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Formal or nonformal? Some thoughts from your educational tour guide

by Amber Simpson, Entrust, WWMT mid-Atlantic regional leader

woman pointing down a trail in the mountains


Congratulations. Welcome to the crossroads. I’m so glad you’re here. Your vision to create something new is leading you to acquire tools, tackle challenges and venture into new educational territory. Come on in, pull up a chair and let’s grab a cup of something hot. It’s my joy to greet travelers like you and to share some insights about the paths ahead.

At the crossroads of Christian leadership, you may find yourself weighing formal and nonformal educational options. As your guide, I’ll lay out some distinctives of the formal and nonformal educational paths. We’ll discuss reasons to pursue one or the other and their benefits and shortfalls. Finally, I’ll leave you with some final words of encouragement, for these paths do not present a means to an end. These paths represent a journey of transformation that will require diligence to persevere, faith to believe in the unseen and companions to challenge and encourage you every step of the way.

Formal education

Let’s begin with the path of formal education, such as a college or seminary. Formal education offers a structured and systematic approach to learning with regulated standards and trained or licensed teachers. You would likely be required to have previous education and acceptance into a degree or licensure program. Upon completion of your studies, you would be awarded a license or degree testifying that you met the required standards and achieved a level of competency. Some of the benefits of this path include learning from leading experts in your field, developing relationships with like-minded adults and undergoing rigorous learning activities. However, it can cost a considerable amount of money and time.

Nonformal education

Looking down the path of nonformal education, you will find a variety of contexts and possibilities. Some key features include adult learning environments addressing practical situations, a diversity of learning methods, and local resources made available to you. Nonformal education might include specialized training such as evaluating your current ministry activity, reflecting on new content in a small group, then re-evaluating activity in light of principles discussed. It can include casual discipleship groups offering deep dialogue based on a class or sermon series. Finally, seminars or continuing education trainings are examples of nonformal educational opportunities. In addition to content, learning is built on learner participation, practicing new skills and coaching. While you may receive a certificate of completion, nonformal education will not hold the weight of a degree or license awarded from a formal institution. Because the cost and time commitment are considerably less, nonformal education is generally more accessible than formal education.

Nonformal learning: one example

One specific example that I’ve found particularly impactful is Entrust’s Women-to-Women Ministry Training. Some of the values of this model include learning from a certified facilitator along with a diverse group of like-minded adults committed to a similar purpose. Women learn together in groups of limited size – generally 10–12 participants – so that each person has the opportunity to participate in group discussion. This approach offers women opportunities to practice new skills in a small group with coaching and feedback.

WWMT develops biblically equipped women who are not considering a profession that requires formal education. For example, if you oversee a group of women in a church, ministry or work setting, you might be considering ways to multiply leadership skills in the women you serve. How could you teach a small group of women to go out and teach others? In 2 Tim. 2:2, Paul encourages, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” Many times, women serve, figuring things out as they go, but never feel equipped. They may not see themselves as guides, but more likely as survivors. When women are equipped with the tools, practice and coaching offered in nonformal educational settings, they learn what works and why it works. This competency and confidence leads to equipping others who will be able to teach others also.

Often women are asked to lead a small group or Bible study but feel ill-equipped. Nonformal Christian education may be right for them. It bridges the gap between participating in ministry and leading in ministry. Engaging in a Bible study does not always equip us to systematically study the Scriptures for ourselves, create lesson plans or lead discussions. Participating in small groups rarely equips us with the skills to write open questions to initiate dialogue, address group dynamics and disciple others as small group leaders. These skills require some new content, practice and coaching. Why wander in the fog, when a map, flashlight and guide can make the journey a little more enjoyable and fruitful?

Formal or nonformal? Let your end goal guide you

While each educational path offers distinct benefits and drawbacks, your final purpose may inform you as to which one is required. In Christian leadership, the positions of pastor, college professor or counselor require (or strongly encourage) a seminary degree or state license. These positions are often regulated by the state, educational or church standards. For example, to practice as a licensed professional counselor, you must comply with the licensure standards of your state. To teach at an accredited Bible college or seminary, the accrediting board requires all professors to hold a terminal degree. Finally, pastors are highly encouraged, if not required, to earn a seminary degree to learn the original biblical languages, preaching skills and doctrine. While nonformal education may complement or hone these skills, a formal education is required for the job.

Formal education: be aware of the pitfalls

woman reading a book at a library

While formal education may be required, there are some pitfalls to consider. The structured learning and sheer volume of content can lead to disintegrated learning. In A Theology of Christian Education, Larry Richards writes, “We’ve attempted to change persons by contact at one point of the personality (cognitive) and by the simple expedient of providing new (revealed) information. The result far too often has been the development of a distorted faith; a faith that takes the form of beliefs isolated from the total personality … divorced from body and emotion and divorced from doing.” When learning focuses on content transfer and accumulation, measured by tests, papers and charts, we run the risk of content overload. When our beliefs, choices and habits are not fully engaged with the new knowledge, our learning is disintegrated. Incorporating new content into other aspects of our being takes time. We must wrestle the new information from our short-term memory into our working and long-term memory through dialogue, debate and personal problem solving. Knowledge that doesn’t struggle its way to habits and character can manifest as empty words and even hypocrisy; knowing the truth, but not living the truth.

Some solutions: mix nonformal elements with formal education

When formal education is required, how can we navigate the potential pitfalls of hypocrisy and empty status?

First, we must be aware. Attune your attention to the overload of knowledge and possible exclusion of beliefs, choices and habits. What are some ways to work through the knowledge in a small group or informal setting to integrate it more deeply?

Second, we must persevere with tenacity. Wrestling is one of the most exhausting sports. It challenges one to recall strategic moves, resist physically and fight emotionally. I’ve never seen more boys cry than in wrestling. I say this with the utmost respect. The tears attest to the demands the sport makes on every aspect of the boy’s mind, body and strength. Consider which classes will be your wrestling matches. You may not be able to wrestle through every class as it comes but save some for later.

Finally, we must surround ourselves with companions and guides. We are designed as relational beings made in the image of the trinity. It is not good for us to be alone. Who are the people shining their flashlights to guide you along the path? Who is the coach in your corner fighting for you, yelling for you to stay with it? Who is the woman by your side in the dark nights or ridiculous days when nothing goes according to plan? Do you hear the Holy Spirit’s still small voice in the quiet spaces of your day?


I hope our time together brought to light some of the distinctives of formal and nonformal education with their benefits and shortfalls. I believe the vision that brought you here will light your way as to which one suits your needs. Once again, I say, “Congratulations!” Regardless of the path you choose, may the adventures delight you, challenges strengthen you and companions encourage you. You are in for a life-changing journey!

Amber Simpson
Amber Simpson

Consider and discuss

  1. How would you describe formal and nonformal education to a friend?

  2. What is an area of ministry in which you find yourself desiring or needing additional education or training?

  3. After reading this article, which path of learning is seeming most appropriate to your needs?

  4. What resources are available to you to gain that additional learning?

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