I’ll never forget that evening. I was Youth Pastor of a church in Tallahassee, Florida, and had taken a group of young people on a mission trip to lead Backyard Bible Clubs for a young church in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. One night we had arranged to take the whole group into Philadelphia for a Phillies baseball game.
It was daylight when we got to the ballpark, but well past dark when the game concluded and we piled onto the bus and lead van to head back to Downingtown.
Somehow – perhaps my keen sense of navigational skills had something to do with it – we got lost in inner city Philadelphia. We pulled off the highway, pulled out the map, and discovered an important truth: maps don’t help much unless you already know where you are! (Needless to say, I was never so glad to see a flashing blue light behind me as I was that night – the nice officer helped us get back on the right road and out of our predicament.)
Let’s talk a bit about a road map for your ministry call – where do I go from here? The best map doesn’t help if you don’t know where you are now – so I am writing this with the assumption that you have a sense of God’s call upon your life to serve in some kind of ministry. The reality is that there are many roads on which God might take you, and it’s going to be an exciting adventure as you follow His direction for your life and ministry.
On any journey, it’s important to make preparations. If your family was heading out on a big trip, you’d make sure you had the items necessary for an enjoyable journey – gas for the car, clothes, copies of your hotel reservations and other arrangements, and so on.
On your journey toward God’s call for your life, it’s vital that you prepare. That preparation takes many forms.
Have a Personal Devotional Life.
As you begin taking steps to prepare yourself for life in full-time ministry you’re going to both want and need to take some time to ensure your continued growth on a personal level. The other two steps will take a significant toll on your time, your energy, and your resources. You will begin spending more of your time in service to others. Additionally, once you begin your academic training you will spend many hours, weeks, months, and years on meeting deadlines, reading and writing, and completing projects.
It is important, in the midst of these other two areas of preparation that you remain focused on what led to your call to begin with: your personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and a desire to serve Him. It would be very unfortunate if you pursued with great zeal and passion practical experience in ministry and academic training, if in the end, the result is a wealth of experience a stronger mind, but a lack of spiritual devotion. Your goal should be to supplement your passion for God, his people, and ministry. To do this you need to actively and constantly aim to grow spiritually. Using Paul’s admonition to Timothy as a guide, you should begin reading, memorizing, and knowing Scripture. You will rely on it more than you can imagine.
Reading and studying Scripture will help you stay focused on your preparation. Scripture study can point out areas where you need to work harder. It will be, as Paul said, beneficial in “rebuking” and “correcting” you. As you prepare for ministry your focus needs to stay on your personal devotion. I would even go so far as to recommend Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth as a good way of working through developing a stronger devotional life.
You’re going to want to set aside time for prayer and Bible study on a regular basis, so you can keep your personal relationship growing. As you serve others and add academic training to your daily life, there will be a strong temptation to lose sight of this relationship. Be proactive now and maintain daily habits and skills to guard against losing your zeal and passion.
Be Involved in Your Own Local Church.
This goes under the heading: be faithful where you already are. There are at least two reasons why this is important. First, you need the fellowship and support of your own faith community. Your church is the place you worship, enjoy relationships with fellow believers, find encouragement from others in the joys and sorrows of life and ministry. Chances are, your church is the place God is using to help guide you in your own journey to spiritual maturity and the place from which He has called you to ministry.
Second, one day you will be calling on others to be active and faithful in their involvement in the local church. Now is your opportunity to set an example of such faithfulness, and to demonstrate that church involvement is not simply for those who are paid ministers, but for all believers.
Look for Ways to Serve.
Right now you have a wonderful opportunity to gain valuable ministry experience in various areas of service. Whatever your stage in life – still in school, or already working in some other field – you can begin preparing for a life of ministry by serving right where you are.
There is no shortage of places that need the help of talented, faithful believers. In your own church, there are Bible study classes that needs teachers and leaders, youth and children’s ministries that can use help, outreach programs that can use committed workers and leaders. Your own church is a good place to gain useful experience in seeing how churches work as you assist with things like media and communications ministries, volunteer as a pastoral care associate, or even help as an usher or in some other place of service. Some day you may be encouraging others to take on such roles – why not do it yourself now?
The opportunity for service extends beyond your own church also. There are likely ministries in your community working with those who need a helping hand – rescue missions, shelters for abused women, children’s homes, and many more. You’ll be blessed by your faithful service in Christ’s name, and the experience you gain will be of great value in your future ministry.
Begin Your Ministry Education.
An important part of your preparation is the formal part of your education, which can include your undergraduate degree in a college or university, plus graduate study in ministry. Such education will provide a foundation for your lifelong learning experience as a minister of the gospel.
If you have not yet started your college education, consider your options carefully when you begin to plan for college. As you prepare for years of vital ministry service, you will want the best foundation possible – one that will equip you to learn well, to think critically, and to communicate effectively.
As someone who will be serving and leading the body of Christ, you will wisely seek to gain knowledge, expertise, training, and an overall exposure to the academic elements of your Christian faith. Your academic training will include courses like:
- Biblical Studies & Languages
- Spiritual Formation
- Evangelism & Missions
- Preaching & Teaching
- Christian Ethics & Worldview
- Church History
- Theology & Philosophy
This education provides an important base of information and expertise in explaining God’s kingdom, the Gospel message, the life and times of the Israelites, and the formation and teachings of the early church. In the 1st Century a major threat to the early church was false teaching. Paul’s first letter to Timothy begins with instructions on countering false teachers (1 Timothy 1.3-7). And when Paul writes to Titus he demands that teachers “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught … give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1.9).
It is imperative that ministers in churches are adequately prepared academically in a variety of ways. You’ll want to be informed about the information in the Bible so you can adequately teach and lead others in the value of the Bible and its importance and authority. You’ll want to study Scripture so you can be better equipped for your task in ministry.
Many students preparing for ministry will naturally choose to attend a Christian college or university. Be aware that just because a school has a church or denominational relationship does not mean that you will be receiving a Christ-centered higher education. At some schools, that church relationship means little more than weekly chapel services.
At an authentically Christ-centered college or university, that commitment will impact every element of life – from the residence hall to the classroom. You’ll have Christian scholars in the classroom, integrating insights from a Christian worldview into your academic disciplines. The application of Christian thinking into varied fields will be a great model for you as you prepare for the same challenge in your own ministry.
And as a future pastor or church leader, one of the other benefits of a Christian college or university is the relationships you will establish that will stay with you for the rest of your life and ministry. The friend you make in New Testament class or in the ministerial association may become a trusted friend and colleague with whom your life will intersect for decades to come.
If I am going on to seminary, do I need to major in religion or Christian studies in my bachelor’s degree?
While some students do opt for other majors – such as history or English, for example – there are real benefits to doing an undergraduate major in college as well. One benefit is that it provides a solid basis for later excellence in graduate or seminary programs – in fact, you can sometimes take advanced courses in seminary in place of more basic courses you did in a strong Christian Studies program as an undergraduate. A benefit for those who may delay graduate study is that their undergraduate program provides the majority of their preparation for ministry service as they graduate and move into church or other ministry roles.
Beyond college, many ministers will seek additional preparation through study at a seminary or graduate school of ministry. Your choice of schools will depend on many factors: your personal situation and location, the likely direction of your ministry, your academic interests, denominational relationships, faculty preferences and more. For example, I think professors who have actually served full-time in church ministry positions bring a valuable extra dimension to the classroom – as you prepare for ministry, it can be a great advantage to study with those who have “been there, done that.”
Unlike past years when the only option for those seeking seminary education was to move to a camps in another city, today students have choices about how and where to study. Many will continue to go to a residential seminary, but others – particularly those already serving in a local church – may take advantage of online educational options, allowing them to continue their theological education without relocating family and ministry.
Consider carefully the place where you study for ministry – it can make an enormous difference in your own future service.
Which Road Do I Take?
You have been called and you are seeking to prepare. But then what? What options are available for persons in ministry in the 21st century?
Of course, the most important factor is the call of God on your life and the direction He leads you. But part of that direction can come from an understanding of the many different types of ministry service in which people serve today. The reality is that there are multiplied ways in which you may be called to serve, based on your gifts, training and experience.
The best-known ministry role to most of us is the role of Pastor (or, in the larger church, the Senior or Lead Pastor). Since New Testament days, the pastor of a congregation has served as the shepherd, preacher, and leader of a local congregation of believers. In small churches the pastor may be the only paid staff position. (And in very small congregations, the pastor may be unpaid or may be bi-vocational – in that situation, the primary income may come from another job or vocation, and the pastoral service is considered part-time employment.) In larger congregations, the senior pastor may be the leader among multiple paid staff positions, and has a primary focus on things like preaching and leadership, with many other ministry duties delegated to various other pastors and staff members.
One particular type of pastor is the Church Planter. This is the pastor who “plants” or starts a new church, sometimes as a solo staff member and other times as part of a team. With the importance of starting new church work today, the church planter has become an extremely critical position. Some church planters work under the sponsorship of another congregation, or even a denominational agency; others plant new work independently of other churches or groups. The work of the church planter is challenging – many new churches do not survive, while others thrive and become great bases for ministry outreach. If God calls you to be a church planter, you’ll work hard but find many rewards.
As churches grow in size, many churches add a position typically known as the Executive Pastor. The executive pastor takes a variety of administrative responsibilities off the senior pastor. For example, the executive pastor will probably serve as the primary administrative officer of the church, coordinator of the staff, and liaison to many of the committees and other church leaders. Sometimes churches will have a similar position known as the church business administrator; often such a position is filled by a lay leader who has worked in business and has now shifted to a church-related role.
Some churches have pastoral staff positions linked to specific age groups. For example, a Youth Pastor or Minister of Youth is often the second or third staff position a church adds, which is evidence of what an emphasis many churches put on ministry to their students. A staff position that is growing rapidly in popularity is the Minister to Children; there appear to be far more churches interested in hiring such a staff person than there are ministers trained in this area. Larger churches often have pastoral staff positions directing work with various adult groups, such as single adults, young families, median adults, and senior adults. An older model – but still used in some churches – is the position of Minister of Education, who coordinates the educational ministries of the church across age groups. A newer approach is to have a Minister of Discipleship who helps coordinate the work of Sunday School, small groups, and other ministries relating to growing mature disciples within the church.
The Minister of Music or Worship Leader is a role found in most churches, whether as a full-time staff position or a part-time or volunteer role. This leader not only leads congregational worship through music, but also coordinates the work of accompanists, ensembles, age-graded choirs and other music-related ministries. In smaller churches the worship leader often helps with coordination of media tools used in worship; in larger churches, the Media Minister position is beginning to emerge as an important role, given the increasing presence of video and other media resources in worship.
There are many ministries that are not located within a single congregation, but work in roles that partner with local churches. For example, Missionaries are called to carry the gospel to specific areas. International missionaries are sent to evangelize, plant churches, or minister to other needs in locations outside the United States. There are also home missionaries who serve in a variety of roles within the U.S., such as seaport ministries, resort ministries, urban ministries and many more.
Pastoral Counselors sometimes work within a specific church, but often serve in counseling centers or ministry settings apart from a specific congregation. Chaplains minister to people in settings like the military or in hospitals; military chaplains are typically commissioned officers in one of the armed services, and they receive their ministerial training prior to enlistment. There is also an increasing demand for chaplains to work in industrial or corporate settings, ministering to the needs of employees of that organization.
Evangelists are typically independent of a specific congregation, but find themselves preaching and leading programs in many churches each year. Although fewer churches today hold traditional revivals – which was the primary emphasis of vocational evangelists a generation ago – now many evangelists have developed a ministry dealing with specific needs within churches (such as families, youth, or other issues) and they carry out their evangelistic ministries through these new approaches.
Some ministers ultimately fulfill their calling by working with many churches through service as Denominational Staff at the local, state or national level. Within Southern Baptist life, for example, there are ministers who
- lead local associations of churches
- provide consulting help with churches through state conventions
- offer help and training for church planters
- lead institutions like children’s homes or homes for the aging
- offer administrative support for missions agencies
- minister to church leaders through publishing and media
and many more possibilities. The 21st century will bring with it new roles and possibilities as the church and culture experience continuous change.
Finally, I would be remiss in not including Faculty and Teachers in Christian colleges, universities, seminaries and other schools. Those of us who have written this booklet have each sensed God’s call to minister to students through the classroom, equipping new generations of Christian ministers and leaders. Many of us came to the classroom following years of service in local churches as pastors, Christian educators and other roles. We believe that the church and the Christian college should be partners in the Kingdom task of equipping those whom God has called.
“It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:11-13, NIV)
Wherever God leads you in ministry, hold firm to the assurance of His call. Where He calls you, He will go with you. And, ultimately, that is all that matters.