The Pathetic Preparation Of Pastors For Practical Performance
It is hard to learn ministry skills from pastors who are still learning theirs on the job, or have settled for a new definition of the job that has conveniently left off the skills of evangelism, home visitation, hospital visitation, prison preaching, doing acts of mercy and good works, and even counseling or conflict resolution.
So what does the average seminarian actually know how to do when he enters the ministry? Notice, I didn’t ask how much he knows. He probably knows more than he will ever actually make use of in ministry to real people, or even in ministry to himself. Depending on the Presbytery that examines him he will probably be pressed to know a great many facts and details about all kinds of things theological, historical, and hermeneutical.
The candidate for ordination will be force fed with knowledge, and then squeezed like a lemon, so that the committee can examine him to the point of dripping out of him everything they can, up to the limits of his knowledge. They will take him to the edge of his learning, and God help him if that edge is too far from the expectations of the committee. The gulf between expectations and his deficiencies will not be easily tolerated, let alone any shaky, suspicious opinions, or convictions. If found wanting he will be sent back for more study, and possibly for a few persuasion sessions.
Studying is in fact what he knows how to do, and what the members of the Examining Committee know how to do. This is what he will do to his disciples, and to any potential new officers; he will make them study. And when it comes to any kind of hands on work of ministry, he will endeavor to study that as well on his way to actually avoiding it. It is hard to learn from pastors these days, unless one has time for more study. If one wanted to be mentored by a pastor, to catch some ministry skills he might be modeling, well, one would have to sit quietly while he reads, or uses some kind of software study material, or as he listens to a sermon series by a prominent scholar; that is if the student wanted to emulate the skills of his pastor.
If one were to ask a seminary where the practical training comes in they might answer that they are in fact not a Bible College or Institute that teaches “ministry.” Or they might say that is what internships are for, where they send recent graduates to learn from recent graduates who have no practical experience either, except in preaching on Sunday morning. It is hard to learn ministry skills from pastors who are still learning theirs on the job, or have settled for a new definition of the job that has conveniently left off the skills of evangelism, home visitation, hospital visitation, prison preaching, doing acts of mercy and good works, and even counseling or conflict resolution.
If such pastors are planting churches and asked to train new Elders and Deacons they repeat for them what they learned how to do in seminary. Yes, they challenge them to study. They give them as much theology, doctrine, apologetics, Catechism, and Book of Church Order material as these lay people can absorb. They don’t necessarily teach them how to pray, or how to have a good argument in a meeting without getting mad and quitting the church, or how to handle a divorce case, or how to go on a mercy visit, or how to mobilize the laity to do ministry in the community, or how to design and organize various outreach kinds of ministry, or how to handle the pressure of marriage and child raising while feeling obligated to keep ordination vows and serve the church.
Internships are not for a student to become a gopher for the church staff, or to be saddled with a particular ministry (such as nursery or Jr. High) that everyone else seems to be avoiding. It is specifically to rotate him through essential skills; how to evangelize and share his faith actively and on purpose with strangers, how to visit widows, the elderly, the sick, and those in prison, how to prepare and execute a worship service, wedding, and funeral, how to moderate and help make effective a leader’s meeting, how to problem solve and deal with conflict on every level (other staff, Elders, Deacons, members and attendees), and how to cast vision for ministry. He needs to do these things with and in the company of the senior pastor and other leaders so he can hear their reflections and see their reactions in ministry context.
Internships are to help a potential pastor realize if he has a work ethic or not, if he knows how to set boundaries for himself and his family as he does ministry, and if he has the capacity and willingness to sacrifice himself and his boundaries for the sake of the Gospel. Internships should set up new pastors for the reality that one will often need more people, more money, and more time to get the simplest programs off the ground. This reality will help new pastors learn the joy of frustration and anxiety, and be tempted to reach the heights of resentment and despair as no one seems to give a rip about his new idea. Where will the volunteers come from, and where will the resources come from? Oh yes, this is where interns learn the practical realities of faith and prayer, and that God makes things happen out of resources that aren’t yet seen.
Without practical training experiences pastors will continue to be woefully unprepared to really train their members for ministry, and they will continue to avoid those experiences because it means risk, and time, which could be better spent in ….study. Without passing practical skills to the people of the church then those church members will have no way of showing the love of God to the people of the world, or of learning how to get to those people and communicate the Gospel to them.
May the Lord raise up among us great training pastors, who take potential leaders into practical ministry and teach them skills by doing, reflection, and re-doing!
Randy Nabors is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, is Pastor Emeritus of New City Fellowship in Chattanooga Tenn., and the Urban & Mercy Ministries Coordinator- The New City Network at Mission to North America (MNA). This article is used with permission.
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