Over the past couple years I’ve regularly received inquiries from pastors interested in starting a pastoral training program of their own. These conversations always encourage me. But they also remind me that getting started can be tough. Here’s some practical help for those interested in beginning an internship or training program at their church.
Have a Vision
First and foremost, you must have a vision for training the next generation of pastors, and for doing so through the local church. No amount of practical advice will make your church an effective center for ministry preparation without a church-centered vision for preparing the next generation of leadership.
As I argued in an earlier article, seminary is valuable in many ways. But seminaries aren’t enough. When it comes to training pastors, the local church is essential. If we simply outsource pastoral training to the seminaries, pastors won’t be trained as they should. This article is mainly for those who already share this vision and want some ideas on how to actually carry it out. But if you’re not yet convinced, take a few minutes and let Mike Bullmore (”Brothers, Train Up the Next Generation”) or Mark Dever (”Raising Up Pastors Is the Church’s Work”) convince you.
Develop a Structure
Some programs meet weekly, others biweekly. Some last three years, others one year, and still others six months. Frequency, length, and size will all vary depending on context and needs. But any church-based training program will want to include the following three elements in their structure.
1. Provide meaningful ministry experience. Serving under the oversight of experienced pastors builds wisdom, sharpens gifts, grows faith, and prepares men for greater responsibility. When David was about to face Goliath, he recalled the victories God had given him while shepherding his father’s sheep. A bear and a lion helped prepare him to take on Goliath. Too many men enter their first pastorate with little or no experience. Imagine planning to preach 48 Sundays a year if you’ve only preached five sermons in your life. Imagine leading a church with all its various ministries when you’ve never been the primary leader of anything. Churches must provide meaningful places of regular service in which gifts, calling, and character can be observed, tested, and developed. Don’t use interns just to plug holes. Don’t just put them to work. Provide opportunities for meaningful ministry within your church. Evaluate those who serve, and as they prove faithful, hand over more responsibility.
2. Mentor. Mentoring can take many forms, but two components are essential. First, model faithful gospel ministry. Let those you’re mentoring watch you minister. Give them access to elders’ meetings, invite them into your home, and take them along on hospital visits or funeral preparations. You may think this unhelpful, but trust me—-much of what is second nature to you is totally foreign to them. You may find this distracting to your ministry, but equipping future pastors is a vital part of your ministry. Second, offer regular feedback. The local church offers what Mark Dever calls a “360-degree view” of a person’s life. Through observation you can help discern strengths and gifting. And when you notice character flaws or ministry deficiencies, talk to them and help them grow.
3. Pass on a vision for pastoral ministry. Much of this is accomplished through immersion in the life of a church. But you will want to communicate certain content, too. Different programs focus on different things. I know a program designed for men unable attend seminary at this stage in their lives. Therefore, they spend a lot of time on Greek, biblical theology, and church history. Since my church is only 30 minutes from an excellent seminary where most of our participants will learn such things, we focus on three areas we believe are best taught in the local church setting: preaching, pastoral character, and a gospel-centered approach to ministry.
Just about any church can offer aspiring pastors meaningful ministry experience, mentorship, and a biblical vision for pastoral ministry. The specific structures and schedules used will vary widely from church to church, but there are some basic steps a church should consider when implementing their program.
1. Get organized. You don’t need a perfect, innovative, or creative plan to train men for the ministry. But you do need a plan.
2. Get together. Set aside a regular time on the calendar for the purpose of pastoral training. At CrossWay, the whole group meets every other Wednesday afternoon for two hours. Individual mentoring appointments are scheduled at the beginning of each semester. If you don’t block out the time, it will quickly get squeezed out.
3. Get content. Basically, you need to have a plan of what you’re going to discuss when you get together. You could call this your curriculum. It doesn’t need to be complicated. First, identify the specific things you want to pass on in the time you have. Then develop teaching and/or assign reading to help facilitate the learning. Assign a few chapters on a topic and then gather to ask thought-provoking questions and discuss the reading. Or briefly teach on an issue and answer questions. Or work through a book of the Bible with a view to sound exegesis and application for preaching. Or invite associate pastors to meet with the guys and help them think through various ministries in the church. You don’t need to develop a seminary class. Simply pick some topics, assign some texts, get together, and help others learn.
4. Get participants. You may already have some faithful men at your church interested in being more intentionally trained. If so, challenge them to a specific commitment. We put in writing the goals, schedule, and expectations of our program, and we ask the men to apply.
But what if you don’t know anyone in your church interested in pastoral ministry? First, ask God to raise up someone already there or bring someone in whom you can invest. Second, consider creating a short-term ministry position or residency program that will attract young trainees. Consider how one or more short-term pastoral positions could help energize your church and serve pastors just starting out. This strategy could be especially helpful for churches with no seminary nearby. If you want more young men to plant and pastor churches in your region, recruit seminary graduates for two-year residencies, train them well, then bring them on full-time or send them out. Third, remember that you need only one participant to begin.
5. Get resources. Buy participants a few good books, help pay for them to attend a quality conference with you, help pay for their seminary courses, or create paid internships or residencies so men can learn while serving. You don’t need to do all of these. But lead your church to invest financially in pastoral training. You’re actually investing in the future of the church.