about the situation. The students had very few options for paid ministry positions if they did not accept ordination through the state-approved committees. He knew that war was imminent and that most students would be drafted. He did not know what his own situation would be. He knew he was risking imprisonment to go back to seminary work, and he knew that he was risking his life if he refused military service or accepted it. His students faced the same realities. I suspect faculty members in similar environments recognize Bonhoeffer’s situation.

What inspired you to write Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision? What does the church need from Bonhoeffer today? 

I wanted to think about seminary education as I have known it and hope to know it. Also, Bonhoeffer spent more time as a seminary director than in any other role. Most biographies do not spend much time on this aspect of his life. The material on his work during 1937-40 is particularly scanty. These were his rural and smalltown years. I wanted to learn more about them. As I understood Bonhoeffer’s incarnational principle better, I found it necessary to stress the incarnation in all areas of life, including education. Finally, online classes and degrees were becoming prevalent and I did not think a disembodied education fit God’s word. Many Christian colleges and seminaries seem to accept the secular culture’s approach to education rather than seeking a biblical-theological foundation.

Online education was created, at least in part, to solve real problems of access. Students could not get to the school for classes and keep their job, or their family farm, or because they do not want to abandon their church. Without being crass, depending on the form of online education, it can also be quite lucrative--certainly in the West. But even at our most well-meaning, as we solve for the problem of access by employing online “delivery methods,” there are inevitably unintended consequences.

Here is a thought experiment:  It’s 50 years from now and the vast majority of pastors have been trained through distance, either online or through other forms of distance education without close, in-person access to their professors. What kind of shepherds might we expect this style of pastoral formation to produce—all other things being equal—and how might this impact the health of the church? 

For every US student that wants to solve a problem of “real access” there are ten or more that simply want ease of schedule or ease of workload. The issue is not the one of the pastor-student in a rural church. The problem is that many students taking classes on campus also choose to take courses online. The problem is that tons of students want to take classes whenever they want. While I am on the subject, some of us left a job, a family farm, or a church to get the formation we needed. God provided a pastor for the church that he called us to leave. He provided other jobs.

At this point, I think it is worthwhile to distinguish between people called to serve a lifetime as a pastor and lay people who want to learn and serve with better information. The latter can get good information without paying tuition costs. In the US, they need only go to www.biblicaltraining.org or some similar strong website.

I think it is also worthwhile to distinguish between a seminary faculty member that offers classes in person without really spending time with students and one committed to incarnational education. Some classes that are offered in person can be as impersonal as an online class in that respect. That is why prospective students should find out if faculty members have pastoral training, skills, and inclinations. They ought to find out if there are established times when faculty members and students are required to be together.

However, even when the teacher is aloof, fellow students may not be. The greatest gift my in-person seminary gave me was other students. Some people I met then remain my friends 40 years later.

Now, to your question. In the US we are already getting the first studies of the first generation that has lived on a “smart” cell phone. The reports are that these folks are lonelier than past generations. They struggle to relate to their own generation and to older people. Many of them state their desire for mentoring and friendship. All this data was gathered before COVID.

Now schools, teachers, and parents of younger students are sounding alarms about the differences between online and in-person education. Learning suffers, as does the ability to forge relationships. The first reports I am hearing about college freshmen bear out these concerns.

While seminarians are older and veterans of 16 years or more of studies, the same issues will arise. Separated from others preparing for ministry, most people will not grow into other-person-centered ministers (see D.B. Knox on this phrase). They will not become the sort of ministry-team members the apostles, Timothy, Luke, and Titus became.

As I think of the legitimate cases where people are isolated, I think we should do what Bonhoeffer and his students did. We should send someone to see the isolated person. The person may have to work alone and send assignments to a distant place. Wherever possible, a teacher and a fellow minister/student should visit the person to instruct and encourage, even if for a very short time. Bonhoeffer, Bethge, and Onnasch worked hard at communicating with past and current students. Onnasch was particularly good at visiting isolated pastors in Pomerania.

We need teachers and fellow ministers tasked with this purpose. We should not accept isolation as a settled fact. Even Paul got lonely, if I read 2 Timothy accurately. Even in a pandemic, we should use the means at our disposal to reach out to the isolated. This type of commitment can be made in Western and non-Western lands.

My grandfather was a shepherd, and he knew his sheep. As best I can tell, a good shepherd grows by spending time with sheep and by spending time with older and better shepherds who give good advice. I hope online-trained pastors who have a congregation will benefit from being with the sheep. I expect that they might do better if they are shaped by older and better shepherds. Seminary teachers ought to be shepherds. Online students without sheep and without shepherds are not going to be great shepherds. 

Let’s turn our attention now specifically to pastoral training occurring outside of the West, in the majority world. Many Bible colleges and seminaries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America use adjuncts to “parachute in” to teach modules to fill holes in their faculty. Ten days of intense teaching does not allow for relationships with students to build incrementally. How would you counsel adjuncts teaching a module to be able to know and be known by their students? Is it even feasible?

It is helpful to recall how Bonhoeffer and his associates conducted seminary work after the Gestapo closed Finkenwalde in September 1937. The work continued in two locations: Koslin and Gross Schlonwitz. Bonhoeffer spent half the week in each place. Eberhard Bethge lived with the 7-8 students housed in Gross Schlonwitz and Fritz Onnasch lived with the 7-8 students housed in Koslin. Onnasch and Bethge led the devotional practices and taught when Bonhoeffer was not there.

I think we need stable local pastor-teachers in places wherever we must use temporary teachers.  We should be identifying and training those people even while using “outsiders.”

Short-term lecturers should work with the local permanent people to spend time with the students, listening and advising as possible. The effort to know people as best one can will matter. Visiting teachers should participate in worship and other activities while there. Then students will see the model and learn from it. The visiting teacher should pay special attention to the ongoing staff who need encouragement.

You have recently written of Bonhoeffer’s friend and colleague, Fritz Onnasch, who was jailed for leading intercessory prayer for imprisoned pastors, and for taking up an unauthorized offering.[2] When I read of this kind of government meddling it calls to mind the plight of Muslim Background Believers (MBBs) in the Middle East today. The governments in many Middle Eastern countries actively sanction seminaries and Bible colleges who admit MBBs, because technically, it is illegal to convert from Islam to Christianity. If I am understanding you correctly, in a situation like this, where distance tools (internet or correspondence) are necessary, you would urge those doing the training to close the distance with personal, face to face visits? Is that correct, and are there other creative ways we can close distance with students? 

Whatever personal visits from teachers and fellow students can be made should be made. The same is true of past students now serving in lonely places. Bonhoeffer, Onnasch, and Bethge never wanted to leave a fellow minister isolated and alone. Safe internet and phone contact will help, but nothing replaces a human contact.

It would also help to recruit and send lay people to lonely students. The way I understand the question also makes me ask if the persons you mention are training for ministry or seeking information. I would still close the gap wherever possible, but the seminary should focus on ministry training, simply due to its mission.

In Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision you write of some of the ways Beeson Divinity School, where you are a professor, seeks to maintain its focus on providing the best incarnational ministerial training that it can. You write:

Established in 1988, it determined to limit enrollment to 180 students from the outset and to give these students personal attention and intentional shaping for ministry. A good endowment helps realize this vision, but so does ongoing support, long-term leadership, a carefully chosen and dedicated faculty, teachable students, fiscal responsibility, a home at a university, and self-control that makes adding programs, buildings, and other earmarks of personal agendas unimportant. People can and do matter at such a place.

I love how intentional and sane this vision for pastoral training is. And I feel a bit guilty in posing this next question to you, because it seems to be the “Gordian knot” of theological education in the majority world. The question is, How can pastoral training schools in the majority world translate this kind of vision into their context?

This is a “bricks without straw” scenario. Many of these schools do have some similarities with Beeson: limited enrollment, teachable students, dedicated staff. But they also suffer from faculty turnover (whether modular or residential), lack of financial support, and often an ever-present temptation to expand programs to help meet the bottom line. What advice do you have for seminaries in the majority world who often have such scant resources to move towards an incarnational training model?

As long as a seminary has people, it has the most important resource. It was not until the late twentieth century that seminaries in the US, UK, and Australia had faculties consisting of holders of a PhD. Until then, they used the best people they had. Over time they were able to identify, mentor, send, and support future faculty in their education, with the idea that they would return to the sending seminary. For example, the faculty of Moore College in Sydney was built in this manner. I wonder if seminaries followed this approach if they might have less turnover.

Bonhoeffer’s seminaries also eventually lacked financial support. Knowing such times will come is why we need sustainable small models. Above all, seminaries should avoid adding lots of programs they believe will draw students in other fields. A Christian university is one thing. A seminary is another. Churches should be partners in theological education, not consumers hiring independent consultants from an independent institution. Christian seminaries and universities should be wary of building enrollments on government subsidies. Those amounts can change overnight, and the governments are not ultimately responsible for training pastors. 

As we close, Paul, what do you think the future of pastoral training looks like?

Seminaries are going to get smaller in the West than they have been in my lifetime. The demographics are simply not there. While God can do what he wills, the population is aging. Thus, depending on a numerical-growth model left over from the Baby Boom years is unlikely to succeed. Smaller and stronger, more personal, and more demanding seminaries are needed.

To me, the question is whether seminaries in the West will go for the sort of demanding, loving, shaping pastoral formation that Jesus and his servants Bonhoeffer, Onnasch, and Bethge modelled, or whether we will stay the course of less spiritual and mental rigor. If it turns out to be the latter, I hope that the churches of the majority world will go the way of discipleship, which is the way of the cross, which is the way of faithfulness and church renewal.

[1] CGSC defines “formal training” as “undergraduate Bible degrees or Master’s degrees.” Their estimate is based on responses to their Global Survey on Theological Education. Accessed August 20, 2021.

[2] Paul R. House, “Imperturbable Endurance: Fritz Onnasch, Bonhoeffer’s Forgotten Friend,” Beeson Magazine (2021), 12-13. Accessed February 7, 2022.


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