God continues to give me the merciful privilege of speaking with young men who believe that God is calling them to pastoral ministry. I am one of those guys myself, though I started down the shepherd’s road over 19 years ago. The most common and critical question is, Where should I go for training?
Not only is that a ridiculously consequential question, but there are too many ingredients that defy a canned response. Even if the young man demonstrates desire, character, and aptitude for overseeing work, practical considerations such as cost and distance often eliminate certain options at once, especially if they (or their parents) listen to Dave Ramsey every afternoon.
So what are principles and determining priorities? Having gone through the process myself, and having opportunity to think about and attempt to answer the question frequently, here is my “look for this” list.1
The Sacred Writings
Go to a place that believes the Bible has all the answers. This belief should be a living faith, both explicit and implicit. By explicit I mean that the institution affirms the inspiration, inerrancy, and sufficiency of Scripture. If the doctrinal statement is unclear, or if teachers are allowed liberty on the ground level, don’t even enter the building. The Bible in the pastor’s soul food, his training manual, and his shepherding staff. Being educated to doubt and question the Book is no blessing. This criteria eliminates a number of options, but based on statements of belief alone, there are still a fair number of flowers in the field.
Implicit belief in the Bible throws a bunch of those flowers into the oven to be burned. Attitude and practice are as important as, and maybe even more important than, an institution’s written documents. One window is the scope and sequence of the course work, as well as the electives. Are the original languages expected? Are they even offered? Are there more elective classes such as Genesis, Psalms, Matthew, and Ephesians? Or are subjects such as church administration, psychology/counseling, and leadership given greater priority? Though the latter group of classes aren’t unimportant, they are all secondary, and should be built on the Bible. It isn’t enough to sprinkle Bible verses into the syllabus. Be schooled in a place that loves the Bible and points pastors to study the Bible itself, most of all and first of all. We’re already in a very tiny corner of the evangelical field.
Examples to the Flock
Pursue a person (or persons) that you want to be like. Every disciple when he is fully trained will be like his teacher; choose well. Even the most non-conformist student can’t help but be influenced over the course of two, three, or five years of instruction. That’s how it’s supposed to be. That’s why Bible college and seminary aren’t weekenders. So go after faculty who love God’s Word and love God’s people. Watch them. Camp on their lawns. Get in their back pockets. Find those who have practiced finding the point of paragraphs and who have persevered in patiently pastoring sheep.
There will be things you see that you won’t want to do. That, too, is expected and profitable in the process. Only Christ is the Chief Shepherd and only He is a perfect shepherd. But in general, it’s proper to follow leaders who follow Christ. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Pursue training by men whose hearts are in a better condition than their grammar. Find those worn by church discipline battles in living rooms, not only exam grading in classrooms. Pay attention to men who minister publicly and from house to house. Pastoral ministry is personal, so search out men that will train you as a person, not as a professional.
A Church to Cherish
Plan to invest in church ministry while being trained for future church ministry. Most of what I learned about being a pastor had little to do with books or papers or exams. Learning to pastor comes by learning to care more for people and less for grades. Effective Bible colleges and seminaries put tools in in the shepherd’s box, but the point is to use the tools, not gather and admire the tools indefinitely.
It makes absolutely no sense to put off heavy ministry involvement under the excuse of training for ministry. I understand the sentiment, that it might enable someone to finish school more quickly, but that approach is counterproductive. My wife would be appropriately disturbed if I abandoned her for three years in order to learn how to be a better husband.
When choosing a college or seminary, the trainee must be as certain as possible that there is a healthy local church in the area. It doesn’t have to be a perfect body; those don’t exist anyway. But the more closely associated a school for pastors is with a church, the more likely the graduate will be equipped to bless.
So go to a place with exemplary men that live and keep His Word and spend their lives for His bride. These aren’t arcane principles, but they frame a paradigm that very few places fit.2