The office is quieter than normal today. And that’s fine. I’m being quite productive. And the reason is that the Ministry Trainees are away on the 9:38 Apprentices Conference. This seemed a good time therefore to post something I produced just before Christmas for the South East Gospel Partnership website on the subject of Ministry Apprenticeships. I was asked to write on the subject of running a ministry training programme in the context of a smaller church. Though I principally aim my comments at whoever runs the staff team, I had the team of elders in mind as well. Obviously, CCB is the smaller church context, where I’m the team leader. But, as part of the Co-Mission network of churches, we can also tap into the benefits of a combined ministry workshop which takes place on a Wednesday morning at Co-Mission HQ in Raynes Park. In all hoensty, I’d still run an apprenticeship even if we didn’t have the Co-Mission option. It would just be different, fractionally less good but definitely worth doing! But here’s what I wrote.
Small churches are the best place to train in gospel ministry. That’s just an opinion. And it’s mine. But I probably need to nuance it with a few qualifying comments. And then justify it.
Obviously, small churches are not the only place to train. You can train in larger churches. And they have their benefits. In particular, a larger church staff team can often appoint specialists to a particular ministry role. One of these roles might be ministry training. And so that staff member can be preoccupied with single-mindedly training a cohort of trainees. And therefore many of us in smaller churches assume that we can’t sensibly be involved in ministry training until we become a larger church. But that’s simply not the case. Smaller churches have two distinct advantages over larger churches. In the first place a ministry trainee is likely to have greater access to the senior pastor. Although he’ll be busy, a small church pastor won’t have to spend a huge proportion of his time managing a large staff team, overseeing a busy church programme and co-ordinating an administrative juggernaut. And so a ministry trainee can expect to spend a good proportion of his time in the company of the pastor and his family. And that’s what many of them want. They want the theory but they especially want to know what ministry looks like in practice; the good and the bad. And secondly, a small church pastor tends to be involved in a greater variety of gospel ministry. He’s not only preaching the Sunday sermon, he’s probably running the Christianity Explored course, speaking at the seniors’ tea and training the kids’ workers as well as a whole host of other stuff. And so the ministry trainee can expect to be exposed to a broad range of ministries. And that’s good since most ministry trainees will go on to become generalists in smaller churches rather than specialists in larger churches. And so training in a small church context can provide the ideal preparation they need.
In our Co-Mission Ministry Training Scheme we’ve sought to prioritise three complementary commitments; first, the strengthening of theological convictions, secondly the development of ministry competency and thirdly the formation of godly character. Although we now have a weekly combined workshop which all our ministry trainees attend, everything that we currently provide at that larger event could be done, and has been done, in a local church setting. And in many ways it was better when we were smaller. Theological convictions are formed through biblical exposure, ministry competency through critiqued experience and godly character through personal discipleship. No workshop training programme guarantees that. They need access to a pastor. And the more experienced the pastor the better. Together they can read through Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology for an hour each week or study a book of the Bible in preparation for a forthcoming preaching series. Together they can reflect on the ministry trainee’s talk at the youth group and discuss how a progressive revelatory understanding of the scriptures helps us understand what David and Goliath is really about. And together they can address and pray about the ministry trainee’s tendency to be dismissive in way in which he talks to older men. Those things happen best in the context of a deepening partnership and friendship. I treat our trainees like younger brothers and they treat me like an older brother. Ministry training is not a course in a workshop, it’s a shared life. And on reflection, I reckon that those who’ve had the best ministry training experience at Christ Church Balham were those with whom I was able to share my life and ministry. They were involved in evaluating my talks in our Monday morning staff meeting, reflecting on strategy and church politics as we travelled to ministry meetings, thinking about a particular pastoral situation over a cup of tea and reflecting on life and marriage over a beer at the end of an evening meeting. There wasn’t a programme that we followed. We just did life and ministry together.
I’ll be honest, it takes both time and energy. But it’s worth every moment and effort. If I train them well then although they’ll consume some of my time, in fact they’ll multiply the ministry. If it’s just me then the ministry is limited by my capacity. And I’ve only got five days of work in me. But if I give a day of my week to a ministry trainee then although I’ve only got four days left, so too have they. And that’s great news for the gospel and our church. And so I’m always looking for the spiritually hungry ministry self-starters because they’re the people worth investing in. And I tend to try and look within our congregations rather than recruit from without.
We are not a big church. We were 25 adults when we started and in the last ten years, under God, we’ve trained ten apprentices. We’ve exported most of them. And that’s the downside; you eventually get rid of your best. Wonderfully two have come back to be my assistant pastors because I knew what they could do. Of the others, one is serving as a missionary. Three are running churches overseas. Three are involved in children’s ministry. And one is church planting in Brixton. There are lots of things that we’ve been unable to do as a small church. But training apprentices isn’t one of them.