How Church Planters Should Think about Theological Education

By Jared Bumpers

Learners make the best leaders, and this saying applies to the work of your ministry, too. Here are four reasons—plus, some helpful resources!—to help you consider the role of education as you live on mission.

For Leaders and Learners Alike

John Wooden, the hall of fame basketball coach for the UCLA Bruins, famously said, “The best leaders are lifelong learners; they take measures to create organizations that foster and inspire learning throughout.”[1] This maxim applies to basketball players and organizational leaders, but it applies to pastors and church planters as well. The best pastors and planters are those who commit to being lifelong learners and fostering churches and ministries that prioritize learning. In short, if God has called you to lead and serve in the church, then He’s also called you to learn and help others pursue learning.

There are numerous ways to prioritize learning, both formally and informally, but I want to focus on the benefits of formal theological education. As someone who benefited from theological education personally and who serves as a faculty member at a Southern Baptist seminary currently, I am an unapologetic advocate for theological education and think everyone called to ministry should consider seminary training.

Here are five reasons aspiring church planters and current church planters should pursue theological education:

1. Clarify or solidify your calling

For the aspiring church planter, seminary is a great place to clarify your calling. I talk to young men regularly who sense a call to vocational ministry and have been affirmed by their church leadership but have no idea what type of ministry they will pursue. Maybe they will serve as a replanter or revitalizer. Maybe they will serve as a missionary. Maybe they will be a church planter. They are not sure what they will do. All they know is God has called them to ministry, and they want to follow His call. Given their confidence in their calling but uncertainty about their future ministry, seminary is a natural place to prepare for ministry in general while trying to discern how God has gifted them and where God will place them in the future.

For the current church planter, seminary is a great place to solidify your calling. Residential theological education is not an option for many planters, as they are not close to a seminary geographically, but online classes (like the courses offered by Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Global Campus) are a great way to pursue theological education and solidify their calling. As planters take theology classes and hone their ministry skills, they will naturally connect what they are learning to the churches they are planting. The theology will inform their methodology and influence their preaching and teaching. The ministry classes will impact how they share the gospel, counsel members, and preach sermons. Their love for their church and their desire to serve their church will strengthen their calling and give them confidence that God has called them to plant healthy, biblical churches.

2. Develop or strengthen the theological foundations of your ministry

Another reason to pursue theological education is to develop or strengthen theological commitments. For aspiring planters, questions like “What is a church?”, “Why does church membership matter?”, “How should the church be structured?”, “How often should the church observe the Lord’s Supper?”, and “Who is qualified to serve in leadership in the church?” are critical questions. Spending time thinking about and answering these questions and others before you plant a church can save planters a lot of frustration and headache.

Current planters can also benefit from theological education, as it will help strengthen their theological convictions… and maybe even correct them! Maybe the planter has questions about soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) or eschatology (the doctrine of end things). Maybe they have not thought about how to articulate the Trinity to someone considering Christianity or how to share the gospel with an atheist. Whatever the case, theological education will help sharpen their theological understanding and help them evaluate their current ministry context in order to make any necessary changes or adjustments to be more faithful to Scripture. Plus, seminaries often help provide theological tools and resources to increase the theological literacy of the church. (Check out the “For the Church Institute,” a free resource for churches and ministry leaders.)

3. Acquire or sharpen practical ministry skills

Seminary also helps aspiring planters acquire practical ministry skills, while helping current planters sharpen their skills. Here’s what I mean: the aspiring planter has little ministry experience. He’s never preached a sermon, or he’s only preached a handful of sermons. A preaching class will give him the basic tools to develop and deliver a faithful biblical sermon. He’s never participated in an elders’ meeting or observed a hospital visit. A pastoral ministry class will help him consider these pastoral responsibilities and how to fulfill his ministry. Seminary helps students acquire these skills.

Furthermore, solid seminaries will provide opportunities to acquire ministry skills outside the classroom. For example, the Timothy Track at Midwestern Seminary allows first-year seminary students to serve in the local church for roughly 10 hours per week and hone their ministry skills. These students preach sermons, teach lessons, observe elders’ meetings, make hospital visits, and carry out many other ministry activities under the supervision of experienced pastors and in the context of the local church. It’s the best way possible to pursue theological education—and to do so in a context where you can receive solid theological training in a seminary context and gain practical ministry experience in a local church context.

For the experienced planter, seminary helps hone or sharpen those skills. Sure, the planter has preached many sermons, but he likely has room to grow. Maybe his introductions have been too similar or his conclusions have been underutilized. Maybe he has questions about counseling difficult cases or handling tough texts. Seminary will help him continue to develop and hone the skills that he has acquired through practical experience, even if he does not have previous education. (For pastors without any education, many seminaries offer options to help pastors earn a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in a condensed format. The Accelerate Program at MBTS allows students to earn a bachelor’s degree and a Master of Divinity degree in five years.)

4. Build healthy relationships with others who are called to ministry

Seminary is a great place to develop deep, meaningful relationships with others who feel called to ministry. For current or aspiring planters, the relationships developed during their seminary years will prove invaluable later. Two of my closest friends in ministry are faithful brothers that I met in seminary. Although they do not live in the same city as I do—one doesn’t even live in the same state!—I still stay in contact with them and communicate with them regularly. They pray for me, encourage me, and give me advice when I need it. Friends are a blessing, and seminary allows those who are called to ministry to meet others who are called to ministry, build meaningful friendships during their seminary years, and then encourage one another throughout their lives as they serve Christ and His church.

4. Establish lifelong habits of study and learning

One final benefit of theological education is the habits it instills. Seminary students—whether they are aspiring planters or experienced planters—are required to read broadly, think deeply, and write clearly. They are required to be disciplined, manage their time, and balance their responsibilities. Although these commitments are challenging, seminary students learn to establish habits of reading, writing, and succeeding in seminary, and these habits will help them as they plant churches, revitalize churches, or pastor churches. They will have to read, think, write, balance, manage, and be disciplined. Thankfully, seminary helps prepare them for these things. And, as I stated at the beginning, leaders are learners. Establishing these habits in seminary will help leaders continue to learn, even after they have earned their degree.

For the Furtherance of the Gospel

So, why should aspiring and current church planters consider theological education? Because it benefits them and helps them become better leaders. They will be convinced of their calling, committed to their theological convictions, confident in their ministry skills, close to other brothers and sisters, and continuing to learn as they lead their churches. But there’s more: the churches that are planted and pastored will benefit from trained men who love Jesus, love the church, and are committed to passing on “the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all” (Jude 1:3). As the pastors and planters are strengthened, the church is strengthened. And when the church is strengthened, the world is changed!

[1]John Wooden, Wooden on Leadership: How to Create a Winning Organization (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005).

Published September 13, 2023

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Jared Bumpers

Jared Bumpers (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Assistant Professor of Preaching and Evangelism at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also oversees the FTC Cohorts. In addition to his roles at MBTS, he serves as one of the pastors at Fellowship KC in the Parkville area.