Today I had the honour of re-opening the old Principal’s House at Union Theological College as a Training Resource Centre.
Irish Presbyterians have always had a reputation for being builders. We like to build churches and halls and manses. Unfortunately that reputation has been a bit dented in recent years, not least because of the demise of the Presbyterian Mutual Society. Money and resources have been restricted and those who have served as Moderators of the General Assembly in recent years have had many fewer new buildings to open than previous incumbents.
You can imagine, then, my personal disappointment when a dreadful fire engulfed the almost-completed project in November 2009 and scuppered all the plans for the official opening of the TRC during my moderatorial year. It was one of the events that I had quickly written into my diary for January 2010, and I was very sad when that event didn’t materialize. So I was hugely delighted and honoured to be invited, in the current moderator’s absence, to be involved in this opening ceremony.
One of the interesting questions which has arisen following the PMS debacle is “What should the Presbyterian Church in Ireland be involved in? What are the legitimate concerns and interests of the General Assembly?” And of all the activities and projects that the General Assembly needs to maintain and nurture, none is more important than the training of its ministers and the discipling of its members.
Many of us who have been in ministry for a while have taken our cues from what Paul says in Ephesians 4. We believe that our job is to “prepare God’s people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up”. We believe that God has given pastors and teachers to the church for this very purpose.
I hope that as a denomination ministerial training and Christian discipleship will receive an increasingly high profile in our activities. Our church, and the wider Christian community in Ireland, needs ministers with the intellectual ability, the practical skills and the personal qualities to lead God’s people into effective Christian service and ministry. Unfortunately, the old 80-20 principle applies. 80% of the work in our congregations is done by 20% of our members. Many of our members need to move from being passive listeners to being active servants.
In order for that to happen, we need ministers who are effective preachers, sensitive pastors, and strategic leaders. That is a high standard, and a comprehensive calling, and that is why a rigorous and challenging programme of theological education and ministerial training needs to be maintained and enhanced.
In a comprehensive study completed a few years ago, a Duke Divinity School research team concluded that healthy and effective churches were the result of the ministry of healthy and effective ministers. It is one of those conclusions that many ordinary church members may have accurately predicted without the need for much research. But maybe it needs to be acknowledged and acted upon in a more intentional way. Whatever else our General Assembly does, it needs to encourage and enhance the training of its ministers. Without effective ministers, our congregations will remain ineffective and powerless.
In addition, ministers and elders need to be given the resources to see their congregations trained and motivated for Christian service. And these goals are promoted by the facilities provided in the Training Resource Centre. It is our prayer that all who work and study there may benefit from the new facilities and may be enabled to fulfill their God-given job description of preparing God’s people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up.