Mission Creep in Ministerial Training

Health clubs thrive on the people who sign a one-year contract on January 3 and then never actually come to the gym.  All the paying members ever showed up on the same day, the fire marshal would shut the place down.

Storefront martial arts studios live on beginners.  There are people who stick with it into the upper ranks, of course, but the endless parade of white belts who join, stick with it for six months or a year, and then quit?  Those people are the ones that are paying the rent.

What’s this got to do with training ministers?


Say your pastor’s getting older, and the church realizes that come five, ten years, you’ll be needing a new pastor.  You’ve got a guy in the church, promising young fellow who’s definitely got the character and the gifts, but he needs the training.  Now, you could ship him off to seminary for a few years, and then hope you get him back.  But he’s got a wife, three kids, a mortgage, a dog, a steady job, and you’re asking him to pull up stakes, move to another state, struggle through four years of the most demanding academics he’s ever seen, spend his evenings waiting tables or sitting in a booth at a parking garage, trying to keep body and soul together on minimum wage and still be a good husband and a good father, only to come out of the experience thousands of dollars in debt, so he can come back to your church and get paid less than he’s already making right now–and for a lot more work.  He ain’t going.

Wait just a minute, you say.  What happened to dedication?  The church needs him!  Yeah, sure.  So do his wife and kids, and the needs of the wife and kids come first.  “He who does not care for his own has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”  As long as that’s the deal you’re offering, the only takers will be guys who are willing to put themselves a whisker away from disqualifying themselves from the very ministry they’re preparing for.  (And then we wonder why it’s so hard to hire a pastor who understands the church budget…)

So you think, “Well, okay…what if he could take evening classes right where he is?”  Ah, now you’re getting somewhere.  But there isn’t anybody offering evening classes within reasonable driving distance.  Now what?

Start something, of course.  Just to be talking about it, let’s say you can score a classroom in a church basement somewhere, and let’s say you have the skilled people you need to teach.  (That’s granting an awful lot, but let it pass for now.)  You’ve got one student, anyway…

…but where do you get enough to make this worth doing?  If you decide, right out front, that you’re training pastors for church leadership and pulpit ministry, and that’s it, then you won’t accept anyone unless you think they have a reasonable chance of being a pastor.  Right out the gate, that means you’re accepting nobody who seems to lack the pastoral gifts, and for many in the conservative world, no women, either.  So you’ve excluded a huge part of the population.  You’re happy, because you’re doing a narrow, well-defined job, but costs mount.  You need a photocopier for class handouts.  You need money for rent for your classroom.  Maybe you get enough things going at one time that you need two classrooms.  You need books for your library.  These are largely fixed costs, and you don’t have a lot of students to offset them.  You get some donors, but the truth is, with so few students, you’re serving a very small community, so the number of donors is small, and they don’t give much. A few years of barely making it, and you’re facing the possibility of having to close your doors.  You’ve got to bring in more money, or you’re going to go broke.  You’ve done everything you can think of to bring in more qualified students, but you can’t give people the pastoral gift — either they have it, or they don’t.

Meanwhile, you’re taking three or four calls a week from people who “just want to take a few Bible classes.”  You turn them down, of course, because you’re only training pastors.  But eventually, you start to wonder if maybe there’s another source of funds there.  So you give it a shot — you open up your entry-level courses to auditors.  They pay less, of course.  But you have a number who really want to do the work.  If your instructor’s grading the work, then he ought to be paid for that — so you let them take the class for credit, and charge them accordingly.

Shortly, you have a group of satisfied students who’ve taken everything that’s open to them and are hungry for more.  You open up the next group of courses.

And so on.  Fast-forward a few years, and you’ve got a Bible college on your hands.  Most of your students aren’t going to be pastors.  But anybody who shows up at the front door with a high school diploma and the tuition money can take classes, and then declare a “pastoral ministries” major.  Since you have the institutional memory of being a training institute for pastors, you’ve never made any sort of serious attempt at offering a well-rounded education.  Out of necessity, you’ve added an English Comp course or two, just because you had too many students coming in who couldn’t write a paper to save their lives.  You added English Grammar because you had too many guys flunking out of Greek and Hebrew because they didn’t know their own language.  But still, you mostly teach Bible.

Result: you graduate people who never had the pastoral gifts, never would have been selected to be pastors, and whose training is suited for nothing at all except pastoral work.  Churches hire these people because they have the training.  Disaster ensues.

What’s the answer?  I don’t know for sure (I have some ideas, but they’ll keep til next week).  One thing I can say for sure: this ain’t it.



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