In our work facilitating and promoting Christian education and ministerial training we tend to emphasize academic instruction above and beyond all other elements involved in the process. The purpose of this little essay is to argue that academic instruction is but one of three vitally important factors that must be present in the ideal development of a minister.
I believe that Scripture and experience teach us that effective ministerial training is a complex, consisting of a thorough academic instruction, a dynamic engagement within a community of believers and the guiding hand of a personal mentor. Whenever any of these three components is missing, the individual’s preparation for ministry is sadly incomplete.
A thorough academic instruction
We have no issues with this statement, as the greater share of our work in the Christian Education Service of the Assemblies of God in Latin America consists of developing and directing institutions of higher learning and their curricular materials. Our Plan Basico is an outstanding document, fruit of the combined thinking of education experts from all across North, Central and South America, that gives cohesion to our efforts at ministerial training throughout Hispanic America. ATAL informs and guides us towards the achievement of ever higher standards of excellence in this work.
Scripture upholds this idea. The rigorous study of God’s word was required in Israel (Deuteronomy 11:18-23) as well as in the Church (2 Timothy 3:14-17).
In a time when rising costs and an emphasis on convenience are leading some in the USA to reduce the academic portion of ministerial training to a bare minimum, it is vitally important that we continue to pursue wholeness and excellence in our mediums of higher learning. The current generation of Latin American citizens is the most highly educated ever in the history of the region. Their evangelism and discipleship will be best carried out by persons with a high level of training. It is expedient that the next generation of pastors and church leaders be firmly grounded in the knowledge of Biblical literature and its proper interpretation, in systematic theology, church history, missiology, ethics, homiletics and all matters of church planting, administration and expansion.
A dynamic engagement with a community of believers
My personal experience leads me to believe that we are not doing as well in this area as in the prior one mentioned. Teaching in the Centro de Estudios Teologicos in Santiago, Chile, more than once I have encountered students who enjoy studying at the institute but who have little or no church life. Some even go to the extreme of sucumbing to a spirit of arrogance, and create strife within the church. We have failed miserably as instructors of theology if we do not teach our students to love the Church, its ministers and people. It is essential that students be able to effectively contextualize the theories and principles received in the academic institution in their residential student community and/or their local church reality. It is essential that students develop their spiritual gifts, whether they include tongues, interpretation of tongues, prophecy, words of wisdom and knowledge, healings, administrations, helps, charity, whatever. These are things which cannot be done in a vacuum, but only within a body of believers.
In Scripture this principle is absolute. There is no divorce between academic instruction and local church life. The rampant individualism of modern culture was never a part of Biblical people of God. All the instructions given in the epistles are thoroughly contextualized to the recipient church communities. The Bible does not admit to the existence of “spiritual lone rangers.”
As we strive to prepare young men and women for full-time Christian ministry we must do all we can to see how they apply their instruction in real ministry with real people. Anything less than that, and all they have are untested ideas and theories. If they only begin to connect with people in ministry after completing their academic studies, they will likely encounter problems and raise questions for which solutions and answers may be beyond their reach.
The guiding hand of a personal mentor
Perhaps most importantly, every person who strives to obey God’s calling to a lifetime of ministry of His word stands in need of the example and guidance only a mentor can bring. Scripture gives many examples of this principle: Moses and Joshua; Elijah and Elisha; Jesus and the Twelve; Barnabas and Paul; Paul and Timothy. As “iron sharpens iron”, so a mentor can finely correct and perfect a student’s knowledge, relationships, accountability, values, priorities and abilities.
Much has been written in recent years about this need within the Christian ministerial fellowship, and I will not repeat it all here. Suffice it to say, a personal mentor has a relationship that runs deeper than that held with a classroom instructor or even a pastor. In these challenging times, our Bible school students, more than ever before, need the wisdom, support, encouragement and model only a mentor can bring.
I believe mentoring relationships are established by the Holy Spirit and not something we can organize by our human efforts at structuring things. Nevertheless, we need to teach our students about the importance of a personal mentor, encourage our colleagues to make themselves available for this task, and, most importantly, be mentors ourselves.
I thank God that I have enjoyed the blessing of having a mentor throughout my life, since my teenage years. Availing myself of that wonderful opportunity at a young age was my way of taking the road less travelled by, the choice that made all the difference.
As I look back on my forty-plus years of fulltime ministry, I recognize that so much that stands out in my memory are things learned within the church community and from my mentor. Perhaps as much or even more than those things learned in the several institutions of higher learning I had the privilege of attending. Perhaps it is time to take a look at our Plan Basico and other directives in the light of these principles and see how we might foment a more complete approach to ministerial training.