Who is responsible for training our ministers?

“Few of those contacting Bible colleges [to ask for help in finding a pastor] have invested in theological education over the years.  Some will have helped fund a member in training.  Hardly any will have adopted one or more of the theological colleges and systematically invested in the training of a new generation of Christian leaders.”

Those are the words of Kerry Orchard, Development Manager at WEST (Wales Evangelical School of Theology). He’s right, of course. Most churches only realise the value of theological colleges when they have need of a new pastor.

What has caused this lack of investment in theological training? Colleges must accept their part of responsibility. Many training institutions have not always been as committed to building partnerships with local churches as they perhaps should have been. But before we point the finger too readily, let’s remember that colleges are there to serve the church, not lead the church. The church must take primary responsibility. Perhaps it is fairer to say that many churches have not been as committed to building partnerships with Bible colleges as we should have been. And much more importantly, many churches have not been as committed to training men for the ministry as we should have been. As a result, investment in training a new generation of Christian leaders is very low across independent churches.

We need to put that right. In a previous article we considered the costs of funding theological education. They’re staggering. With living expenses and course fees, around £50,000 would be needed to train a married man for three years. Where on earth is such a a man going to find at least £50,000 from if he feels a call to full-time work?

It doesn’t need to be like this. And solving the problem needn’t involve churches writing cheques for tens of thousands of pounds. Let me show you how.

Whose responsibility?

We saw last time that it could cost around £50,000 to train for the ministry. It is usually assumed that the man’s sending church ought to make a reasonably significant contribution to that cost. But stop and think for a moment. When I was in college, my home church supported me sacrificially. But like many students, when I left college I didn’t return to my home church. I was called elsewhere. Generally speaking, the home church is substantially worse off after sending someone to college. The man and his family were probably giving a fairly substantial amount in financial gifts each year – but no longer. They will have been having an input into the church’s life and ministry – which if he is preparing for pastoral ministry or mission work, is likely to be substantial. The church will lose that, too. And then there is the consideration of a major contribution to his training expenses on top of that!

I am not suggesting that sending churches ought not be involved in funding the training of their members – it’s vital that they do, and vital that they remain involved in the training. But what I am suggesting is that the burden needs to be borne not just by the sending church, but by the receiving church too.

So let’s assume that the sending church will contribute £50 a week for the duration of the training (that’s around £7,800 over three years). And let’s also assume that the man is willing to contribute a similar amount, as are his friends and family. Of course, those from small churches, or those whose wider family are on a low-income or are not Christians will probably find it almost impossible to reach that amount. Nevertheless, let’s assume that those from larger churches or richer families give more, and that the average student is able to bring £150 a week to his studies (a total £23,400 of three years). Even with that very sacrificial triple contribution, there is still £26,600 to find. Where does that come from?

Most men starting in the pastoral ministry are in their thirties, with a little life experience and some theological training behind them. I don’t know the exact figure, but thirty to thirty-five would seem a reasonable estimate of the age of most first-time ministers. If so, by God’s grace, that man should have thirty to thirty five years in the ministry before retirement. Remember that we said receiving churches ought to share the financial burden? This would seem to suggest that churches with ministers ought to be setting aside around £750-£850 a year to ensure that when the time comes for them to call a new pastor, they have contributed sufficient funds to train one.

A plea for strategic, planned investment

Although I’m suggesting that churches invest £750-£850 per year towards training men for the ministry, this does put a substantially larger burden on smaller churches. It’s probably better to express such an amount in terms of a percentage of a church’s income to avoid this disparity. If the average income of our churches is £40-£50,000 when this would be just 2% of our income.

Is it too much to suggest that each of our churches invests 2% of our annual income in training men for the pastoral ministry?

How should such a scheme work? Ideally, I suppose a fund would be set up where churches could commit an annual donation, and then apply for a grant when they send someone to college. In this way, our independent churches can become what biblically they really are, inter-dependent churches.

But frankly, we’re probably a long way from that. At the moment, whilst there is a crisis of funding, we need to give directly to colleges or to students to meet the need now. Perhaps in a few years time, when bank balances are more healthy and necessary investment has been met, an independent fund could then be set up.

Short-term and long-term gain

Of course, there’s no reason why churches who support training should not benefit in the short-term as well as the long term. There are at least two ways that churches can benefit from their investment in the short-term.

The first is to support the student. The biggest proportion of the costs of training are not course expenses, but living expenses. If students did not have to worry about living expenses, they could easily cover their course expenses. So why not look to support students directly? Churches based near to a college could sponsor a student – not for their full support amount, but as a contribution towards it. The student could be based at the church during term-time, and the church would feel the benefit of having an additional keen and gifted member (possibly with his family). Moreover, the church could get directly involved in his training through mentoring, and providing opportunities within the church for preaching or pastoral work. It’s a win-win situation. Colleges may well be able to provide names of men who could be interested in such an arrangement.

The second is to support the college. Many of the costs of running a college are relatively fixed. In other words, the more students in attendance, the easier finances become. So rather than giving to a college, why not look to see if you too can gain from your investment? Are there elders in the church who would benefit from taking some distance learning modules in theology, preaching or pastoral methods? Are there ladies or youth workers who could benefit from some biblical input into their work? Why not get them a little training at a bible college? Would your pastor benefit from some further study, say an MA in Pastoral studies? Why not release him to do a part-time course? Most Bible colleges are delighted to have godly, committed people taking courses with them – and even part-time students who are not training for full-time ministry helps them to keep their costs lower for full-time students.

I’m not suggesting that we should never support colleges unless we can get something out of it. Scripture forbids such a thought. But I am suggesting that in addition to a small amount of ‘unconditional’ giving, some strategic investment in training can bring an immediate and tangible benefit to the church.

The very best way of meeting the need

So far I’ve suggested three ways in which churches can help to meet the need of theological training in the future: (1) Through ‘unconditional giving’. (2) Through supporting a student. (3) By sending key church leaders to study part-time.

But there is another way that is often forgotten – and it is perhaps the best way of all.

The best way of supporting the training of ministers is to pray that God would raise up young men for the ministry, and men and women for the mission field. Then to put time, energy, love and prayer into all young people who can be persuaded by all biblical means to come to the church’s evangelistic ministries. Then to work with all those whom the Lord converts, discipling and teaching them. Then to look out for those the Lord is particularly gifting, and investing in them, mentoring them, giving them opportunities to serve, gently correcting their mistakes and listening to their ideas. Then to test those who begin to feel the Lord’s call in their lives, slowly stretching them, encouraging them and beginning to train them in the Scriptures. Then to set apart for full-time training those who know God’s hand upon them, doing all that you can to support them in serving Him to the greatest extent they are able. That’s the very best way of helping to meet the need of theological training in the future. If such men and women were being regularly sent to our theological colleges from our churches we would not be in danger of a training crisis.

We believe that God is sovereign. We believe that it is God who converts, God who calls, and it is God who equips. And we believe that God’s normal way of converting and calling and equipping is to use churches. Churches like yours and churches like mine. So under God, let us, as churches, take responsibility for the current problems, and the future solutions. Let us give, let us support existing students, let us utilise training resources for our own churches. And most of all, let us use every means that God has given us to prepare men and women to serve Him with all their hearts, with all their minds, with all their soul and with all their strength.