I’ve been working a lot on competency-based theological education these days, as you can no doubt tell from my recent posts. As I design competencies (and their assessments) for a couple pastoral training programs, I’ve worked out some principles on how to do it that I thought I would share so others who face the same challenge can learn from my experience. You needn’t do what I’m doing, but my reflections may stir up your own creativity so you can make something really great.

Most programs use a three-pronged approach of developing knowledge, skills and character when preparing students to become pastors. This structure comes from Benjamin Bloom, who chaired a committee of educators that devised what is called Bloom’s taxonomy. Bloom’s taxonomy is best known for its cognitive domain, where students start at lower level capabilities like remember and understand, and move up to apply and analyze, until finally they can evaluate and create. However, Bloom’s team also proposed taxonomies for the affective and psychomotor domains, for the development of attitudes and skills. This has resulted in the popular categories of learning outcomes: knowledge, skills, and character (sometimes called head, hands and heart).

Despite the widely acknowledged importance of all three of these domains for pastors, they do not all receive the same level of emphasis in practice. Historically, the knowledge domain has dominated pastoral training, with the hope that the necessary skills and character will somehow result. In recent decades, courses covering practical skills training and personal formation have been added to the curriculum. Unfortunately, these courses are few compared to the knowledge courses and their approach is largely knowledge-based (i.e. still mostly “read a book and write a paper,” only now you’re reading about about how to preach or writing a paper about prayer).

When it comes to designing competencies for a CBTE program, our default approach is to start by identifying the knowledge, skills and character pastors need in order to thrive in their calling. When I did so, the character and skill competencies came relatively easily, but I quickly discovered that the knowledge competencies were secondary. That is, a pastor doesn’t simply need to know certain things; they need to know certain things so that they can do certain things or have a certain character. Let me show you what I mean.

The first thing we typically assume pastors need to know is the Bible. But why do they need to know it? As you start to ask one “why” after another, peeling back the layers of the onion, you discover that what a pastor actually needs is a worldview formed by the Bible (which is a character competency), the ability to apply the wisdom of the Bible to modern-day situations (a skill competency), and the capacity to help others develop this worldview and practical wisdom (another skill competency). Any knowledge of the Bible that does not generate these outcomes is functionally useless. We encounter this kind of sterile Bible knowledge among athetistic professors of religious studies, some of whom write very insightful commentaries on the Bible. Yet all their insight is of no use to their own souls or those of others. What is more, such knowledge may even be dangerous as it can promote a false sense of spiritual security and pride (1 Corinthians 8:1) or generate an esteem in others who are then led astray by the sterile scholar’s lifestyle (Luke 11:42, 52).

Please understand what I am saying here. I don’t doubt for a moment how vital Bible knowledge is to the formation of pastors. My concern is that we have traditionally allowed ourselves to be satisfied by a demonstration of that knowledge alone rather than looking further, seeking proof of the student’s competency in their character and skills which are the things we actually want to see. To be sure, these character and skills are harder to measure than knowledge is. But that is no excuse for not trying.

The same could be said for the other two fields of knowledge that make up the bulk of pastoral training: systematic theology and Church history. Focusing again on the ultimate outcomes, we don’t need pastors who just know theology; we need pastors who can recognize the truth and correct error steadfastly yet gently. Similarly, we don’t need pastors who just know history; we need pastors who can responsibly employ the riches of Church history and their own denominational story to inspire and guide their congregations today.

Let’s be clear: knowledge about the Bible, theology, and history are absolutely vital and indispensable for the realization of these ultimate outcomes. You cannot get there without acquiring this knowledge along the way. However, in the scheme of competency-based theological education, this means that knowledge is never a competency. Rather, its proper place is among the assessments that measure competencies and the development activities the build those competencies.

This “demotion” of knowledge from the primary rank of learning outcomes will no doubt come as a shock, but a truly competency-based approach to pastoral formation leads us here. What is more, the rescue of pastoral formation from the hands of the academy model – which has produced countless graduates who are unsuited to pastoral ministry – demands it.