Mysteries of Sovereign Grace Ministries’ “Pastors [sic] College” Explained?

October 12, 2009 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

During this site’s existence, the subject of Sovereign Grace Ministries’ “Pastors College” has come up from time to time. 

Because of how much authority SGM pastors are given – how they expect to be obeyed, for instance, and how they are frequently their people’s primary source of counsel – readers have expressed their concern over how little professional training most SGM pastors receive.  “Pastors College” is a relatively brief 9-month course.  Moreover, as far as anyone can tell, admission into the PC is, for all practical purposes, available “by invitation only” – there are no standardized official admission procedures or policies published anywhere.  Information about what these SGM pastoral candidates actually do study is extremely vague, compared to the course descriptions at actual seminaries, like Southern Baptist Theological Seminary or Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, for instance.

While some men do attend SGM’s “Pastors College” after obtaining college and seminary degrees, many SGM pastors have received no other training besides what they got at the PC. 

Therefore, it was with great interest that I checked out Jeff Purswell’s post over at C.J. Mahaney’s blog, where he has been invited to explain what the “Pastors College” is all about.  Apparently, he will be writing a series of articles about the PC. 

Since no discussion is permitted on C.J.’s blog, I thought it might be interesting to interact with Mr. Purswell’s first article here.  Below is his introductory post, in which he purports to give us an overview about what goes on at the PC.  My thoughts will appear in blue.



by Jeff Purswell

A couple of months ago C.J. invited me to begin contributing posts to the Sovereign Grace blog, of which this is the first.  Those who don’t know me will surely wonder why; [Kris says:  I’m pretty sure that this is just one of those Sovereign Grace cultural things, but does anyone else join me in finding statements like these sort of strange?  I mean, what’s with the “humble” joking put-downs of oneself?  Just about every SGM teaching I’ve ever listened to will start, rather predictably, with the pastor/speaker poking fun of himself and touting his supposed lack of qualifications.  After awhile, because it’s so formulaic, it starts to feel like one gigantic act.  I don’t really believe that Mr. Purswell thinks he’s such an odd choice to blog about SGM’s “Pastors College,” or that he REALLY thinks the readers who don’t know him will “surely” wonder why he’s been invited to contribute to C.J.’s blog.  I mean, if his readers don’t know him, they won’t think about him at all, right?  Again, I realize this is cultural.  But it’s one of those little things that makes SGM seem…odd…to an outsider like me.]   those who do know me will no doubt grasp the irony, given my blustering tirades against the general blog phenomenon (which I’ll spare you, since including them here would be self-defeating).  [Kris says:  On the other hand, I have no trouble at all believing that Mr. Purswell doesn’t approve of blogging – well, at least certain types of blogging. :wink:] In any event, let me stress the privilege it is to share this space with C.J. and, as of next week, Dave Harvey, and provide a bit of background for future posts.

My main responsibility in Sovereign Grace is overseeing the Pastors College, which is the primary mechanism by which we train pastors for ministry in our family of churches. Many components go into this training. We teach our students Greek so that they might have access to the original text of the New Testament.  [Kris says:  Really?  The “Pastors College” teaches its students Greek?  In how many weeks?  While juggling how many other topics?  What do they use, Rosetta Stone Greek For Pastors?]   We ground our students in the text of Scripture in both its specifics and scope.  We endeavor to provide our students a solid theological framework for grasping God’s revelation in its various parts and proportions.  [Kris says:  Again, this is a HUGE undertaking.  How can this be done in a mere 9 months?]  We provide pastoral care and structures for personal growth to encourage and support our students’ progress in godliness and the process of sanctification.  [Kris says:  This sounds perfectly good and acceptable.  But I’d be very interested in hearing more specifics about just how this is done.  

You see, awhile back, someone who once attended the PC wrote me an email in which he described just what this “encouragement and support for students’ progress in godliness and the process of sanctification” is like. 

According to my correspondent, PC students and their wives are each assigned SGM “disciplers” who meet extensively with them over the course of their study.  They have weekly get-togethers in which the PC students (and wives) are probed relentlessly.  Every sin – real or imagined – is laid out on the table.  No infraction is too small.  By the time the candidate and his wife are finished with the program, they will have, at least according to this particular individual, been completely torn down and then built back up in the SGM way.

So yes, the idea of this sort of “encouragement and support” sounds good and right.  But the reality would appear to be something different, something quite harsh and grim, an experience the purpose of which seems to be the complete obliteration of the individual man (and his spouse) and the adoption of SGM group-think.]  We teach ministry skills such as preaching and biblical counseling to help them bring God’s Word to bear upon the lives of the people they will one day serve.  [Kris says:  Yet again – HOW can this be done in only 9 months, especially since these guys are also being so rigorously “discipled” while simultaneously mastering the Greek language?  Professional Christian counselors – whom SGM pastors are subtly taught to disparage and look down upon as being “less biblical” – study their discipline for years, while SGM pastors maybe get a week here or there with Dr. David Powlison.  As great as Dr. Powlison may be, I think it’s pretty safe to say that these SGM pastors need more training before they are unleashed upon their churches to do “biblical” counseling.]  And we do all of this in the context of a particular local church—Covenant Life Church—which provides the students both a church home and a functioning model for the material they are learning in the classroom.  [Kris says:  I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll say it again – WHY, oh why, do SGMers use the phrase, “local church”?  WHY? 

First of all, “local” does not necessarily refer to geographical location.  In our own SGM experience, we knew of several families who traveled from points far and wide to attend our particular SGM church, frequently driving a half hour or more, during which I know they passed dozens of decent Bible-believing, gospel-proclaiming churches that would have been far more “local” to them than our SGM church was.  Apparently, commuting to church is not that uncommon in the rest of the SGM world, either.  The families we knew were not rarities.  This leads me to think that when SGMers use the phrase, “local church,” what they REALLY mean is, “local SGM church.”

And if “local” has nothing to do with geogrpahical location, then what DOES it mean?

After all, are there “correspondence” churches?

Or, are there really that many Christians out there who honestly would say that they are part of a “distant” church?

I don’t think so.

So why do they say “local church” like that?  What’s the point?]

Underlying these facets are certain core convictions we have concerning theological training—convictions derived from Scripture’s profile of a pastor and the local church which he’s called to serve.

For example, with the exception of the gift of teaching, the biblical requirements for eldership (e.g., 1 Timothy 3 & Titus 1) all speak to a pastor’s character; there’s nothing about personality types, educational levels, or social standing.  [Kris says:  I think we’re seeing a false dilemma here.  The Bible never sets up “character” as being in some sort of zero-sum equation with a man’s education.  Sure, there weren’t seminaries and professional training for ministry in Bible times, when the Christian faith was young.  But there was also nothing in Scripture about church building programs, music ministries, or training for counseling.  There is NOTHING about pastoral training – extensive seminary training – that means a pastoral candidate would then begin to neglect his godly character.  Education and character are not in opposition to one another.  They are not mutually exclusive.

It’s almost as though SGM wants it both ways.  They tout the “Pastors College” as doing all this educating – teaching these guys Greek, training them in counseling, “grounding” them in Scripture – and yet at the same time seem to be defending the brevity of the PC by emphasizing SGM’s focus on pastoral character.  (Which – they seem to think – makes SGM’s training unusual compared to other seminaries?)]  Transcending all other considerations, a pastor is to be an illustration of the transforming effects of the gospel he proclaims, and an example of sound Christian living to those he serves.  We therefore give much attention to, and invest resources toward, encouraging and cultivating progress in our students’ spiritual lives.  [Kris says:  Again, I am looking forward to Mr. Purswell’s future installments in this series, in which I hope he does get around to explaining just how they go about “cultivating progress” in their students’ spiritual lives. 

Forgive me if I sound dumb or naïve, but I was always under the impression that this sort of “progress” was more the work of the Holy Spirit.  It will be interesting to hear how SGM “cultivates” it in pastoral candidates.]   In our training, we never want to neglect the very characteristics that qualify a man for ministry in the first place.

The local church [Kris says:  Again with the “local church” thing!  What is WITH this?  Isn’t it sort of a given that if you are able to participate regularly in a particular church, then it must be your “local” – local enough – church?] context also plays an important role in the Pastors College. Since we are training pastors called to “shepherd the flock of God,” we want to expose them to an actual “shepherding” context—a model of ministry where God’s people are being taught, cared for, and nourished.  Therefore, we never want the training of our students to be disconnected from the context for which they are being trained—the local church.  [Hmm.  Did Mr. Purswell just go on the record as saying that SGM is a “shepherding” ministry?  :D

Seriously, though – I do understand (I think) what Mr. Purswell is trying to get at, and I’m sure he’d deny that Sovereign Grace Ministries dabbled in the “Shepherding Movement” back in the day.  But if that’s the case – if he doesn’t actually mean “shepherding” as it occurred in the “Shepherding Movement,” then I find it interesting that he is acting like SGM’s approach to pastoral training is somehow distinctive from that of other denominations when he says that the PC candidates are being exposed to “a model of ministry where God’s people are being taught, cared for, and nourished.”

After all, this statement pretty much summarizes what just about every normal Bible-believing Christian church seeks to do these days.  The vast majority of churches desire to “teach, care for, and nourish” their members.  The majority of our more conservative seminaries expect their students to be active participants in church.  Why is this being touted like it’s something unique to SGM and their “Pastors College”?]

In addition to character and context, there’s the substance of our training. When asked to describe the nature of our training, I frequently use this description: we’re training men to do theological ministry—ministry with a self-consciously theological rationale, where every methodology employed flows from and is informed by theological conviction and appropriate biblical warrant.  Far from being innovative, this is simply a reflection of the radically Word-centered nature of the pastor’s call that pervades the New Testament.   [Kris says:  I totally agree with Mr. Purswell, here, in that this is “far from being innovative.”  I think it’s a pretty safe bet that the vast majority of seminary students who are training to be pastors would say that their methods flow from their theological convictions and biblical warrants.  Which then begs the question, why does SGM then even NEED the PC, its own little abbreviated version of seminary?  I can understand, perhaps, SGM’s desire to have its own denominational family-of-churches training grounds, but perhaps instead of trying to reinvent the wheel from the ground up, maybe they could just offer their 9-month program to guys who have already graduated from college and completed real seminary elsewhere?]  From the apostles’ disciplined devotion “to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4) to Paul’s insistent pleas that Timothy devote himself to the proclamation of Scripture and its teaching (1 Timothy 4:6, 13, 16; 2 Timothy 1:13; 2:2, 15; 4:1-2, et al), God’s Word places a claim on both the content and methodology of pastoral ministry: Scripture and its teaching must be the standard and substance of the pastor’s ministry.

Now, that’s easier said than done, for at least two reasons.

First, perhaps more than ever before, pastors are vulnerable to competing visions for ministry, to measuring ministry “success” by business metrics rather than faithfulness to Scripture, to grasping for some heretofore undiscovered insight that will make the decisive difference in their church. Even for the most earnest pastor, the promise of immediate success is a powerful enticement to pragmatic measures.

[Kris says:  I find this paragraph rather breathtakingly audacious, considering how much of SGM’s own ministry model clearly parallels models used by the business (franchise) world.  One of the books that has greatly influenced C.J. and Company is the business tome, From Good To Great.  (Hardly a “biblical warrant” there, right?)  SGM’s approach to planting churches involves some very pragmatic considerations of demographics and income levels.  SGM knows that its particular approach to ministry will work best when a community’s average education and median income meet certain benchmarks.  Yet the students at SGM’s “Pastors College” are being led to believe that all the methods they will use flow out of their theology and a “biblical warrant”?]

Second, it’s a challenge because Scripture doesn’t speak specifically to every facet of church life and ministry. It requires an ever-deepening understanding of the Bible, a grasp of its details and overarching unity, a sensitivity to the “pattern” (2 Timothy 1:13) and proportionality of its truth. More than anything, it requires a firm grasp of the gospel and its entailments for the Christian life individually, and for the church’s life corporately.  [Kris says:  I have been a Christian for almost my entire life.  In other words, I have had, for a LONG time, a clear understanding of what Jesus did to save me.  I know what “the gospel” is.

But there’s something about SGM’s use of the phrase “the gospel,” especially when it gets tossed around with wordy statements like “…and its entailments for the Christian life individually,” that makes little sense.  What is Mr. Purswell actually saying here?  Seriously?  What does this gobbledygook mean?]  Of course, faithful pastoral ministry will look different in different contexts, and no one will execute theological ministry perfectly. Our perception is never perfect, our motives unclouded, or our actions flawless. It is, however, something to which Scripture calls us to aspire.

Well, that’s a glimpse of what we’re endeavoring to instill into our students in the Pastors College, and that’s what I’ll be thinking out loud about in upcoming posts: theological and biblical reflection, particularly as it impinges upon the glorious work of pastoral ministry—proclaiming the gospel, expounding God’s truth, and caring for those for whom our Savior died. The thought of that privilege is staggering.  [Kris says:  So’s this post.  It’s staggering, and about as clear as mud.  But I am looking forward to learning more from Mr. Purswell’s future articles.  How about you?]