The process for supplying ministerial leaders used to go something like this:
Churches nurtured young people who “responded to the call to ministry.” After the candidates completed college, the church sent them on to the denominational seminary, which not only taught denominational doctrine but also were funded by the denomination to do so.
When the student graduated, he (and sometimes she) began “candidating” through the denomination’s accepted process and found an initial place of service.
This may be a simplified explanation that did not always work as smoothly as stated, but this was the general idea. The current situation is much more complicated.
Potential seminarians respond to the call later in life – either after an educational hiatus following college or after starting a career and family. Some don’t have any college education at all.
Denominations are no longer funding theological education as they once did, so students carry more of the educational debt load.
A final challenge is that churches may call out potential ministers, encourage them to receive preparation and then cannot afford to employ them.
The changes in the religious ecosystem call for new types of partnerships among individuals preparing for ministry, churches and theological institutions.
For the most part, churches still want trained clergy leaders. Most traditional denominations require a certain amount of education before they will ordain a minister. Even megachurches see the value in ministerial education.
A recent study conducted by Leadership Network and the Hartford Institute for Religious Research showed that three-quarters of megachurches have an internship or mentoring program for ministerial preparation. Twenty-five percent of those are conducted in cooperation with a recognized seminary.
With the advent of distance learning and flexible degree programs, any church can partner with a theological institution to provide training for a prospective minister.
With many churches choosing to call ministers out of their own fellowships, the importance of adding another partner to the mix is vital.
This collaboration provides resources and perspectives that the church alone cannot supply.
The next step, and perhaps the hardest, is convincing a church to step up and be a responsible financial partner in this relationship.
In the best of all possible worlds, the church would not only help provide a place for a prospective or current minister to serve but would compensate the person and assist with the cost of his or her education.
A commitment on the part of the minister either to serve the church for a specific period of time in return for this assistance or to provide partial repayment if she or he left would safeguard the church’s investment.
Other benefits could result from the relationship as well. For example, seminary professors could provide Christian formation opportunities for church staff and laity. Church staff could take advantage of the library and continuing education offerings of the seminary. The church could offer a laboratory for other seminary students to observe congregational life in action.
The times call for new ways of thinking and relating, but implementation requires openness on the part of all the potential players.
Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is associate professor of ministry praxis at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, Barnabas File, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @ircel.