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Leadership Training (Part 1)

How will the leader shortage be filled?

Have you ever wondered what preachers talk about when they get together? Being as I’m not only a preacher’s kid but a missionary’s kid as well, and have witnessed countless such chin-wags, I think I can answer the question with some authority. Like any other group of like-minded people, preachers will eventually start “talking shop” even if that wasn’t the purpose of their get-together. They’ll laugh over the amusing incidents which have occurred in their ministries. They’ll commiserate, or chuckle depending on circumstances, over some of the bone-headed faux-pas they’ve pulled in the pulpit. They’ll pray together. They’ll weep over the tragedies. They’ll ask and give advice about how to handle various situations. They’ll bounce ideas or sermon topics off each other. They’ll argue theology or ask each other’s insights about passages of Scripture. But there’s one topic which probably comes up more than any other. It’s almost inevitable that sooner or later, preachers will start bemoaning the shortage of preachers, the dearth of leaders in the church in general, and wonder where the next crop of workers in the church is going to come from. I’ve heard several conversations that painted the situation in terms of crisis.

Leadership crisis

There really is a crisis. There is a perpetual shortage of leaders in the church. While I don’t agree with the system which says that a church must have a ‘pulpit minister,’ it is the system followed by almost all of the congregations with which I am familiar. At any given time, there seem to be several that are looking for someone to fill the pulpit. I know of congregations which have looked for six months or more before finding someone to fill the position. If even existing congregations have trouble filling leadership slots, then where are the leaders going to come from to plant new congregations?

The situation is even more dire than it appears on the surface. If, as I believe, congregations should not be dependent upon ‘pulpit ministers’ but should be led by Elders who are competent to speak and teach, there is an even greater lack of qualified leaders. The same lack is evident when it comes to competent Deacons and Teachers.

Bible colleges aren’t the answer

For at least the last 100 years or so the thinking has been that Bible colleges and seminaries would train and supply the leaders we need. By now it should be obvious to all that the strategy isn’t working. If the colleges and seminaries really were the answer to solving the shortage of leaders, the shortage wouldn’t exist. If they haven’t been able to solve the problem in over 100 years of trying, it’s highly unlikely they’ll be able to do so any time soon.

There are a lot of practical reasons why the colleges and seminaries will never be capable of turning out the leaders we need. Consider:

1) In many cases students are forced to move to where the college is located if they are to receive training.
2) As a result, those with leadership potential who are unable to relocate, or choose not to do so, are unable to receive appropriate training.
3) In the case of those who do go, their home congregations are deprived of the services of some of their most talented and capable people.
4) Many of those who go do not return. Instead of gaining trained leaders, the home church loses them.
5) The cost is often prohibitive. The colleges must charge high tuitions in order to maintain their infrastructures and staff.

These are just a few of the practical limitations of the college/seminary model. But the real problem with the college or seminary approach to leadership training is systemic. More on that later.

Unfulfilled vision

My father has often told me that when he was in Bible college, the professors said that the college was merely an expedient. As the students established congregations according to the New Testament model, the congregations would take over the burden of training and the need for the college would end. Obviously, it didn’t happen. Far from disappearing, the college my father attended grew and, during the 60 years since, has become a university.

Not only that, in spite of the fine words of the professors, the training they gave didn’t equip their students to train others. Nor did they give practical training in the establishment and operation of congregations based on the New Testament model. The men they trained, and the churches the men established after their training were, for the most part, incapable of passing on the training to the next generation. (At least they haven’t done so.)

Let me give you an example. Aside from some classes taught by my father while on the mission field, plus a few academic courses taught by ministers in local churches, I have no formal training in church work. The few courses I’ve had were mostly of the survey type, or doctrinal, and were very short on practical application. What I know has largely been learned through observation, self-study and by doing. When I and a few others established a new congregation where I served for while as an Elder, I was surprised by the sheer amount of administrative detail and the mechanics of running a congregation. Out of curiosity, I asked my father what he had been taught in college about the practical details of leading a congregation. The answer was revealing. He hadn’t been taught anything. He and his contemporaries were expected to go out and start congregations, but were given little or no information about how to organize the various ministries, how to plan the assemblies, oversee the finances or any of the other practical disciplines which are needed for a congregation to function. They were expected to somehow muddle through and figure it out on their own. Even worse, they were never instructed how to recruit and train other leaders.

Just for fun, I’ve looked at the current course catalogs of some of the colleges and seminaries. In all fairness, I have to say that there appears to be an attempt to address the lack of practical knowhow that my father’s generation faced. In skimming through the catalogs I noticed several courses on practical aspects of ministry. In addition, the schools also support internships of various types and lengths. All this is to the good. Yet, unless I have misunderstood, in a typical 4-year degree program of 160 credit-hours, only 2 or 3 credit-hours of practical ministry is required. I’m sorry, but something is out of balance when a program, whose stated purpose is to train people to work in the church, requires more time spent learning English and History than in learning the practical nuts and bolts of ministry.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me hasten to say that I do not question the motives of the educators. I respect their dedication in trying to train up leaders to serve the church. I respect and admire even more those in my father’s generation who went out with inadequate training to do a very difficult task. In spite of the shortcomings of their training, they started many congregations from scratch – many of which are going concerns to this day. As a result of their work, untold thousands have come to know the Lord.

Captured by the system

Though I think the college/seminary model is deeply flawed, there is no doubt that much good has been accomplished through it. It can be argued that had the system not been in place, the leadership crisis would be far worse than it currently is. Yet, the very successes of the colleges contain one of the seeds of the continuing problem.

The emphasis of the colleges in my father’s day – and it is an emphasis which is still present – was on turning out Evangelists. Now don’t get me wrong. The role of the Evangelist is absolutely essential. The world needs as many as we can get. The problem is that the role, as taught in the colleges, and as practiced by those so taught, is quite different than the picture given in the New Testament. In spite of lip-service to the contrary, many Evangelists seem to have forgotten part of their biblical job-description. As I understand it, the Bible does not contemplate ‘pulpit ministers’ much less the ‘pastor system’ which is so rampant these days. In contrast, Evangelists are to, first of all, evangelize and, then, set churches in order. Inherent in setting churches in order is the training and nurturing of leaders to take over the shepherding of the flock – including the speaking and teaching. It was never intended that Evangelists do the majority of the speaking or dominate the administration and pastoral roles of the church. Those functions were to be turned over to others so that Evangelists could concentrate on their primary task of preaching the gospel to the unsaved.

The colleges, however, have fostered the ‘pulpit minister’ syndrome. In practice, what generally happens, is that a preacher (Evangelist) either establishes a new congregation or takes over an existing one and is virtually the person who runs it. Instead of training others to shoulder the pastoral responsibilities, he trains them to be dependent on the services that he and others like him provide. More often that not, he is the one who appoints the Elders (or lacking Elders, a board of some sort). Since they are not trained to shepherd; since they have little opportunity to speak and teach (though Scripture makes the ability to teach a primary requirement of an Elder) they are often little more than business managers. If the Evangelist leaves, they are almost forced to hire another one to take over the pastoral responsibilities. It’s a vicious circle. This is one reason why I call it a systemic problem.

Measuring the wrong things

There’s another reason why the Bible college/seminary model of leader training has a systemic problem: By it’s very nature, a Bible college or seminary places a priority on academic attainment. If you pass enough classes of the right kind, you will, in due season, be issued a piece of paper which confers a degree upon you. This is often accompanied by ordination which declares that you are qualified to minister in the church. Leaving aside the issue of where the authority to ordain should reside, there are at least three problems with this approach. The first is that the courses offered may have little relevance to the spiritual disciplines of ministry. As an extreme example, I have heard that it is possible to obtain an MDiv (Master of Divinity) without taking a single Bible course! How could such a degree possibly equip anyone to teach and expound the Scriptures?

The second problem is even more serious. I have long suspected that there is little or no correlation between academic qualifications and effective spiritual leadership. In other words, much of leadership cannot be learned in the classroom. Conversely, a person who is gifted in spiritual leadership might not be equipped to succeed in academia. I read somewhere that roughly half of the founders of the mega-churches do not have seminary training. While I certainly do not agree with the mega-church model, shouldn’t that statistic tell us something about using a seminary degree as a predictor of ministry success? I recently watched a video of Malcolm Gladwell speaking at the 2008 New Yorker Conference. In his speech he talked about what he calls The Mismatch Problem. A mismatch occurs, he said, “…when the criteria we use… to assess someone’s ability to do a job is radically out of step with the actual demands of the job itself.” I would argue that we have such a mismatch when we use a Bible college degree as a selection requirement in picking our leaders. We all want knowledgeable and competent leaders. It might seem logical that requiring a degree would help ensure that our leaders are competent. But Gladwell points out an unpleasant corollary. By increasing the requirements we demand of candidates, we also narrow the field. There are fewer people from whom to select. The attempt to raise standards by requiring a degree may actually cause us to pass over the very people who would be best for the job.

The third problem, and this may be the biggest of all, is that while a degree may be an indicator that a person has a measure of knowledge in a particular academic discipline, it says nothing about character. The possession or lack of a degree will never tell you whether a given individual is full of pride or whether he is full of the wisdom which comes from above (James 3:17). A degree does not confer on anyone the servant spirit and humility which are the prime qualifications for ministry.

Sour grapes?

Some might wonder how much of my prejudice against Bible colleges is a result of my own lack of academic credentials? It’s a fair question. Am I against Bible colleges as a defense mechanism? Well, yes, at times I am sensitive about my lack of degrees. I’ve been hurt more than once by people who couldn’t see past my lack of formal credentials to what I knew or could do.

In another sense, though, my criticisms of the Bible college system has nothing to do with my own lack of a sheepskin. Quite the contrary for, in many ways, the academic life really appeals to me. A few years ago, my wife and I toured the campus of the Christian liberal-arts university where my daughter planned to get her degree. (No, she didn’t enroll in the school of divinity! Her major is writing.) As I looked around I realized that it would be very easy for me to fit right in. In fact, I would enjoy it. There’s a part of me which would revel in the learning environment and taking classes. I would enjoy teaching Bible subjects on a college level even more. I think I could be quite good at it. I’ve been asked more than once, by people who have taken my classes at church, whether I’d ever considered teaching at a Bible college.

My lack of a sheepskin has closed that door, so there’s really no use talking about it. But, I have to admit that it would be tempting if an offer ever did come my way. As a matter of principle, though, I would probably have to decline. While the motives for establishing the colleges were good, I suspect that, at this point in church history, the colleges may be doing more harm than good to the cause of furthering the New Testament church model.

What’s the solution?

“Okay, PresbyterJon,” you may be saying to yourself. “Now that you’ve told us all about how horrible the current state of affairs is, what do we do about it? What’s your grand solution to the training problem? What’s your alternative to the Bible college? Time to put up, or shut up!”

I freely confess to you that, at this point, I do not have a completely viable alternative. I can see the vague outlines of how things ought to be, but there are many questions which have not yet been answered. My father and I have actually done quite a bit of brainstorming about an alternative. We came up with a concept of several congregations cooperating together to provide training. The basic idea goes something like this: Leaders in each congregation teach classes in their areas of competency. The classes are taught on-line, or using other distance teaching techniques, so students can remain in their local congregations. The training of each student is overseen by the leadership of the local congregation to which he belongs. There are four academic tracks, one for each of the positions of church leadership mentioned in the New Testament – Evangelist, Elder, Deacon and Teacher. The local congregation evaluates competency and makes the decision whether or not to ordain. Though the goal is to train leaders, the courses are open to anyone in the congregation who wishes to take them. In this way, not only are leaders trained, but the general level of Bible literacy in the congregation is raised. (This is only a bare outline of the concept. The actual proposal is far more detailed.)

But, while the basic idea has some merit, I have to admit I am not entirely comfortable with it – even though I am one of the major architects. Aside from a suspicion that our plan is weighted far too heavily toward book knowledge, I have a gut feeling that we’ve overlooked something basic and fundamental. But what? That is the question.

Characteristics of a training program

Even though I am not totally happy with the training program proposal I helped create, and even though I am not entirely sure how to solve the training problem, I think I can say what some of the characteristics of leadership training should be:

1) It must emphasize character over academic attainment. A sheepskin doth not a leader make. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “…Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (1 Corinthians 8:1 NIV) It is not academic credentials, but time spent with Jesus which empowers leaders (See Acts 4:13).
2) It must put a priority on practical application. Training must be taken out of the realm of theory. It must affect, and apply to, life. Note the connection between teaching and lifestyle in what Paul writes, “Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.” (1 Corinthians 4:16-17 NIV)
3) It must be centered in the local congregation rather than an outside institution. The New Testament assigns the task of training to the leaders of the church rather to some other entity (See Ephesians 4:11-13).
4) It must empower new leaders. Perhaps one of the greatest temptations leaders face is to retain power. But we will never be successful in developing the kind of leadership the church needs until we learn to relinquish. John the Baptist well understood this principle when he said of Jesus, “He must become greater; I must become less.” (John 3:30 NIV) Jesus, Himself, practiced the same principle when He told the disciples, “…I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7 NIV) The disciples could never have developed as leaders if Jesus had not empowered them. Here’s how I envision this principle working in practice: Existing leaders consciously work themselves out of the job. They relinquish more and more of their responsibilities to the people they train. During this period of time, the congregation has also been growing (a part of training is preaching to the the lost). When a congregation reaches about 125 or so, it makes plans to replicate itself. By that time the new leadership which has been trained is capable of either leading the new congregation which is formed, or the old one should their trainers/mentors decide to go with the new group. Then, the process of training additional leaders continues in both the old and the new congregations until replication can take place again.

An act of faith

Labeling this essay “Part 1” is an act of faith. Though I do not presently have the answers to the questions I’ve raised; though I, myself, am still groping toward a solution to the training problem, I have confidence that there is a solution. I can visualize the end result, but I don’t yet know how to make it happen. I can tell you one thing though, I’m going to keep on questioning and exploring in order to find a solution.

It is critical that we do find a solution to the leadership training and development problem. Perhaps there will be a “Part 2” and “Part 3” to this series as I’m granted further insight.

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