Is it time to rethink – or even drop – our ministry training schemes?

What if we were to close down our Ministry Training Schemes and start again?  Up and down the country for the past 2-30 years, churches and Gospel partnerships have been running these schemes. They tend primarily (though not exclusively) to be run from churches with high student numbers and a scheme typically involves

  • One day per week attending a course which will include a Bible overview, training in exegesis and perhaps cover some theological topics.
  • Practical service in the church, setting out chairs, clearing up, stewarding special events
  • Experience in an area of ministry such as leading a small group, 1-1 discipleship, students work or youth and children’s work.

The schemes tend to be targeted at graduates who may take it as a gap year before going into their chosen profession or follow up this training by heading off to theological college. In fact for some time, the schemes have struck me as a filtering process for identifying future pastors and vicars. Which raises some questions in my mind including first, how useful are such schemes in terms of genuinely discerning and identifying people for Gospel ministry and how necessary are they in terms of providing training for ministry?

Regarding the second question, I am increasingly of a view that they are a bit of a luxury both to the church and to the individual. For the church, essentially this is free or cheap labour but in fact, they are doing the very things that should be part and parcel of normal church membership.  For the individual, they get some time for extra Bible study and teaching. However, is it really necessary? I’m sure the scheme will be sold to them as a necessary foundation for Bible college. As someone who never went through such a scheme, I would say it is not. Indeed, dare I say it, the trainee would do better to join and stick with a local church where God’s word is carefully expounded each week and where there are plenty of opportunities to serve and where the elders proactively encourage younger men in preaching, find a job and use some of your free time to get reading deep and wide.[1] This means that over time, you will experience genuine discipleship, pastoral care, coaching and mentoring. Within the context of a local church over a number of years there will be discernment and if it is the right thing to do, then the church should send you on to theological training.

If we did that, then that will actually free up time and resources for something else. You see, the reason I see these schemes as a luxury is that we are in pressing times where there is an urgent mission and no time for luxuries.  You can guess what that urgent mission is if you have known me long enough. It is getting the Gospel out to our towns and cities, to our estates and inner city neighbourhoods.  To do this means that we are going to need to plant new churches and replant old and struggling ones.  To do that we are going to need people who will answer the call. To find and support such people is going to require financial support and Biblical training.

So, if instead of running a ministry training scheme for recent graduates and instead of having them do the tasks no-one else really wants to do in your own church, here is an idea.  What about we started identifying potential pastors and planters to reach communities. There is a good chance that they won’t be graduates and they probably are not in your usual student churches at all. Indeed, some of the people we hope to see leading churches and planting new ones in ten years time are probably not in church at all yet!

Next, we will commit to supporting them and training them. But here is the sting. They won’t be coming to our churches. Our own long term members will put the chairs out, lead the Bible studies and do the one to ones.  These people won’t even be at our services on Sundays.  Where will they be? Well, they’ll be in a community planting a church or worshipping with a struggling church and starting to serve there. In the week, they’ll be getting to know people in their community and finding opportunities to share the Gospel.  Furthermore, some of our members will be going out to join them and help them as they get started.

The training they’ll receive over the next 3 or 4 years will be of a high theological standard but won’t be delivered in traditional seminary lecture style. The aim will not be to simply give them a foundation to prepare them for theological college. Instead, the aim will be to thoroughly train and equip people who for all sorts of reasons wouldn’t be able to access seminary training to exactly the same level and standard as though going to Union and Oak Hill. This is not about decrying the brilliant work that such institutions do. It is simply about recognising two things. First of all that there are more people out there and a greater need for training than our current theological institutions can handle if we are serious about mission to unreached Britain. Secondly, it takes different methods and routes if we are to equip everyone for ministry that we need in this task.

I’m not expecting many plaudits for this article. I think that we have an approach that is now well and truly embedded in our thinking.  However, if we are to move towards genuine mission for the sake of the kingdom and not just maintaining our own churches then we need to start thinking and acting differently.


[1] For clarity, it is highly likely that the church they join as a member will in fact be the church they attended at University. The point is that they should receive as good teaching, spiritual care and opportunities for ministry without attending a training scheme as they do on one.  We should not need these schemes to enable people to learn and serve.

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