October 15, 2018 / Levi Jones

Why Theological Education Must Include Intentional Learning Communities

Written by Rev. Levi Jones, Associate Director of the newly revised Doctor of Ministry Program at Nazarene Theological Seminary. He is currently completing a Doctor of Ministry in Preaching. His ministry in the local church included serving as a youth and young adults pastor, associate pastor, and co-lead pastor.

Theological education provides important and necessary formation for ministers, pastors, and missionaries. Life demands we wrestle with the difficulties of the world in thoughtful ways. Faith invites us to engage the scriptures where “faith seeks understanding.” Our parishioners desire ministers equipped to offer more than cliché answers to pressing issues. The Church calls for theologically reflective leaders discerning “the Word of the Lord” amidst the chaotic cultural waters. Theological education equips leaders with tools for entering those waters, bearing the presence of God, offering a Word from “elsewhere.”

Seminaries and universities offer a wonderful service to the Church by training, equipping, and making disciples of our ministers. However, one of the temptations I find myself wrestling with, perhaps I’m not alone, is placing myself in the role of expert. Seminaries teach us to dissect the scriptures, reflect on church dogma and doctrine, exegete the culture, lead an organization, cultivate discipleship, and arrange worship in aesthetically and theologically appropriate ways. Such an education is important. It’s difficult to comprehend ministry without such tools. But, these tools of knowledge can become the very means by which we insulate ourselves from the Spirit’s call. All tools are vulnerable to corruption, misuse, or abuse. Knowledge alone is not transformative of pastors or communities.

Pastoral Ministry: An Education in How Little You Actually Know

Pastoral ministry quickly teaches you how little you actually know. Seminary did not prepare you for every situation. Theological education likely did not provide you with every tool necessary. I’m inclined to say that’s not its purpose anyway! If you feel like a four-year degree gave you a mastery of theology and ministry, your God is too small and your ecclesiology isn’t messy enough.

Without quickly recognizing our need for help, both from God and from the Body, we either burn out or become tyrants holding the Church hostage. The Scriptures become a tool for gaining “principles” for this or that part of life rather than an encounter with the Living Word. Prayer subverts making God our personal genie to heal our latest bruise or smite our enemies. Rather, prayer ushers us into God’s presence where God molds us into beautiful vessels of grace. Worship shifts self-realization, self-actualization, and self-fulfillment to emptying ourselves to follow Christ’s call. A life of servanthood seeks God’s glory and the good of others, even enemies.  Pastoral ministry reduced to business principles where technique replaces faithfulness may appear successful on the outside but result in “forgetting our first love.” 

I vaguely remember Simon the magician thinking that the gospel would be a good way to make money.  Some things don’t change. In other words, theological education at its best brings us under the mastery of the Risen Lord rather than to a mastery of the Christian life. When theological education is about our own mastery, we have twisted the Church’s gift to us and made it a weapon against the Church and Christ. Theological education should resemble humility rather than hubris, wisdom more than being a know-it-all. Educational formation leads us to the end of ourselves and reminds us that there is so much more. In those spaces, God whispers an invitation into holy conversation with God and with others.

If you feel like a four year degree gave you a mastery of theology and ministry, your God is too small and your ecclesiology isn’t messy enough. Share on X

Let the Children (Not the Experts) Come to Me

Jesus is out and about with his disciples. People are crowding him. The disciples take it to be their duty to body-guard Jesus. We all know how dangerous children are (sarcasm, if that wasn’t obvious). The disciples won’t be caught unaware of these children’s ulterior motives. Jesus reprimands them, saying, “Let the little children come unto me.” He goes further to say that the kingdom of heaven is given to those who are like little children and disciples must become like children.

One of the greatest gifts that children possess is naiveté. They revel in the world’s grandeur. Children don’t seek to master the world, but a receive the world with awe and curiosity. Jesus welcomes the children in the scene without reservation. Children sit in the presence of Jesus without an agenda, except to be with him. This is what it means to be a disciple.

It seems to me that pastors, ministers, missionaries, professors and those involved theological education must exercise a “second naiveté.” This posture moves us from being experts to being disciples. It is a movement from mastery to being mastered by the one true God. You can’t divest yourself entirely of what you have received through your learning and you shouldn’t dismiss the gift of education. As such, that is why a second naiveté is necessary. This calls for a radically different posture in our approach to the things of the spiritual life. It calls for humility, for listening, for obedience.

The question for me has become, “How can I return to such a state? What means are available to aid in this journey?” Historically and scripturally, I think there are several pieces available for the Church’s spiritual life and renewal. 

Theological education must be a movement from mastery to being mastered by the one true God. Share on X

What is Needed for a Renewal of Our Naiveté?

How does theological education enable us to follow Jesus into mission with the curiosity of a child? These are questions I and others at Nazarene Theological Seminary ask ourselves each day to create space for the kind of theological education we believe is necessary for church leaders today.

This kind of renewal requires a work of God’s grace in our life. It begins there. The spiritual disciplines and sacraments cultivate our lives – through discipleship, works of mercy and charity, and through communal worship. These activities are not merely duties in the Christian life. It is the faithful response to God’s active work in our lives and in the larger world. In other words, a “second naiveté” invites encounter with the Living God in a way that allows God to set the agenda. As such, we keep our theological tools in perspective as gifts which God has given us so that we might know God intimately, not to be exploited for our own agenda.

To return to a posture of learning and receptivity, we need mentors and conversation partners for the journey. There are numerous ways of doing this. However, I think several things should be in place.

  • First, it needs to be an intentional community of learners. This requires regular intervals of gathering (even digitally) and conversing. Relationships take time and effort. Developing a posture of learning requires time and space. Growth is nearly impossible without this type of intentionality.
  • Second, it is good to have diverse voices present. Learning occurs in conversation with different perspectives instead of creating echo chambers with like-minded people. That doesn’t mean we can’t have things in common. However, dynamic learning communities allow for diversity to be present at the table.
  • Third, these need to be relationships built on honesty and love. It is difficult to learn, especially from voices with which we disagree, if we are defensive and combative. Learning environments create places of safety and trust. These basic things need to be in place for a learning environment to nurture growth.


There are a variety of ways for facilitating these learning cohorts. Depending on the need of each minister, different approaches may be warranted. There are book groups or conversation groups that meet regularly for a short-term or long-term relationship. Groups differ in size, depending on the needs of each group. There’s a lot of flexibility in what these groups can look like. Ministerial alliances can be a great place to find local pastors interested in working together in this way. These groups can also focus on issues of accountability or ministerial development (personal or professional).

There are also certificate programs utilizing intense learning groups around a particular topic, such as Spiritual Formation or Entrepreneurship, etc. Cohorts meet for an intense period of reflection that produces tangible work in an area of research. These are wonderful opportunities to work with a small group of ministers (and other professionals) to grow.

For those seeking a more intense and structured learning community, programs like the Doctor of Ministry provide intentional learning communities led by respected sojourners in their fields of study. Typically, these three-year programs require a couple weeks of residency each year. Cohorts journey through intense programs of formation which invite the minister’s ministerial community to be co-learners. Intentional Learning community form both ministers and their contexts for mutual enrichment and shared ministry.

Intentional Communities Help Us to Become Like Children—and Follow Jesus into Mission Renewed

I have found each of these avenues of formation to be important and life-giving. Each has its place within the life of the Church. It would have been impossible for me to have these same transformational experiences without intentional learning communities. The life-long friendships bloomed out of these experiences and continue to enrich my own life and ministry. Learning communities continue to challenge me to become “like a child” and follow Jesus in all that I do.

Learn more about masters, doctoral, and certificate programs at Nazarene Theological Seminary at https://www.nts.edu/explore-your-call.