For the past several weeks, we’ve been discussing Bethany’s philosophy of theological education. The main reason we approach leadership development the way we do is that we believe it is the most biblical method. This does not mean that we think that other approaches are anti-biblical. But we do believe that our approach is true to specific New Testament principles that should govern the way we do theological education.
But in addition to being biblical, we also believe that a church-based approach to education makes good practical sense. We want to highlight a few of the benefits of participating in a church-based leadership development program.
One of the unintended consequences of taking theological education outside of the church is that the process of appointing a pastor has become less secure. In the New Testament, it appears that church members were appointed to positions of leadership within their own congregation (Acts 13:1, 14:23).
But more importantly, 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 lay out very specific qualifications that all pastors throughout time must meet. Churches have a moral and scriptural obligation to appoint ministers that, to the very best of their knowledge, meet these criteria. These criteria are very specific and focus almost exclusively on character qualities. In order for a church to evaluate a pastoral candidate against these qualifications, they are required to know intimate details about his marriage, family, and personal life. They need to be able to see him in a variety of different contexts and situations.
But, in the system used to select pastors today, it’s almost impossible for churches to gain this kind of knowledge. Pastors send their resume to a church they have little or no intimate knowledge of. He then is interviewed by a pulpit committee made up of people he doesn’t know. He fills out some questionnaires and answers questions from the congregation. In all this, the congregation knows very little about the candidate except for what the paperwork says and what little they could gain from the one or two sermons he preached to them. For his part, the perspective pastor knows little about the culture, philosophy, and makeup of the congregation he’s about to devote himself to.
Someone has said that this method is like going out on a blind date and deciding the next day whether or not to get married. There’s simply no way that a congregation can evaluate a potential pastor to the extent that the Scripture requires without a meaningful relationship.
While we sometimes have no choice but to use this method, there’s usually a better alternative. When churches raise up leaders from within their own congregation, there is that deep relationship that allows for a more thorough evaluation. The church has had time (possibly years) to see the candidate conduct himself in his life, marriage, family, ministry, and work. They have the information needed to make an accurate assessment of his qualifications.
This approach also creates a continuity of vision and mission between pastors. There’s not a disruption every time a new pastor is installed. Likewise, because they already know each other, pastor and church can transition easily into new roles. Rather than changing pastors every three years, churches establish a multi-generational philosophy that can even outlive individual pastors.
I believe this method works better for both pastors and churches and is the best way to ensure that pastors measure up to biblical standards.
If the primary (though not exclusive) aim of pastoral training is to foster biblical character qualities, than our approach to leadership development must create an atmosphere that encourages spiritual growth. We believe the church is one of the best contexts in the world for this kind of growth.
By doing theological education as an extension of church ministry, a student has the natural accountability that comes from interacting with the family of God. Not only does he receive regular instruction from pastors and ministry leaders, the natural “family dynamics” that take place in the local church are specially designed to create an environment of accountability.
Most college students spend the majority of their time with people their age. While this is not altogether wrong, we believe there is considerable value in interacting with people of different age groups. It creates a more balanced view of life and restricts some of the sinful tendencies that all peer groups are prone to. Accountability and sharpening are interwoven into the very fabric of the TEAM program.
Connected to this is the invaluable process of mentoring. The name of our leadership development program is Theological Education And Mentoring. We believe that mentoring is just as important as theological education. The Bible seems to present a model where theological education happens in the context of heart-on-heart mentoring. It’s impossible to overstate how valuable this is. There’s no better way to prepare for ministry than to get next to a minister.
For most people pursuing vocational ministry, their education is segmented. First, they receive their academic training. Then they might do some kind of internship to get practical experience. With TEAM Work, those two elements are integrated together.
This has two major benefits. First, this gives much more time for ministry experience. The entire learning program is centered around gaining ministry experiences. It’s not tacked on as an afterthought. It’s an essential part of the entire training experience. Second, it allows academic learning and practical learning to feed off and inform each other, providing a more comprehensive educational experience.
It should be noted in all this that the experiences students gain are not “busy work” activities manufactured to fulfill a requirement. It’s authentic ministry. Students will be filling roles that need filled and making real contributions to a local church.
When pastoral training is delegated to parachurch organizations, ministry has to be simulated rather than organically appearing as a natural part of the education. Most Bible colleges require students to participate in “Christian ministry”. This is certainly better than nothing and the effort is praiseworthy. However, when theological education is removed from the local church, two less-than-ideal consequences occur.
First, the ministry experiences are often forced and contrived. Students scrounge around for a ministry to fulfill before the deadline. The needs of church are secondary to the needs of the student. The job exists for its own sake, rather than helping to fulfill the mission of the church. But in church-based theological education, the ministry experiences are driven by the real and organic needs of the church. Nothing has to be forced. Ministry experience is the natural by-product of church-based training.
Second, this sort of imposed ministry experience often competes with the ministry of regular church members. Students can easily become the primary church workers, while regular, more permanent members don’t get as much experience. All the preaching opportunities are reserved for the young Pastoral Studies major. College students are prefered for teaching Sunday school and other duties. But when your theological education students are church members, there’s no conflict. Students fit into the natural ministry of church, enhancing the ministry of their fellow members.
We believe that every church and every pastor should be doing missions, not just supporting it. But, as has already been stated, missions requires missionaries and church planting requires church planters. Without a robust leadership development program, most churches don’t have the men they need to fulfill these missional objectives.
The current model requires churches to send their best people out of the church in order to be equipped for more effective service. This puts local churches at a disadvantage and keeps them from spreading the Gospel as effectively. Training pastors and missionaries within the church allows local churches to be much more involved into the Great Commission. Students serve in the church until they are sent by the church (Acts 13:1-3). The local church is central to the missionary enterprise.
The drive behind church-based theological education is missional. Raising up leaders and missionaries from within the congregation allows local churches to play a central, proactive role in the evangelization and discipleship of their community, region, and world.