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Posts Tagged ‘Assemblies of God Theological Seminary’

On Training Shepherds

A short time ago I wrote a blog article entitled “Training Shepherds.” I attempted a modern-day parable of sorts.  It was a word picture in parable form of what I think has been the evolution of clergy or pastoral training for many churches and their denominations.  In this article, I would like to explain my understanding and thinking of this subject.

I make no claims to having all the answers. I also readily acknowledge that all forms of education and mentoring have their own problems inherent in them.  There is no perfect system.

That being said, I have the unique position of observing the changes of pastoral training over a number of decades. First through my parents’ eyes as they are products of an older system of training and mentoring.  Second through my own eyes as I followed years later in my own training, through the evolved institution, and now as I hear and observe close peers who children are attempting to go through the same institution with its still further changes.  These changes are what I attempted to portray in my parable “Training Shepherds.”

Also, I maintain close ties to individuals who work within the education institution that my parents and I graduated from years ago. So, I have had the opportunity to hear the challenges and concerns from inside it.  They are similar to the ones I have heard from friends in other higher religious education institutions which try to train people for ministry.  So, I feel that many of the issues are the same across the board.  The places and faces change but the stories remain the same.

Finally, a study of the history of various religious institutions and their development over time tells us that these developments seem to be normative. The consequences for affiliated churches and denominations who accept their graduates into clergy status seem to be universal.  It would seem that no institution’s original mission and calling has ever succeeded its own success.

To provide full disclosure, I was raised in the Assemblies of God denomination. My parents, right out of high school, attended what was then Northwest Bible Institute, which was originally part of Calvary Temple Assembly of God in North Seattle, Washington.  Their final years (’59, ’60), the school moved to its own location near Kirkland, Washington, on an old military base near Lake Washington.

Like my parents, I attended what had become Northwest Bible College, later shortened to Northwest College as it took on more liberal arts studies for other careers. I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree.  Then, while my wife completed her B.A. in Elementary Education, I completed a Bachelor of Theology degree.  After college, I went on to a couple ministry position and then attended the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri, where I earned a Master of Divinity degree.  Afterward, I continued in ministry in Assembly of God churches.

I very much appreciate the education I received at both of the schools I attended. I have no “sour grapes” to harvest and serve up.  This serves as only my recollections and observations in hopes that a healthy dialogue will be generated concerning the education and training of people for ministry in whatever church, denomination or field of service in which they feel called to serve.  It is a distillation of many hours of conversations with friends in and out of ministry, other friends involved in Christian higher education, and personal experience and studies.

In part, we become the product of our own making. This is no less true of institutions than it is of individuals.  Each decision and subsequent action has a ripple effect that we cannot always predict but will nevertheless in the end make or remake us.  Sometimes, our assumptions based upon what others are doing around us can be a basis for those decisions and actions.  Otherwise, how is it that so many end up in the same place even though each one determined that it would not be so?  We assume that taking the same road traveled by others will bring us to a different conclusion because we will travel it better and more careful.

I surmise this is often what happens to denominations and their institutions of higher education. Consider the history of some of America’s greatest halls of learning.  They began as places for training clergy.  Their early stories include historical figures that played major roles in pastoral, missional and theological works.  Now, however, they are bastions of the most liberal type of education – far from “Christian” higher education and no where near their original intent to train people for ministry.  What happened?

I suspect that what happened is not all too different from what we see happening today in many Evangelical colleges and universities. There is a declension towards taking the road everyone else is taking to be “successful.”  Changes are made to increase enrollment to increase revenue so that the school can grow to increase enrollment to increase revenue, ad infinitum.

This is in no way to suggest that a Christian liberal arts education is undesirable. It is a wonderful thing.  Many evangelical colleges and universities are doing this very well.  However, the point I am attempting here is all about maintaining the original mission of training people for ministry work in churches and mission fields.  Can a school accomplish both?  Perhaps.  I do not know because I do not know of a good example of it.  Usually, one must gives way to the other and it usually comes down to “bucks and butts” – how much money students and their desired degrees bring in and how many students each area of study itself attracts.

When a school expands to accommodate other fields of study, it by necessity must give up something it is already doing. It is a general rule of life that one cannot say “Yes” to something without saying “No” to something else.  At the same time, saying “No” to some things allows one to say “Yes” to things that really matter.  We would like to believe that we can do everything at all times equally well.  However, it is hard to point to a successful example of it.

So, this is not to critique a Christian liberal arts education. If that is the stated goal and mission of the Christian school of higher education, then we can be satisfied with it and move on.  There are many great Evangelical school that are doing a great job of accomplish this mission.  However, this is a critique of the present state of educating and training clergy persons.  It is my observation that we seem to be “losing the battle” of training and equipping young people for ministry.  I say this as a pastor within the church and denomination.

I know that within the Assemblies of God denomination the median age of ministers keeps rising, there are not enough young ministers entering ministry as pastors or missionaries to replace those who are retiring, and there are not enough individuals willing and able to pastor the growing number of small churches who are presently left with no pastor. This does not even begin to address the needs of individuals who are needed to pioneer new ministries.  This dilemma is repeated in other denominations according to my circle of ministry friends.

When my parents attended what was then Northwest Bible Institute, almost all of the students attending were exploring or pursuing the possibilities of active ministry of some kind. Did all of them end up in full-time ministry?  No.  However, it was the purpose and goal of the school to be a place where that could be explored under the guidance of experienced pastors, solid Bible teachers, and exposure to ministry in various forms.  Many, many individuals did leave the school to go on to become missionaries, pastors and evangelists.

Today, at what is now Northwest University, the number of students in the School of Ministry numbers hardly more than a dozen. This is out of a school population of around one thousand.  Slightly more than one-third of the students even come from an Assemblies of God church.  So, while the school has grown in popularity for a wide diverse audience interested in pursuing a Christian education for careers in medicine, business, education, etc., it has lost its connection to its core constituency and mission.  (Incidentally, I remember when I was at Northwest and there was concern when the number of ministry students in training fell under 100.)

This may be a natural consequence of decisions made to broaden the mission of the school. If that is what it is (and I am certain it is) and if everyone is alright with this (and it seems that most people are, in fact, aligned on this point), then church and denominational leaders must quit agonizing over their loss.  Move on.

The question that must be answered and one that needs to be acknowledge may lie outside what the present institution (Northwest University) can offer isWhere do we go from here to adequately train people for ministry?  How can we challenge more young people to consider full-time ministry of service rather than simply a career to make money?

Hayas Lake Drainage and Meadow, Roslyn, Washington, September 2010

Hayas Lake Drainage and Meadow, Roslyn, Washington, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

As I suggest in my parable “Training Shepherds“, we may need to return to the original model and original mission – or some variation of it. Let me suggest why training up people for ministry under the tutelage of elder pastors and local churches may be a better way forward:

  • Financially – The cost of receiving an education from a private Christian school is prohibitive for people wanting to enter full-time ministry.  The reason for this is that the vast majority of our churches are small churches who can barely pay the living expenses of a pastor.  Forget health insurance, retirement contributions or saving because most pastors that I know in these congregations are just able to get by on the churches salary.  Most of them are bi-vocational, which means they have another job or career that supports them in ministry.  This is not to put down small churches (they make up most of our churches) or the communities they serve.  It is simply the reality that is too often forgotten by student and institution alike.  Many elder-shepherds have graduate degrees and many years of experience of exegeting and teaching the Bible, they will be able teachers.  Likewise, with the availability of online classes, correspondent courses, and seminar course work, a student would be able to receive a very fine education without the cost of paying full tuition for attending a school campus.  This would allow a local church to also invest in the education and training of the student, which is something that does not happen too often now because of the disconnect between the churches and their institutions of higher learning.
  • Educationally – I have often wondered if removing someone from ministry context, sequestering them on campus for four years and then sending them back into ministry contexts was the best way to train young people for ministry.  I chose ministry late in my education career.  It is one of the reasons why I went to seminary.  Even though I was heavily involved in my churches throughout my educational experiences, I really had very little real chance to experience ministry by shadowing someone in ministry, being mentored by an elder or being required to do something substantive in a ministry situation.  For my M.Div. practicum, I wrote an ushers and greeters manual for our church.  While it was a great exercise and I hope a help to my church, I never once was asked or challenged to be involved as an usher or greeter.  So, a writing project was to suffice fulfillment for my graduate “practicum”.  (Perhaps I need to look up “practicum” again.)  Classroom education cannot replace hands-on experience.  Knowledge of the Bible cannot substitute for knowledge of working with people in all sorts of life situations.  Learning under the tutelage of a professor what church books, constitution and bylaws and ministry meetings should be like can never fill the gaping hole left by the lack of handling them.  The hands-on experience and knowledge gained in ministry context is paramount to training and equipping.  It needs to be done before one is launched into ministry of any kind.
  • Relationally – While I look back with fondness on almost all of my professors in Bible college and seminary, the relationships that have stuck with me and continue to shape me are my peers in ministry.  Helping young people in ministry establish a mentoring relationship with an elder-pastor will carry them a long way into their ministry years.  In their turn, one day they will have the opportunity to give time to mentoring and training someone else.  This relationship can work both ways.  For the elder-shepherd will find his or her own ministry and life challenged by the fresh generational perspectives and energies of those placed under his or her care.  This will enable an opportunity to hold on to unchanging truths and practices while also embracing new ides and approaches to ministry.  The one in training will gain from the years of experience and the wisdom of someone who has been successful in ministry by learning unchanging truths and exploring opportunities.  The whole church would benefit from the synergy that results from such an association.

These are broad ideas and applications. However, the crisis of calling and training new shepherds for the Master’s fields and flocks is important.  Is it critical?  I do not know, but I hope we figure out some way to return to the important mission of calling and equipping people for ministry in an effective way before it becomes so.

What is evident is that what most churches and denominations are attempting to do is not working. When we look at developing churches in other places around the world, their model does not look anything like ours in the United States.  In many of these places, the number of followers of Christ and churches is growing so fast that it is difficult to keep up with training shepherds.  When one examines them, it appears that they took the pages right out of our original plans and approaches.  So, if it seems to work for them, maybe we need to go back to what we did at the beginning of our development, albeit with the advantages we have today with modern resources and tools.

A missional approach is perhaps exactly what we need to focus upon again. Returning to our original calling and mission when it comes to specifically training people for ministry may lead to different answers than what I have suggested here.  I am not in a position of influence to affect such a course for others.  However, until things do change, I know what I will be recommending to those who ask me about going into ministry and the best way to be trained, “Find a place that is focused on its mission and calling to train for pastoral ministry and that will give you experience in ministry.  Go there.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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God Surprises 2

When is a problem too big for God to handle? When the problem is bigger than you can deal with on your own.  At least, this is how most of us work in our faith.  Or, I should say, this is how my faith seems to work.  As long as it is a problem that I can imagine to be solvable or at the least manageable, then I envision that God can also take it on.

Yes, this is a rather anemic faith. It makes God – the Creator of all the universe – only as large as myself or my imagination.  In short, it makes God – the One who possesses all the power – small.  It reminds me of the line in the Walt Disney movie Aladdin when the genie is described as “all the powers of the universe in a teeny-weeny little bottle.”

This might sound strange coming from one who for 25 years was attempting to lead other people in faith. It is a lot easier to lead others in doctrinal statement and propositional truths than it is in living reality; that is for certain.  Nevertheless, life presents challenges that require us to either put greater faith in God or give up faith in him at all.  Ministry seems to only put an individual under greater pressure to reach either end.

Shortly after finishing seminary at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary (AGTS) in Springfield, Missouri, my family and I found ourselves back in Washington State. I was called to pastor a church in West Richland, Washington.  It was not too long after relocating that we found ourselves in financial trouble.

One of the disadvantages of many pastors of small congregational churches is a lack of health insurance. Their salaries do not provide enough to buy individual family coverage.  So, many go without.  This is what my family was doing.  Later, my wife would get a teaching job in the local school district, which would help solve this problem.  But until that opportunity came along, we were on our own.  And with four kids at home, betting against doctor visits, emergency room visits, dentist visits and optometrists visits is a losing venture.

We came to a situation where a combination of events almost undid us financially. Our son needed braces for teeth that made it almost impossible to eat.  A couple of visits from accidents by our children led to emergency room visits and doctor visit follow-ups.  To top it all off, our car quit and was of no trade-in value.

One day, I sat down to figure it out how much we were underwater financially. Adding up all the extra bills we accrued as well as a couple of thousand dollars for a down payment on a used car, I choked at the figure that stared at me on the page.  It seems we would need $10,000.  It might as well have been 10 million.

The next day, in my devotion time when I took time to write in my journal, I put in writing my need. It seemed laughable that I would even write the figure in my journal.  Like that kind of money would just drop into our laps, right?  Sure.  I was skeptical of any immediate answer.  Instead, I prepared for a long road of slowly paying off bills, doing without some things, and getting used to having only one broken down used car for my family instead of two.

I always close my journal entries writing out a prayer. It helps me to put in writing and in a tangible form the desires of my heart, the needs of my family, church and community, the worries I may have as well as the hopes that I carry.  I have found it refreshing in the way it unburdens my soul.  Like writing a “To Do” list, it prevents my heart and mind from attempting to holding on to these things so I won’t forget them.  By committing them to writing it gives my soul permission to breathe and let go of all those things committed to paper.

I wrote my request for my family’s needs.Lord, we are really hurting financially.  Along with regular bills and school bills, the bills of hospital, doctors and orthodontists are burying us.  It is not my problem.  It is your problem.  Help us be a good steward of what we do possess.  Please take care of all that we have no control over.”  I know.  Not a profound prayer.  It almost seems as filled with doubt as it does faith.  But it’s all I had at the time.

Life continued on and we did the best we could for a few weeks. Several weeks later, I found myself at my regular haunt at the local Barnes & Noble bookstore.  I regularly went there to plan, write and read leadership books.  It was a good place to get out of the office and focus my week.  My “To Do” lists were generated there.

As I wandered among the stacks, I ran into a member of a family who had recently joined our church. They were there wandering among the bookshelves looking for good books to read.  I greeted the mother of the family I ran into.

Me:  “Hi!  Surprise seeing you here.  How are you doing?”

Her:  “Good!  Yes, it’s a surprise seeing you too!  I was just thinking about you.  Our family has been praying for you.”

Me:  “Well, thank you.  We really need it.  What are you all up to today?”

Her:  “We’re just out to browse books.  Hey, listen, are you going to be at the church office at all later today?”

Me:  “Yes.   I’ll be in there after lunch until about 5:30.”

Her:  “Good.  Can we all come by to see you…say about 3:00?”

Me:  “Sure!  I’ll be looking for you!”

Her:  “Great.  We’ll see you then.  We have something very important to talk to you about.”

We parted ways and I head home to get some lunch.  Her last words hung over me with a dread. I never liked being left with, “Pastor, I have something very important to talk to you about.  Can we talk later this week?”  And them I’m left wondering what it is what it is so important to talk to me about.  It is often not good.  So, I’ve been left gun-shy from such announcement.  Being a new family to our church, I imagined that they had run into some problem they needed me to solve or address.

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I went home and ate lunch. Later, I made myself busy at the church office catching up on mail, email, phone call-backs, and getting things on my “To Do” list done.  Soon, I was busy enough to forget about the family’s visit at 3:00.  It was the doors opening and closing at the front of the church that reminded me of their appointment.

Me:  “Hey!  Great to see you all again.  I’m glad you can make it.”

We shook hands and chatted for a bit.  Then the mother of the family picked up where we left off at Barnes & Noble.

Her:  “Pastor, we have something very serious we want to talk to you about.”

My stomach sunk with a lead ball of dread and foreboding.  This was not going to be good.

Me:  “Well…what can I help you all out with?

Her:  “To get right to it.  My grandmother passed away last month…”

Me:  “I’m so sorry to hear that…it must be a very hard time for you all.”

She smiled and said, “No.  She was a Christian and was ready to go to heaven.  We know that she is with Jesus and happy.  We’ll see her again one day.”

Me:  “Well, that is great to hear.  What a testimony to her faith and to Jesus.”

Her:  “Yes.  Well, the reason why we are here is that she left a rather substantial inheritance to me.  Our family has been praying about what to do with it.  We’ve decided there are several things that the Lord want us to do.  First, we want to give some to the Lord’s ministries we support which includes this church.”

She handed out a check to me.

Me:  “Well, bless you!  However, I can’t take the check.  It’s against our church’s policy.  Is there a way I could have you give it to our church treasurer?  That would be much safer and more appropriate.”

Her:  “Of course.  I understand.  That is perfectly acceptable.  Should I just give it to him this next Sunday?

Me:  “Yes.  That would be great.”  And I gave her the name of our treasurer.  “If he happens not to be here, you can give it to one of our ushers too.  If it is a large check, then they can put it in the safe right away.”

They all looked at each other.  She replied, “Yes.  It’s a rather large check.  I’ll give it to one of them first thing Sunday morning.”

Me:  “Wonderful.  Again, thanks so much. I know it will be a huge help at this time for our church body.”

Her:  “Well…there is one more thing.”  She turned and smiled at the rest of her family.  “We really felt that the Lord wanted us to give you something too just for you and your family at this time.  We know that it has been a hard time for all of you and want to help.”

Surprised, I offered, “You know that is not necessary.  I’m sure your support of the church is sufficient.”

Her:  “Well, we want to be obedient to the Lord and so must insist.  We prayed about it and feel this is the amount the Lord would have us give to you.”

She handed out an envelope to me.

This is where it can get really sticky in ministry. How do you judge whether a “gift” is coming with no strings attached?  How do you account for it?  Most gifts are small.  How much was this one?  Do you dare ask?  How do you accept it humbly and gracefully?  How does it affect relationships and those you show favor to over others?

As I looked at her and at her family, I had a deep sense that they honestly meant this as an act of obedience to something they felt the Lord calling them to do. They hardly knew me as a pastor.  Yet, I felt that there were no ulterior motives.  There was a peace surrounding this gift that gave me a sense that this was a God-moment for them and for me.  So, I reached out and took the envelope.

We said our goodbyes and I profusely thanked them for their obedience to the Lord and their generosity to the church and to my family. I put the envelope into my shirt pocket and returned to the immediate duties that called me attention.  I had a long list to complete before I could get home.

We I did arrive home, it was as usually – just as dinner was ready to be served. We sat around the dinner table as a family and shared our day.  Our family’s dinner time is rarely quiet.  At the same time, we are all fast eaters so it also tends to be rather short.

After dinner was cleaned up, I remembered the envelope in my shirt pocket.

Me:  “Hey, you know that new family that started attending our church just a short while ago?

My wife:  “Yeah.”

Me:  “Well, they wanted to meet with me today.  Apparently, a relative passed away and left them with an inheritance.  They gave some to the church.”

My wife:  “Wow.  That’s great!  How much?

Me:  “I don’t know.  I asked them to give it to our church treasurer or an usher Sunday.”

My wife:  “Oh.”

Me:  “They also wanted to give us a small gift.  So they gave me this…”

I handed the unopened envelope to my wife.  I thought I’d let her open it.  I was expecting a small gift that would help with groceries or maybe the next hospital or orthodontist bill.

She ripped open the top and looked over the check.  Then her hand flew to her chest.  “Ron!”

She said this in a surprised and started voice.  I turned toward her and took the check from her hand.  As I looked at the amount on the check, I had to sit down.  It was made out for $10,000.

That evening, I went to the journal entry of several weeks back where I had written that absurd amount down as a need for the Lord to take care of for my family. Now I was able to write in that same journal the date upon which the Lord through an unassuming family answered that very request.  My little faith was answered greatly and resulted in a great amount of thanks and praise to God.

I wish I could say that I have never since then struggled with doubt. It would be great to be able to announce to everyone my never-ending faith in God’s faithfulness.  It wouldn’t be true.  Yet, God continues to surprise me in the way that he shows how much bigger he is than my belief.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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