Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Preparation for Ministry: Not as Simple as It Used to Be

When I attended seminary, most of the student body were young men and women who had just completed college.  A few like me had spent a couple of years in the military, another graduate school, worked in a secular vocation, or taught school.   Occasionally, I would have a class with an older person, usually male, who had been “called to the ministry” at midlife and was seeking a theological education in order to be a pastor. 

Most of my peers were preparing to work in the local church and being immersed in the knowledge and skills to serve Southern Baptist churches that followed the denominational model of programming and missions.  Quite honestly, we were being indoctrinated as much as we were being educated.

How things have changed!

A recent blog post by Tom Ehrich pointed out that “seminary education is coming under increasing scrutiny, not only for cost-effectiveness but for quality of preparation. As one longtime fan of Princeton Theological Seminary lamented recently, ‘Our seminaries are preparing clergy for a church that no longer exists.’"

An article posted on the Insights in Religion website, however, reports on the increased enrolment of older adults in seminary that come out of traditional churches and hope to serve traditional churches.

Yet another perspective is offered by Thom Rainer who discusses the “disruptive changes” facing ministers in the coming days that completely alter the landscape, particularly for pastors.

All of these commentators point not only to  the need to find new ways to educate men and women for ministry, but the challenge to provide an education that will form ministers for a variety of settings.  Although I am not an expert on these matters, let me suggest some types of pastors that are needed now and for the future.

First, there is the pastor who preaches, teaches, cares for the flock, and administers a more or less traditional congregation.  There is still a need for this type of pastor, but the challenge is that fewer traditional churches are able to support such a person because of a decline in membership and financial resources.  Increasingly, these pastors will have to be bi-vocational, finding a major source of their income (and benefit packages) outside of the church.

Second, some churches need a pastor who will serve as a change agent, assisting the church to transition to a new approach to ministry that fits the context in which it finds itself.  This may involve changing worship and ministry style, becoming more racially diverse, or transitioning to serve a completely different ethnic group. 

Third, increasingly we need hospice pastors who can help a church die with dignity.  As painful as it may be to say it, some churches are not going to survive. How can a leader help members in these churches find a new church home, deal with their grief, and be good stewards of the physical resources they have built over the years?

Fourth, we need entrepreneurial pastors who can start something new.  This may be a new church start, a missional faith community, or an outreach that looks nothing like a traditional church.    The most important aspect of such a work is that it will be contextual in form, worship, and ministry.

Seminaries and theological schools face a tremendous challenge in retooling their curricula and redirecting resources to provide such leaders for the future, especially since so many of our churches are in denial about the situations in which they find themselves.  Theological educators may have to spend some time defining reality for the churches as well as preparing leaders for the future.

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