It’s Supposed to Change: Thinking about Ministry Formation

I’m thinking through the formation process for vocational gospel ministry, and I want to run the following argument: If your working pattern as a trainee looks much the same as your working patterns after training, you’re doing something wrong.

If your working pattern as a trainee looks much the same as your working patterns after training, you’re doing something wrong.

Let me explain. In a program like the (fabulous) Ministry Training Strategy (MTS) you spend two years working in a live ministry context, learning the ropes of gospel work. If it’s done right, this will involve huge amounts of time reading the Bible with both Christians and non-Christians. It will mean organising talks. And camps. And conferences. It will mean running teams; overseeing evangelistic events; fielding ministry-related administration; preparing talk, Bible studies and seminars. By the end you’ll have read through Colossians with more people that you can remember. You’ll have talked to umpteen guys about their struggle with internet porn. You’ll have experienced the joys and frustrations of working with volunteer teams. You’ll have talked patiently through the problem of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility so many times you could do it in your sleep.

Then you become a ministry leader.

Now, your timetable looks very different. You start to have more governance meetings. You are involved in less acute and more chronic pastoral situations. Less “I’ve just broken up with my boyfriend and it hurts like mad”, and more “we’ve been working on our marriage for ten years and it just won’t fix” kind of stuff. You need more time to prepare teaching. You need to read deeply and widely. Many of your meetings are with senior leaders. Indeed, you find yourself at either end of the bell-curve, meeting either with very gifted and strong leaders, or with people facing complex and intractable problems on the other side. You don’t get much time in the middle. You feel like you are “away from the coal-face” of ministry.

Two Mistakes

That’s the observation. Here’s the application: I think that shape is basically right in both cases. We should embrace it, not fight it.

You see, there’s a risk that, as you move into more senior roles, you look back at the time doing MTS on a campus and think that was where the real ministry happened. Then you were reading the Bible face to face with people, and that’s what it’s all about. But now, here you are leading teams, reading up on legislation, writing policy and so on.

On the other side, there’s a risk that in your traineeship you adopt a work pattern that mimics the pattern of a senior pastor. You are very cautious about how many people you meet with. You say no to lots of stuff. You spend a lot of time at the desk preparing.

I’ve seen a lot of the former—pastors who mourn the way in which they used to do be able to do (real!) ministry—and more recently I’ve seen a rise in the latter: people at the trainee phase managing their load as if they have already moved into more specialised senior roles.

I think both are wrong-headed.

During your ministry formation period you just need the air miles. Pilots need to clock up something like 250 hours of flying before they can fly commercially—they need to see all the eventualities, go through the procedures so many times it becomes second nature. Same with ministry. MTS and similar programmes need to be intensely people-focussed and Bible-focussed and generalist in nature. When you’re in your 20s, you can throw a whole bunch of hours at reading the book of Colossians with first years at a university. Before you have the skills, what you bring is the hours. Any one of those meetings might not have been amazing, or particularly subtle exegetically. But what they lack in quality they make up for in quantity and heart. The big thing is that you are clocking up ministry air miles. You’re building a powerful base-load of pastoral and evangelistic experience that will radically shape you in the years to come and make you a much better ministry leader.

The New York writer David Brooks says you should say yes to everything, especially when you are young. That’s not bad advice. Honestly, you don’t know what you’re good at yet, so just say yes to everything. Make mistakes. Give stuff a shot. Jump in. My advice in the training phase—don’t specialise too early. Give everything a crack. Even stuff you suck at. It’s all about the hustle.

But the oppose is true when you are older and in a leadership role. Now it’s not about hustle, but triage. At any given moment of my day, there are—I don’t know?—maybe a dozen people who have a legitimate claim on your current hour: staff, family, board, elders, trainees, neighbours, school mates, elderly church members in hospital, and so on. Your job is not to work out what on earth to do with your time, but to make judicious, strategic, compassionate and Christ-like decisions between various legitimate demands. Every yes is a no, so you need to weigh your yesses carefully.

When you are older it’s about triage. Your job is not to work out what on earth to do with your time, but to make judicious, strategic, compassionate and Christ-like decisions between various legitimate demands.

Speaking for myself, by now the jury is more or less in on what I am good at and what I am not good at. If I continue to do everything, then the ministry I lead will reflect both my strengths and my weaknesses. No body wins with that. Much better to double down on my strengths, and find people who can meet our church’s need where I am weak.

To do my job as a senior pastor, I also need space and time in prayer and Scripture to lead, that is, to shepherd, the church. And that means looking ahead. Shepherding in the ancient near east is very different from shepherding on the green hills on England. England is a sheep’s paradise—there’s green grass everywhere! But in the ancient near east, a shepherd has to be able to make some very difficult judgements. He can see what the sheep can’t—that, over there, if they walk through that rocky, craggy valley, there is green grass and water on the other side. The sheep can’t see the grass; their only hope is to trust the shepherd. But to see ahead the shepherd has to be looking ahead.

Pastors’ need to lead like that. They need to be able to look ahead and see spiritual danger, missional opportunity, and biblical nourishment. If their diary is as full of people as an MTS diary, they simply won’t be able to see far enough ahead to be a good shepherd. A number of times in my own ministry, I have allowed myself to get far too busy, and in the process missed critical decisions and directional moves that have cost the whole church dearly.

Jump First, Say No Later

And so, if you’re training for ministry, think air-miles. Jump at every opportunity you reasonably can. Learn as much as you can. Work out what you’re good and not so good at.

In senior ministry, do the opposite. Choose what you say yes to very carefully. Accept that your role is not necessarily at the coal face. You should be willing to do anything—teach a scripture class, go on the supper roster, wash someone’s feet. But your main role is to strengthen those at the coal-face, which necessarily means being less at the coal face yourself. Tim Adeney taught me that in leadership we are “taking responsibility for the structures that lead to human flourishing.” What matters is that good discipleship happens, not that you’re the one who did it.

But you won’t build good structures without the pastoral air miles. They’re both real ministry; just different.