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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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Training Shepherds

Shepherd in Făgăraş Mountains, Romania

Shepherd and Sheep/Image via Wikipedia

A king ruled a country whose main business was raising sheep and managing flocks. As the flocks throughout the land grew, the need for trained shepherds grew great.  The idea of having shepherdless flocks or sheep without a shepherd was intolerable.  So, the king called his wisest shepherds together to solve the problem of the shortage of shepherds.  After a great deal of deliberation, it was proposed that, to solve the problem of the shepherd shortage, they begin with the elder-shepherds who successfully watched over and grew their flocks.  These wise shepherds would be in charge of training young shepherds placed under their wise counsel and care.

So, the successful elder-shepherds took young people who aspired to shepherding under their leadership. They modeled good shepherding and allowed the young trainees to shadow them as they went about doing their shepherdly duties.  Regular study in “The Shepherd’s Manual for Flocks” took place every day.  As the young shepherds in training grew more confident and comfortable in shepherding duties, the elder-shepherds allowed them to take on responsibilities for the flock under their watchful eye.

Some trainees proved very adept and were considered to have a calling to shepherding by their mentor shepherds. They were encouraged to pursue raising a flock of their own to shepherd.  Some young shepherds took over part of an elder-shepherd’s flock to raise as their own.  Others were given a few sheep and encouraged to start growing a flock of their own in other pastures.

Meanwhile, other trainees discovered that shepherding and caring for sheep was not for them. With the blessing of the training-shepherds, they were steered to find other career paths and soon found careers more suited to them.  They went on to support and encourage those who continued in the work of shepherding the sheep of the land.

All of these efforts resulted in growing flocks all across the land. Sheep were well tended and shepherds trained to care for them were successful in their duties.  The result was that there were less and less sheep without a shepherd who could be scattered and devoured by wild animals.  The number of shepherdless sheep wandering the land was dramatically reduced.  The king was very pleased.

After some time, a committee of shepherd-leaders gathered together to discuss how the training of young shepherds was going. The number of trainees had grown very large while the number of training shepherds remained very limited.  After much discussion, it was decided to open a school for training more shepherds.  In this manner, young shepherds could be trained in large groups and sent into the pastures of the king.

Throughout the land, great excitement  accompanied the announcement of a school for shepherds. It was thought that educating and training of shepherds in a large group setting was a wonderful idea.  So, many people in the land supported the idea of the school.  There was so much enthusiasm that money was raised so that land could be bought, full-time training shepherds could be hired, and buildings built to accommodate them all.  The day of dedication for the school was a grand and historic day for everyone.

Soon, young people who desired training as a shepherd gathered at the school. The elder-shepherds working with their flocks went on shepherding without the responsibility of training young shepherds.  Now they could focus solely on shepherding.  At the same time, young potential shepherds were sent away to a special school for training.  Some had to move far away from the flocks and pastures they grew up around to attend the school for shepherds.

Specially educated elder-shepherds trained young shepherds without actually working with sheep. Many of the elder shepherds, while having never actually worked with flocks or, at least, having not done so for years, did their best to prepare the future sheep herders for the future.  They were trained in sheep-talk, methods of effective shepherding, how to identify good sheep from bad sheep, managing and leading sheep, how to sing to sheep and, most important of all, how to study and apply “The Shepherd’s Manual for Flocks.”

One day, someone suggested a small change to how the school for shepherd training was run. They thought that other young people not necessarily going into the shepherding business would benefit from the training and education of the scholarly elder-shepherds.    It was thought that allowing the education and training of young people from all walks of life would help advance and support the main business of raising sheep.  So, the school was expanded to include training for other careers.  This was a wonderful suggestion and  soon the school grew even larger with young people from all over the kingdom.

It was not too long before someone noticed that those at the shepherd training school who were not planning on actually becoming shepherds was greater than those who were planning on becoming shepherds. Wise business and community leaders suggested that, since this was the case, the school should be expanded to help train the other young people for their perspective careers too.  After all, why couldn’t this wonderful school for shepherds also train medical people, teachers, business people, and even other scholars in the discipline of shepherding and understanding “The Shepherd’s Manual for Flocks”?  It was decided that this should be so.  So, other schools and training rooms were added to the school for training shepherds.

The school grew and grew. It gained success and even competed with other schools in their own areas of study.  However, everyone took great pride in the fact that, while they did train young people for other professions and careers, this school started out as a training school for shepherds.  In fact, many of the old graduates and supporters still considered it a training school for shepherds even though the number of shepherds in training was not what it once had been when it trained only shepherds.

Over looking Robins Lake above Roslyn, Washington, September 2010

Over looking Robins Lake above Roslyn, Washington, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

However, change has its consequences. Soon, the cost of educating everyone, not just those who had a desire and perhaps a calling to become shepherds, made it very difficult for those wanting to enter the career of shepherding, which paid very poorly but was, nevertheless, very greatly needed throughout the land.  For, you see, many flocks throughout the kingdom were small and barely supported a shepherd and his family.  So, future shepherds found it too difficult to attend the school because of the cost.  Slowly, some of them decided that perhaps shepherding was not for them and began to seek other things to do in life.  It was not too long until others noticed that the number of shepherds in training at the school was greatly diminished.  In fact, they hardly existed at all.

Some of the king’s people wondered if perhaps it wouldn’t be better to close the shepherd training portion of the school since it did not pay for itself anymore. There simply were not enough future shepherds signed up to justify the cost.  Other departments of the school were much more successful by bringing many more students and their money to the school.  Those of bygone days did not want to see the school for shepherds closed.  Where would future shepherds be trained, they wondered.

Meanwhile, the number of shepherdless sheep grew. Because of lack of care, flocks began to decrease.  The number of untended, wild and scattered sheep grew at an alarming rate.  No one seemed to be as concerned that the king’s sheep and flocks were scattered and helpless as much as they were about the school for shepherd training being profitable.

The decrease of young people becoming shepherds captured the attention of some of wise old shepherds of the land. Seeing the great need of the land and noticing how there was a growing population of sheep without a shepherd, some of them decided to once again take young potential shepherds under their own personal care and training in hopes that one day some of them would grow to be fine shepherds.  They put a call out to young people possibly interested in becoming shepherds for the king of the land.

However, this angered those who had worked so hard to build the old school for training shepherds as well as the scholarly elder-shepherds there. This threatened to take away potential students who could help keep the school for training shepherds open.  It also frightened those who saw themselves in charge of the standards for training young shepherds.  They were concerned that this opened up the possibility of allowing insufficiently trained shepherds to watch over flocks even though the young people would be trained by successful, wise, old shepherds.

So, discouraged, the wise old shepherds stopped trying to train future shepherds. It was not long before there were not enough young shepherds in training to take the place of shepherds retiring from their fields.  Soon, good shepherds ceased throughout the land.  The king’s sheep became scattered and helpless.  Finally, the flocks of sheep decreased and those that remained became wild.  And the king wept over the state of his flocks.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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