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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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“Made in the USA” does not hold the credibility that it had fifty years ago.  Today, it communicates overpriced and poorly made.  Other countries have surpassed the USA in producing the same products more cheaply.  More important, some countries have surpassed the USA in producing those products with better quality.  Increasingly, those companies in the USA who are producing qualities products that the American consumer wants are foreign owned.

There are many reasons for this decline in quality and affordable USA products.  However, one outstanding reason that must be examined and critiqued is a growing cultural comfort with personal mediocrity.  For the last 50 years, the USA has increasingly raised up children fed upon the idea that personal work ethic and effort is not important.  We have taken pride in producing a “safe” environment in our schools and playgrounds where “everyone is a winner.”

For the past few Olympics, Americans no longer pride themselves in “taking home the most gold.”  Now, we just count total medals.  It used to be that Americans and their Olympians counted only the gold medals in comparison to other nations.  However, when that comparison became more sketchy in guaranteeing that we look good, we switched to counting total overall medals.  A silver and bronze medal is something to be proud about, to be sure.  But it makes one wonder if this switch was not a subtle way of seceding our ability to be the best or another expression of “everyone is a winner.”  Of course, this change did not just happen over night.

Our young people have their whole lives chewed upon the American idea that participation is enough.  As a result, they have come to expect that participation is all that is required of them.  Everything else will be provided for them to succeed because every child deserves to succeed.  It is no longer the individual’s responsibility to succeed but the community’s responsibility to make them succeed.  At the end of the day, every one will get a trophy, certificate, or diploma regardless of personal effort or work ethic.  And the community will take pride in making another child feel good about their self.

This inbred attitude is taken into the workplace where the right of a job is expected.  Or, it is taken to the college or university where the right of a degree is expected.  Once at work or in college, the expectation is that they should pass or qualify for the job, they deserve to graduate or be promoted, and they deserve to succeed.

Talk to any business manager or owner today and you will find the same critique.  There is an attitude of entitlement in the generation coming up that does not think that personal effort and work ethic should have anything to do with keeping a job or getting a pay raise.  It seems that teaching our children that “everyone’s a winner” – regardless of personal effort – has robbed our children of a productive future rather than helped them.

The pressure upon our school systems to pass kids, raise their grades, help them achieve seems to leave out one important factor.  The desire and motivation of the child to succeed.  When parents come to parent-teacher conferences blaming the teachers and administrators for not guaranteeing their child’s success, it only reflects the entitlement culture that has been bred among us.  Instead of looking at their children and their own family life as a possible cause for their child’s personal work ethic, parents with an entitlement mindset can only see and blame others for their parenting failures and the failures of their child.

It is no wonder, then, that when these young people enter the work force they are unable to hold a job.  Coming to work on time, putting in a full day’s work, working hard to help guarantee the success of their employer, and doing their best to personally learn and grow in their field is completely foreign to them.  When they find their selves unemployed, they become angry and blame their former employers for being unfair.  After all, “everyone is a winner,” right?

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, Summer 2009

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, Summer 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Try and explain that attitude to the workers in the majority world who must work or starve.  Try to explain that mindset to the business owners and entrepreneurs of the majority world where “survival of the fittest” determines whether they are in business next year or not.  Try and explain that to the young people in the majority world where getting into a college or university is a slim chance and so every effort to succeed is important not only for their own personal success but for the survival and success of their extended family.  I think you would get a lot of blank stairs.

Meanwhile, Americans feel threatened by immigrants who come to the USA and take their jobs.  They will work jobs that most Americans will not touch.  Pooling their efforts and resources together, pretty soon their own and run those business.  Then, Americans are shocked to see those same immigrants running the hotels, restaurants, lawn businesses, laundry stores, gas stations, auto repair shops, beauty salons, and other industries.  Surprised, we cry in dismay that “those immigrants” are taking over our country.  (Forgetting, it seems, that our European, ancestors were once those same immigrants with those same work attitudes and goals.)

In reality, it will probably be these immigrants and their families that will save America from going into total global economic decline or even non-existence.  Every wave of immigration to the USA has brought its challenges.  But it has also brought renewed vitality to the American economy and politics.  In other words, an infusion of fresh blood into the American family tree is probably just what we need right now.

It does not matter whether you are a Democrat or Republican, lean to the political left or right, or hold to no political affiliation and shoot straight down the middle.  Creating a societal atmosphere of entitlement that disincentivizes the individual’s work ethic, work effort, and expectations for their rewards is hurting America.  It has largely produced an uneducated, unimaginative, and unwilling work force.  Meanwhile, other world economies are outpacing us, out producing us and will soon leave us in their GDP (Gross Domestic Product) dust.

There is no excuse in America for an educational system that has poorly maintained buildings, terrible educational models and opportunities and inept teachers.  Especially when one considers that America spends three-times more per student on education than its closest competitor in the world. More money is not the solution.  Countries with worse buildings, educational models and ill-trained teachers are still creating better students and a subsequent workforce.

Is it any wonder that in the last 40 years in the USA there has being an exponential rise in home schooling?  That private and religious schools are in high demand?  And that independent charter schools have taken off?  Everyone realizes that there is a problem!  Except for those at the leadership levels of our politically charged national and state educational systems and teacher unions.

There are no easy solutions to recovering what we have lost.  One does not just simply turn around a cultural and societal problem and attitude like this as if it were a U-turn on a Boulevard.  Nevertheless, it must be done.  If America continues with the idea that regardless of work ethic or effort “everyone is a winner” then, sooner than later, no one in America will be a winner.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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