If you are called to ministry, one of the first questions you ask is: what training do I need to equip me for the work the Lord has called me to? I often have enquiries from men who are preparing for ministry, wondering where they should train, and what course they should pursue.
Here are three pieces of advice I would offer:
Know your Calling
First, do you know what it means to be a pastor? That sounds like an obvious question, but even those most engaged in church life and service know very little about what a pastor’s life involves. Our training should be determined by the vocation we are training for. There are many responsibilities, including prayer, preaching and teaching, pastoral care, and leadership of the church family. The Bible uses the picture of a “shepherd” which encompasses all aspects of leadership, care and nurture of God’s people.
The first priority for the pastor is godliness. Paul emphasises character requirements when he speaks of qualifications for eldership. The pastor does not simply lead according to his skills, and what he does, but by his example. However great our gifts, and our grasp of pastoral skills, if we are not godly we will not serve the church well. Indeed, we are in grave danger of becoming a stumbling block through self-serving and even abusive leadership. The lifelong goal of the pastor is to become more Christlike; we are after all only under shepherds, representing the Chief Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ.
We are to be known as those who love the Lord and love His people. This is why involvement in local church life and ministry is a vital part of preparation for ministry. Our training must never be divorced from the local church, as if pastors are a separate caste of ministry to other church members. We are to be committed to Sunday services, prayer meetings, and all the responsibilities of church life. Our training should make us more useful to the church family, and equip us to bring the gospel to those who do not yet know Christ.
The chief elements of our activity are specified by the apostles as ‘prayer and the ministry of the word’ (Acts 6:4). Again, this emphasises that we are dependent on the Lord, and minister in the name of Christ. We are leaders, but we lead according to the will and authority of Christ which is expressed in His word. So the priority for ministry preparation is to grow in our knowledge and communication of God’s Word.
Study the Word
As we come to study the Word of God, we are conscious that this is no ordinary book. We are not engaging in an academic exercise of skilful analysis and criticism of a piece of literature. Rather we come as worshippers, prayerfully seeking the help of the Holy Spirit, and submitting to the teaching of Scripture as we grow in understanding.
But what skills will we need in understanding the Scriptures? We want to know what the Word of God is saying. The first element is knowing the words of God themselves, and we want to be able to read and understand those words as they were originally given, in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Not everyone is able to master biblical languages, and some preach well with just their English Bibles. But it has been recognised through the history of the church that our understanding will be richer and deeper if we know the languages. Forgetfulness of the biblical languages leads to errors as elements of the meaning are lost; for example we are not surprised that use of the Latin Vulgate through the centuries did not help Roman Catholic understanding of the doctrine of justification when the Latin renders it iustificare– to make righteous.
Next, we want to interpret the words of Scripture. We look at each passage in the context of the surrounding text, the book of Scripture in which it is found, and the whole canon. If we believe that all of Scripture originates with one Author, the Holy Spirit, then we will not want to interpret any individual passage in a way which conflicts with the teaching of other passages. Biblical Theology is important in understanding the organic unity of Scripture’s message, and specifically that all the Scriptures speak of Christ.
So, then, is that all we need? We have sought to study the word ourselves, with the help of the Spirit. But do we believe that the Spirit only illuminates us? And how can we be sure that our interpretation is not blinkered by our own limited cultural spectacles? If we believe that Christ has been building His church through the Spirit who illuminates all of His people through the ages, then we will want to learn from the testimony of God’s people in previous centuries. Hence the importance of Systematic Theology and Church History. There is nothing more arrogant than to believe that we alone have the truth, and have nothing to learn from the Creeds, Confessions, and controversies of previous centuries.
So, we begin to see the curriculum we need.: biblical languages, biblical studies, biblical theology, systematic theology, and church history.
We also want to grow in practical skills of preaching, moving from text to sermon. We want to know how to communicate the unchanging truths of Scripture to the modern age. We need to study the whole area of missions and evangelism as we grow in our ambitions for the worldwide growth of God’s Kingdom. We want to study our own culture if we are to communicate effectively, and equip our church members to face the challenges of daily life in work and society. We also want to grow in our skills of pastoral leadership and care through pastoral theology.
But what we study is not our only concern. We have already emphasised the importance of piety and dependence on the Lord as we study. And we have also seen that the Scriptures emphasise not only the content of teaching but the character and example of the teachers. Pastoral ministry is not simply a matter of possessing certain skills; it is also about wisdom and maturity. At London Seminary our model is ‘pastors training pastors’ – our lecturers are not only excellent scholars, but also men with years of experience of preaching and pastoring. Every lecture is related to the challenges of ministry. The culture of the Seminary is not of academic qualifications, but vocational training. Just as in church life we grow in community, training is best done in fellowship with others. Lecturers and fellow students bring their own different perspectives and insights to the table and help us to grow beyond the familiar assumptions of our own personal experience and church background.
Once in a lifetime
Every pastor seeks to be a lifelong student. We are very conscious that there is always so much to learn. As pastors we will want to read, attend conferences, and take training opportunities when we can. (The Pastors’ Academy is helpful in that regard.) Yet, in the midst of the challenges and pressures of ministry, it is a case of squeezing in these study opportunities when we can. Never again will we have the chance to devote years specifically to study and preparation. If we don’t learn biblical languages before we enter ministry, it will be much more challenging later on. If we don’t grapple with the big questions of theology and ministry now, we may be left floundering. Now is the time to develop well-grounding biblical convictions about ecclesiology, baptism, the ministry of the Spirit, principles of mission and social engagement, and practical issues like marriage and divorce.So, if there is one piece of advice I would give to those considering training for ministry, it is to aim for maximal training. There are always constraints of cost, time, and practical considerations. But seek to get the best possible training you can before you enter ministry. We want to be workers who have ‘no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth’ (2 Tim 2:15).