A major weakness of Free Will Baptists is that their ministers are typically less educated than the communities they serve. While many communities have highly educated leaders, many Free Will Baptists in those same communities attempt to do ministry with their own pastors having no formal ministerial education. Moreover, often Free Will Baptist pastors are significantly less educated in ministry than their counterparts in other denominations, putting them at a disadvantage in articulating and defending Free Will Baptist doctrine. This is especially true in urban settings where graduate degrees and even post-graduate degrees are common, but it is also true even in rural areas. While education is no guarantor of ministerial success, communities are not likely to rally around those church leaders who function at lower academic levels than community norms.
Since Free Will Baptist churches and associations are autonomous, the denomination cannot simply dictate that churches require their pastors to attain the standard MDiv degree (the Master’s of Divinity degree assumes 4 years of undergraduate Bachelors studies, followed by 3 years of ministerial graduate studies). Unfortunately, the denomination has done little to promote formal ministerial education over the years. The denomination has left this job to the various Free Will Baptist colleges which have done little to change the denominational culture of educational mediocrity or educational hostility. In this essay, I lay out a plan in which the denomination itself would promote formal ministerial training—a plan that I think will eventually have a major impact in coming years.
My plan would begin with a denominational registry of ministers. The denomination does not ordain ministers, but Free Will Baptists generally recognize those ministers who are ordained by the local association of churches, with assumed reciprocity of ordination recognition from one association to another. Of course, a local church can ordain a minister on its own, but this does not confer associational ordination, which is the basic level of ordination for Free Will Baptists. The denomination has no right to impose standards for ordination on local associations, but could provide a registry service in which Free Will Baptist ministers are enrolled. This would afford an opportunity for the denomination to classify levels of ordination.
Any associational ordination would qualify as the basic level of ordination. It may be designated as “Standard Ordination,” or some such. Any minister with “Standard Ordination” may have an advanced status if he has an undergraduate degree with a major in Bible, theology, or ministry. This status may be designated as “Professional Ordination,” or some such. For those ordained ministers who have been graduated with an M.Div., which is the standard ministerial degree of most denominations and seminaries, or its equivalent, the ordination status of “Advanced Professional Ordination,” or some such, may be conferred. Thus, there would be a three-tier level of ordination recognized by the denominational registry:
· Standard Ordination: basic associational ordination
· Professional Ordination: B.S. or B.A., with a major in Bible, theology, or ministry from a recognized college or university
· Advanced Professional Ordination: M.Div. from a recognized seminary or graduate school.
What good would a registry serve? What would motivate Free Will Baptists to use the registry? Since use of the registry cannot be compulsory, there must be a motivator to get Free Will Baptists to use it. Of course, one such motivator is available.
One of the great needs of Free Will Baptist is a denomination-wide means of connecting ministers seeking churches with churches seeking ministers. Naturally, this would be the domain of the Home Missions Department (National Ministries?), or perhaps the Executive Office which would be responsible for promoting and keeping the registry. Currently, most churches seeking ministers approach their respective state association ministries or other informal networks. A national registry would supplement or perhaps supersede the current informal and sometimes less than efficient network. Moreover, churches seeking a new pastor could specify the level of ordination for potential applicants.
The Home Missions Department would work with state agencies. For example, in order to be included in the registry, the minister would have to demonstrate his associational ordination and be recommended for ministry by the state associational moderator, clerk or State Promotional Secretary. This would help assure quality ministers for local churches. Of course, more details would have to hammered out once this plan were to receive serious consideration.
In addition to providing help to grateful ministers and churches, this registry would reinforce the message that formal ministerial training is important for modern ministry. This is an important first step toward promoting an educated clergy for the 21st century, and would be preliminary to a subsequent phase of promoting creative educational opportunities for ministers and church leaders.