In the mid-80s, Nick Faldo made one of the bravest decisions a professional athlete can take; he chose to completely overhaul his technique. It was not as if Faldo was a failure: he was already a European Order of Merit winner, had carded three top-10 Open finishes and was, to that point, the youngest Ryder Cup player in history. Yet, midway through the 1985 season Faldo recruited David Leadbetter to deconstruct and rebuild his swing.
It’s hard to fathom what it means for a man in his late twenties, who has already achieved success way beyond the ordinary to make such a decision. Anyone who has played it know that a golf swing is hundreds of movements grooved by repetition into the unconscious, like rock worn smooth by water. By 1985, Faldo had been playing the game for a decade and a half, eight of them as a professional. A decade and a half of his sinews and tendons being trained day after day, a decade and a half for his swing to become as unconscious as breathing. To even begin to untie that knot of muscle memory and instinct was to court disaster and professional humiliation. Yet Faldo believed he could not win majors with the swing he had and so he submitted himself to Leadbetter’s analysis and a punishing schedule of practice.
I was reminded of Faldo’s story when someone mentioned to me that it seemed that sometimes men came out of theological college worse preachers than when they went in. Is that not a total repudiation of the value of theological education? What is the point of sending gifted ministers away for training if it does not improve their preaching, which is, after all, central to the pastoral task? The question didn’t surprise me. In the 18 months or so I’ve been at college, I have sometimes found it harder to imagine how a bible passage will connect with people who don’t spend their weeks considering Chalcedonian Christology, Reformed Epistemology, Verbal Aspect or Deontological Ethics. Living and working in a theological college inevitably means that one’s thoughts are taken up with subjects that never darken the door of most people’s minds, as they didn’t mine before I began my studies.
So then, is theological study a waste of time? A dangerous piece of self-indulgence likely to ruin you for ministry to ordinary people? It was at this point I remembered Faldo’s career. Theological education is like changing a golf swing. Most people arrive at theological college with several years of Christian ministry behind them; certain ways of reading the Bible, certain questions to ask, grooved and ingrained through years of practice. To begin to deconstruct those things, to open yourself up to the vistas of new issues that church history, dogmatics and the original languages raise can feel like telling muscles to go in unfamiliar and painful places. Suddenly, passages that seemed straightforward and clear are deeper, richer, asking keener and more piercing questions, making a thick web of connections with the Scriptures, world and the church. What to include, what to leave out?
As Leadbetter remodelled his backswing, changing the rhythm of his swing and the flight of the ball off the club, Faldo’s results nosedived. His lowest moment was perhaps the 1985 Ryder Cup where, though Europe won a historic victory, Faldo played just two matches and won no points at all. All Leadbetter’s teaching was making Faldo worse. Yet, Faldo persevered, even as his confidence flagged, and eventually, in May 1987 he won the Spanish Open – his first tournament for three years.
Faldo submitted himself to this kind of deconstruction because he wanted to be the very best he could be. He did not believe that fleeting, inconsistent performance was satisfactory. A theological education is valuable for the same reason. Of course, Faldo was playing for millions of dollars, the adulation of nations and fame that will last as long as golf is played, so perhaps his years of toil was an understandable investment. But Christian ministers serve for far greater riches: the crown of righteousness, the commendation of their master and a name written on stone known only to the one who receives it. If we do not think those are rewards enough for the investment of three years study, then we do not know what the Bible means when it says what it does.
Nick Faldo did not deconstruct his swing to be able to hit the ball harder or higher or further. He did it so that, under the severest pressure, his swing would be reliable. A month after his Spanish victory, Faldo found himself in second place going into the final round of the Open, a shot behind the American Paul Azinger. In Scottish mizzle and under the severest pressure, Faldo made eighteen straight pars while Azinger dropped shots on the 17th and 18th to give Faldo the tournament by a stroke. Eighteen times the course made requirements of Faldo, eighteen times Faldo’s swing was reliable enough to meet them. He went on to win five more majors, the most successful European golfer of his generation.
Christian ministers will, over decades of ministry, surely find that serving Christ places them under pressure even heavier than the final round of a golf major. A hostile culture, a ruthless enemy, a sinful heart; the task is not to perform the spectacular but to be reliable: Sunday by Sunday to meet the requirement of preaching Christ, to teach sound doctrine and rebuke error. Most of us, to have any chance of doing so in the days ahead, will need to have our muscles stretched to unfamiliar places by church history, public theology, apologetics, the original languages and all the rest; our life and doctrine honed and grooved by the whole counsel of God. That’s why, though it may feel painful and uncomfortable, I’m so grateful for three years deconstructing and reconstructing my ministry at college.
It may well be that my preaching is a bit stodgier, a bit more dense, in my first few sermons after college as I get used to mining the deeper seams of God’s truth that college has opened up for me. But, perhaps, rather than a sign of failure, that is an indication that real change is happening; bad habits unpicked, a sounder, stronger approach put in place, one that will stand up to the pressures that the decade to come will bring. The way to judge my theological education will not be to compare the first sermon I preach afterwards with the last one I preached before but to see if, in the years of ministry the Lord gives me, I prove to be reliable in discharging my duties as a steward of the mysteries of God. May it always be so.