Pastoral Education and the Challenges of Ministry in the 21st Century

By Dr. Douglas Groothuis
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Even after a great seminary education, many pastors are left unprepared to face the challenges that local church ministry presents. How do pastors take these challenges head on with confidence and boldness?

Even the best-trained pastors face crises for which they feel unprepared or underprepared. During such times, a good pastor may feel inadequate or doubt his calling as a shepherd of souls. But there are antidotes to these ills, as I will show through examples and principles.

Julie lived in a tent in the mountains outside Boulder, Colorado. When her cough became terrible and chronic, she came down into town and sought the help of a church. Pastor Doug and his church ministered to Julie. They got her medical help. But the news was grim. Julie had inoperable lung cancer. The pastor helped Julie prepare for death and for eternity, as well as ministering to her other needs. Since I had met Julie, I attended her memorial service. My friend, who had graduated from Denver Seminary, skillfully led the service of remembrance, lament and celebration. His education and his theology had prepared him for moments such as these. But pastors sometimes feel ill-equipped to face crises and difficult ministry problems. 

Pastor Doug faced another problem his education did not prepare him for. A down-and-out man was attending his church. As I was teaching an adult education class, I looked over at him and noticed he was ill-clad. (I’ll spare you the details.) I told the pastor and found that this man had committed indecent exposure. The church was trying to help him, but had to ask him to leave because he would not repent (and cover up). No seminary instruction addressed just this situation, but the pastor’s theology of care and tough love made a way.      

How can seminaries and other educational ministries train future pastors for tough, real-life crises and tragedies? And if trained pastors feel unequipped, what might they do in the face of tragedy and distress in their churches?      

I have taught philosophy as a professor at Denver Seminary since 1993. Our mission has been stated several ways during my tenure, but the present statement says: “Denver Seminary prepares men and women to engage the needs of the world with the redemptive power of the gospel and the life-changing truth of Scripture.” No other seminary states it just this way, but all God-honoring and Bible-affirming seminaries have the same purpose—to bring God’s truth to bear in the church and for the world. This is not an advertisement for Denver Seminary, but, rather, a reflection on the how theology taught in seminaries can equip pastors for tragic situations, such as that of Julie’s.

We professors try to relate our teaching to the church and overall ministry situations, but it is our students who will take what they learn from us into the world. While some courses such as Pastoral Counseling directly address church matters, other subjects may seem more abstract and impersonal. Nevertheless, as Francis Schaeffer taught, every biblical doctrine is practical. Consider the mystery of the Holy Trinity. The Bible teaches and the Christian creeds affirm the Trinity is one God in three divine persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Athanasian Creed affirms: 

We worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity,
neither blending their persons
nor dividing their essence.
For the person of the Father is a distinct person,
the person of the Son is another,
and that of the Holy Spirit still another.
But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one,
their glory equal, their majesty coeternal. 

The doctrine of the Trinity is what intellectually distinguishes Christianity from all other religions. Judaism and Islam teach that God is one, but they deny the Trinity and, therefore, the Incarnation (John 1:14). Put more directly, this is how God is: three-in-one. We come to the Father through the Son and by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The ultimate reality is relational, not static or impersonal. God is a personal being—trinity in unity. As Schaeffer writes in He is There and He is Not Silent, “The persons of the Trinity communicated with each other and loved each other before the creation of the world.” God is also interpersonal, since He reaches out to the world in His mission to restore broken relationships. This means that God as Trinity is the basis for love and loving relationships. G. K. Chesterton quipped in Orthodoxy, “It was not well for God to be alone.”

As pastors pray and work for the unity of the body of Christ in their churches, they can remember that community is eternal in the triune God Himself. They are not laboring in vain, since it is God’s will that God’s people be one, even as Christ and God the Father are one (John 17:21). The love we extend in fellowship comes from God himself, who is love, lover and loved. No ministry crisis can overpower the love of the triune God for His people and the lost. The pastor’s inadequacy as a grief counselor or first-responder may be God’s opportunity to work wonders. So we find that the Trinity is not an obscure doctrine, but a living reality and inspiration for Spirit-led ministry.

Let me offer several suggestions for pastors who are facing ministry challenges for which their education seems inadequate. 

Make the most of your education

One of my students came to seminary twenty-five years ago as a refugee from the civil war in Liberia. Like all students, Tony took notes on class lectures. But unlike many, he wrote notes on how what he was learning in Denver, Colorado, could be translated into his unique African context of displacement, tribal hostility and poverty. Since much of African-Christian experience and theology lacks a biblical view of suffering and lament, Tony took pains to engage his studies with this in mind. Similarly, seminary students should consider how all their classwork and research may relate to their future ministry. They cannot expect the professor to do this, just as Tony did not expect me to make applications to his African context. My former student is now playing a key role in bringing the Gospel to many parts of Africa. All seminary students, whatever their background, should consider how to apply their learning to their particular context.

Have ready access to your notes and readings from your seminary classes

I tell my students that if I see one of my assigned texts with their name in it at a used bookstore, I will come after them! (It has happened, I’m afraid.) If you learned the biblical languages, keep up on them. The same goes for theology, biblical studies, apologetics, homiletics and all your subjects. Don’t let all that effort and suffering go to waste.

Ongoing study of these disciplines proves pertinent to ministry. While the pressures of the pastorate often eat away at study, time spent renewing and developing the mind is non-negotiable for a Christian leader (see Romans 12:1-2). Moreover, your old seminary professors should be happy to interact with your concerns. We like to think that our teaching applies to ministry concerns, and we are happy to know how our students are faring in their work. 

Even if your seminary or other ministry preparation was inadequate, don’t let that make you bitter or cause you to be discouraged

As Hebrews warns, “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (Hebrews 12:5). Nearly every time I meet with a particular seminary graduate, he bitterly complains about his experience there. This does no good and is annoying. Rather, “Do everything without grumbling or arguing” (Philippians 2:14).

Being a godly pastor means life-long learning. (It should be the same for every Christian.) You cannot expect a seminary education to give you all you need for a lifetime of ministry. If you must address and minister to an area of sexual sin about which you are ignorant, then seek guidance from experts and begin to study and pray through the matter. If you are in the right place, the Holy Spirit will lead you into truth through love, so that you are faithful and effective in God’s good work.

Pastors need the fellowship and prayers of other pastors

By fellowship, I don’t mean simply being together and trying to keep up appearances. Rather, pastors should be open and vulnerable with trusted fellow ministers of the gospel in order to give and receive encouragement. The great Apostle Paul expressed his emotions freely to the leaders and members of the churches under his care. (See James Beck, The Psychology of Paul). He both gave and received encouragement. Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica: 

We constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith. We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thessalonians 1:11).

Paul also wrote to the church in Rome:

“I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith” (Romans 1:11-12). 

Pastors need to be “prepared in season and out of season,” that they might “correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2). Sometimes they will feel on top of their game and feel the Spirit blessing others through them. At other times, they feel powerless and lacking crucial emotional and intellectual resources. But at all times, leaders in the church can draw on what they have learned and assess what they need to learn. In this, the challenges of ministry may be faced with confidence.

© 2019 Doug Groothuis.

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