The fruit of this article comes from a recent multi-case study research project completed by Andrew Hancock as part of the Doctorate of Education program at Southern Seminary.
What exactly makes a good pastor? If you are exploring your call to ministry or still relatively young in your pastoral position, you should know what you are called to be and do. Or, maybe you are currently a pastor training the next generation of elders and pastors at your church.
How do you know you are called? Or how can you train other leaders if you don’t have strong clarity on what exactly a pastor should be and do? Answers to what makes a good pastor may come from church history, biblical surveys, or books on church leadership.
My search for answers relied on investigating and observing churches that were leading the way in training leaders. I recently took a first-hand look at how conservative evangelical churches define a skilled, knowledgeable, and spiritually mature pastor. During the research portion of my doctorate thesis, I sought answers from those who are leading in the trenches of pastoral development in the local church. To my delight, I quickly found dozens of churches taking seriously their responsibility to train the next generation of pastors while also maintaining partnerships with seminaries and Bible colleges. I sought to categorize the types of training programs that are out there and then I selected five churches to study in more depth. I did this through conducting interviews, going on church visits, and analyzing program materials.
Here’s what I discovered.
What Are Common Approaches to Church-based Pastoral Training?
I found that church pastoral training programs generally organize into four approaches; apprenticeships, cohort programs, training institutes, and finishing residencies.
The apprenticeship model of pastoral training is often employed by a small to mid-sized church containing a pastor and staff (or elders) with a heart to train interns and apprentices. This mentor-apprentice model often contains a pastor with a strong desire to train young men who sense a call to ministry. They usually work with one to two at a time, for one to four years.
A cohort program is a group of pastoral trainees working through a church-based training program together. Trainees serve, learn, and mature together in preparation for ministry as church leaders organize topics related to theology and pastoral ministry. Mentoring and supervised ministry experiences are conducted by pastors and ministry leaders for skill development and character growth.
The institute approach is typically employed by a large church consisting of multiple sites. It devotes resources and staff to leadership development initiatives and church planting efforts. Pastors are trained as part of a larger church leadership development program that includes classes, seminars, cohort learning with multiple groups, supervised ministry experiences, formalized coaching and mentoring, and character assessment. These churches often offer a residency program while a group of pastoral and church planting trainees go through the church-wide leadership development program. This is done in conjunction with specialized training for one to two years.
The finishing residency programs focus on developing well-rounded pastors through post-seminary residency experiences. A finishing residency program emphasizes developing pastoral competencies while offering structured, mentored ministry positions and programs. These programs range from one to four residents per year being formally trained for one to three years.
What Should a Mature Pastor Be and Do?
Most programs I researched and visited had some way to define what pastors are to be and do. In synthesizing the ideas of many of these church programs, pastors should be strong in knowledge (head), mature in character (heart), and competent in pastoral ministry skills (hands). In other words, a complete pastor is one who is mature in convictions, character, and competency. I use these three “C” categories to explain the major curriculum topics of the training program of each church. The convictions category describes how the church builds into their program essential knowledge such as biblical and theological foundations for pastoral ministry. The character category explains strategies for developing the character and personal spiritual formation of the pastors. The competency category portrays how the training program imparts the necessary skills needed for effective pastoral ministry.
How Do Exemplary Church Programs Train Pastors?
So, how exactly do model churches in pastoral training build leaders in their convictions, character qualities, and competency? Well, I discovered some training practices that were common among my five case study churches.
Within the convictions category, each church builds the biblical, theological, and ecclesiological beliefs of trainees. This is done through such avenues as reading books and articles, writing papers, discussing assigned material, attending lectures, participating in cohort study groups, attending conferences, and taking seminary classes from partnering schools. The trainees also study the values and ministry philosophy of their churches.
Within the character category, trainees grow in spiritual disciplines and character through mentoring for spiritual formation, engagement in the church body, spiritual discipline practice and observation, and character assessments with a coaching pastor. The case study churches recognize pastoral training is more than growing certain aspects of character or skills; it entails developing whole persons created in the image of God. This holistic development approach includes cultivating relationships with congregants, receiving coaching in targeted areas of life such as finances and time management, and studying topics related to all areas of life and ministry.
Within the competency category, shared practices include observing or participating in meetings, shadowing the pastors as they perform pastoral ministry, and participating in training sessions with other trainees. Each program also builds in supervised ministry experiences, opportunities to engage in pastoral duties, and occasions to teach and preach.
How Might You Apply this Research?
After all my research was complete and my data was analyzed, I tried to find the most important shared practices among these training programs. Based on the research, I have provided a list of six essentials for effective pastoral training. If you are a church leader, you can use these ideas to start or build a stronger leadership development program at your church. I found that with some intentional steps, even small churches can build effective pastoral training programs. If you are exploring your call to ministry (or are new ministry), you can use this list to help you find a place where you can be trained effectively in these areas.
1) Develop Robust Biblical & Theological Convictions
Pastors are expected to have a well-rounded understanding of the Bible and Christian doctrine. A training program must equip participants in this crucial area by helping them establish and articulate a complete set of doctrinal convictions and a robust understanding of Scripture, ecclesiology, and biblical theology. Church leaders should understand deficiencies in participant’s theological and scriptural knowledge, and then provide curriculum that sharpens their convictions. There are a wide variety of tools available for developing this practice. Such tools include seminary classes, online resources, books on theology and ecclesiology, and conferences.
2) Provide Opportunities to Strengthen Shepherding Skills
Robust theological knowledge without well-developed shepherding skills limits pastoral effectiveness. An effective pastor should demonstrate both comprehensive convictional knowledge and a strong base of shepherding skills. In my research, program participants showed gratitude when given opportunities to strengthen their pastoral skills. These trainees realized that a seminary class cannot comprehensively teach the practice of pastoral skills. Seminaries are equipped to train students intellectually, but the local church best trains students through hands-on experience. They can send them on care visits, give them pulpit time, provide opportunities to perform weddings or funerals, and give them opportunities to lead baptisms and communion. They can also allow them to sit in on a counseling session.
3) Include Leadership Topics in the Training Curriculum
I found that many program leaders needed to cover topics that may have been missed (or limited) during seminary studies. The training incorporated topical studies on Christian leadership, church values, and other context-appropriate themes. Each program taught topics related to the church philosophy of ministry, and values related to the culture of their church. Directors led training sessions, cohort assignments, and book discussions. Topics covered included Christian history, apologetics, ethics, cultural engagement, time management, spiritual formation, team ministry, conflict management, and organization and administration of the church. Effective leaders should consider what leadership topics are needed and then include those topics in the curriculum.
4) Cultivate Trainee Relationships
Relationships among trainees represents a highlight for nearly every participant I interviewed. Training for pastoral ministry can be demanding and time consuming. Cohort relationships can help lighten the burden and enrich the lives of participants.
Effective program directors should encourage relationship building among trainees. They should also plan for intentional growth among trainees. Strategies include accountability partners, group projects, case studies to work through together, focused cohort discussion sessions, and encouraging relationship building outside of church responsibilities.
Iron sharpening iron among trainees is a powerful growth factor in a pastoral development program.
5) Delegate Ministry Responsibilities Alongside Pastoral Coaching
Supervised ministry responsibility is an integral part of a training program. This essential piece combines the supervision of a pastor with the delegation of important ministry responsibilities. Trainees need to be released to practice significant leadership tasks in conjunction with coaching and debrief sessions. Creating a trainee job description and evaluating performance based on its parameters enhances the supervised ministry experience. Regular coaching meetings should be scheduled to discuss trainee accomplishments, discouragements, and job description adjustments.
6) Provide a Context for Mentoring Toward Whole-Person Growth
High burnout rates and low pastoral retention numbers are common in churches today. The exemplary training programs fight against these trends by remembering that pastors are people too! The entire being of a pastor needs to be encouraged and nourished. The setting of a local church training program provides unique opportunities for mentoring toward the whole-person growth of trainees. For holistic development, participants can meet with program leaders, pastoral mentors, members of the congregation, counselors, or elders. These relationships can cover a wide range of holistic training topics such as balancing ministry and family, handling stressful situations, healthy rhythms of work and rest, personal finances, exercise and healthy eating, and emotional health. Whatever the unique resources each church offers, program leaders are wise to incorporate contexts for mentoring toward whole-person growth.
Christ’s sovereign and mighty plan to accomplish his purposes on earth and in heaven includes building his Church (Mt. 16:18). And he uses pastors, his choice under-shepherds, to lead local congregations of believers to join him in his work of redeeming and restoring the world (Eph. 4:11-16; Mt 28:18-20). What an incredible privilege we have to lead and develop more leaders among the bride and body of Christ! It is my prayer that, wherever you are at within training and developing leaders, you might be encouraged and challenged to take your next steps personally or as a church in this great task.