Training for Presbyterian Ministry in Scotland and New Zealand

Training for the ministry in Scottish Presbyterian churches is traditionally associated with universities rather than seminaries, and by 1900 the ideal minister was qualified MA BD. The concern for education was driven by the need to understand, expound and defend Reformed theological understanding, and to be the teaching elder of congregations. The "deplorable low state" of the clergy in the pre-Reformation church was seen in educational as well as moral and theological terms - though to be fair many of the bishops of the old church had sought to address the need by the founding of the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and St Andrews.

The high value placed on education more than gifting made it difficult to find more flexible models when education standards contributed to a chronic shortage of clergy as happened particularly in the Reformation and in the settler church in New Zealand. Debates around alternative models such as home missionaries and more recently local ordained ministers highlighted the difficulty of finding another way. Other traditions, including Catholic and Orthodox, did not assume that all ordained church leadership had to have the same set of abilities. Presbyterianism has tended to make the highly educated the norm and all else second best, and it is only relatively recently that it is accepted that character and gifting presents the church with capable leaders whose role is different and whose training is best shaped to their gifts more than diluted versions of the assumed ideal.

The issue is related to theologies and practice of ministry and how carefully the church does or does not set boundaries defined by ordination around roles associated with presiding at the sacraments. When higher education was more restricted it was easier to associate authority and leadership with the educated role of the minister - it was hard enough providing for that. Elders may well have education, but were often in professions or business and had status of another kind. Over time it was clear that many elders and others had gifts which surpassed the clergy but which it was difficult for the previous theology and order of ministerial leadership to accommodate. In the Highlands of Scotland "the men" were people, sometimes elders, of informally recognised spiritual power who carried considerable popular authority in preaching, prayer and pastoral ministry.

Although theological education in Scotland was located in the universities and grounded in the humanities including Hebrew, Greek and Philosophy, it was often taught by parish ministers keeping a closer link to the parochial life of the church than might have been imagined.

The classic division of the theological education curriculum into old testament, new testament, church history, theology and later pastoral care is traced to Schleiermacher. The differentiation and specialisation were necessary but carried their own dangers. The emphasis of the 1990s on integration and the change of what used to be the exit exercises - originally presbytery exams - to a synthesis has been an attempt to overcome not only the compartmentalisation of subjects, but the tendency for them to be become detached from one's personal life and relationship with God. Professionalisation of clergy training can separate ministers from the congregations that sent them for training by giving them language, ideas and attitudes which are unwelcome. This is not an inevitable outcome but it is perhaps an inevitable risk. On the one hand we do not want a situation where those in leadership only tell us what we want to hear, but being prophetic is a weak excuse for tactlessness or lack of pastoral sensitivity. The grounding in the life of the church and the proven ability to work with people that comes with experienced youth leadership is a counterbalance which enables challenging learning to take place among people who have a sense of what it is possible to do and say in different contexts.

In missionary settings for Presbyterian churches the pattern for ministerial training tended to be to make ministerial training a derivative of a commitment to higher education generally. Excellence was determined first of all by the bench mark of Western theological education patterns as an attempt to avoid being patronising or treating people of other cultures as inferior. For some time, and still, it was not appreciated that though this may have been a commendable attitude it was not really a solution. (It has parallels in race relations and gender issues - Maori do not want to be brown pakeha, but people with equal rights; women do not want to be honorary males, but people with equal opportunities and the freedom to be themselves).

Western style theological education in non-Western settings is nevertheless not always inappropriate. Biblical languages and a global church history readily connect to the universals of Christian faith. Hermeneutics and theology need to be treated with more care as both local practices and Western are needed and need to learn from each other. Being global and local as "glocal" may be a happy neologism, but it is far from easy to prescriptively introduce - however it may and does evolve.

New Zealand

In the early years of Presbyterianism in New Zealand, ministers came as migrants after training and ministry experience in Scotland, Ireland and Australia. In 1877 classes were started in Dunedin in the home of William Salmond, the first Professor of the Theological Hall. Beginning with two students, by 1900 most students for the ministry of the soon to be united Northern and Southern Presbyterian Churches were attending Hall classes in Dunedin.

The union of the churches south and north of the Waitaki River in 1901 made the need for facilities urgent. The Synod of Otago and Southland was committed to the provision of theological education in Dunedin and, through the generosity of the Ross family, in 1909 Knox College was opened to provide both for the Theological Hall and a residential college for University students. Modelled on similar colleges in Australia, it sought to provide a setting where young single male students could mix with those studying for law, medicine and other disciplines at the university and share a vision for "The glory of God, the promotion of His Kingdom, and the advancement of sound learning."

The appointment of John Dickie in 1909 as the first Director helped connect New Zealand training with international theological developments. Under the leadership of successive masters Knox College as a student residential facility developed an outstanding community life and witnessed to the commitment of the Presbyterian Church to the encouragement of academic excellence. A steady flow of leaders in church and society have shared in its life and atmosphere and some have also added to its folklore. In 1955 the need for separate facilities for the Theological Hall was met by the opening of the Hewitson Wing in commemoration of the centennial of the Presbyterian Church in Otago and Southland. The housing and development of the Hewitson Library as a major theological resource became a feature of the new facility. In 1984 a major extension provided further library space and a common room for Theology students, many of whom were now older, married, and living in church houses in North Dunedin.

In the post-war decades, Helmut Rex, himself a refugee from Nazi Germany, brought a deep intellectual commitment which challenged students, opened minds to the spiritual significance of literature, and raised awareness of indigenous cultures. In the 1960s the curriculum evolved to include pastoral studies and greater attention to the life of the New Zealand churches. In 1972 Te Wananga a Rangi, the theological college of the Maori Synod, now Te Aka Puaho, was relocated from Whakatane to Dunedin.

Staff shared in the development of the Bachelor of Divinity and Bachelor of Theology degrees at Otago University. Women and older students were welcomed to the community of theological students, and the requirement of permission to marry was dropped. The provision of culturally appropriate courses relating to Maori, Asian, and Polynesian New Zealanders provided a significant challenge, as did the theological and cultural diversities of the pakeha church. It was increasingly difficult to address these out of the classical theological curriculum which had served earlier generations well. Ecumenical links, particularly with the Roman Catholic seminary at Holy Cross and in shared work through the Faculty of Theology at Otago University, were enriching if not always easy to coordinate.

The Theological Hall experienced tensions, perhaps more common globally than was appreciated at the time, as Theology shifted in emphasis from a given tradition to a process concerned with the discovery of God in human experience and shaped by class, ethnicity and gender. The struggle for the renewal of a Reformed tradition grounded in concern for the givenness of the Word of God and the fallenness of humanity, to balance Theology from above and below was painful but creative. It took time to see how the maps of theologizing in different contexts could remain connected. The role of the Theological Hall shifted subtly towards ministry education in general, and the innovation of Community Based Ministry Training (CBMT) created a viable distance model of delivery which proved its worth.

Further challenges were experienced in 1997 after responsibility for University courses was taken over by the University of Otago. In the downsizing of staff the CBMT was discontinued, at least for the time being. The professorial chairs of the Theological Hall were disestablished and the Hall replaced by the School of Ministry. Ordinands were now to complete a primary theological degree at one of a number of recognized providers before coming to the School of Ministry which provided a two-year ministry formation ordination studies programme.

After research on ministry training needs in 1999, a Coordinator for Lay and Recognised Ministries was appointed. Since 2002, the School has also had responsibility for Local Ordained Ministers and members of Local Ministry Teams. During 2006 a major review of the School of Ministry was concluded leading to decisions by the General Assembly to move to an Internship model of training for National Ordained Ministry in conjunction with block courses and distance learning.

John Roxborogh, School of Ministry Handbook, 2007.


John Dickie

Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership

Theological Education in Africa, Asia and Latin America


Lance Barber and Edmon Martin, Multiple Paths to Ministry. New Models for Theological Education, Pilgrim Press, 2004

Ian Breward, Grace and Truth. A history of the Theological Hall Knox College, Dunedin 1876-1975, Theological Education Committee, Dunedin, 1975.

Susan Jones, “Governing for Theologia: Governance of Presbyterian Ministry Formation in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand 1961-1997”, PhD thesis, University of Otago.

Stephen Mackie, Patterns of ministry: theological education in a changing world, Collins 1969.

Harold Scott, A Pioneering Ministry. Presbyterian Home Missionaries in New Zealand, 1862-1964, Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, 1983.

Jack C Whytock, "An educated clergy" Scottish theological education and training in the Kirk and Secession, 1560-1850, Paternoster, 2007.

David F Wright, "Education, Theological" in Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology.

David F Wright and Gary D Badcock, eds., Disruption to Diversity. Edinburgh Divinity 1846-1996, T & T Clark, 1996.