Thursday, April 14, 2016

Bivocational ministry and life-long learning

I spoke at a recent bivocational minister's conference at Earlham College's School of Theology. The final segment was a discussion by all present about how seminaries and Bible schools can do a better job of training bivocational ministers. There were many great suggestions made from the bivocational ministers. Some of them had attended a seminary or Bible school; others had not. At one time I told them that if a school tried to teach all the things they were suggesting it would be a 10 year program! The dean and a number of his staff were present and promised to continue to study this matter.

As reported here before, all expectations are that bivocational ministry will continue to increase in importance in virtually all denominations. This is an important discussion to have. Most of the participants at this conference who had graduated from a seminary or Bible school agreed that much of their education did not prepare them well for the realities of bivocational ministry. If the numbers of bivocational ministers are going to increase then it's important that we find the best possible ways to educate and prepare them for this ministry.

However, we must also realize that seminaries and Bible schools cannot do it all. I was only half joking when I told the group that they were describing a 10-year program if any institution tried to teach everything they were suggesting.

It would appear to me that seminaries, Bible schools, and denominations need to work together to develop the training that bivocational ministers need. There are some things that the educational units should teach such as theology, church history, leadership,  pastoral care, preaching, etc. Denominations can then provide training in church growth, relationship building, and other practical skills bivocational ministers need. I certainly don't have it all figured out, and it would probably vary by school and denomination.

The key to this training, however, will be the bivocational minister. I've met too many who see little value in formal training, and among those who do many see no way they have the time to pursue it. I'll be the first to admit that it's tough. I was a bivocational pastor working full-time in a factory with a wife and two children at home when I first enrolled in a Bible school. It isn't easy, but the difference it made in my ministry caused me to enroll in college when I graduated from the Bible school. Later I went on to earn my master's and doctoral degrees while serving in fully-funded ministry. In between degree programs I attended numerous continuing education events.

Ministry is changing just as rapidly as everything else in our world. I still have most of the text books from the Bible school I attended in the mid-1980s on my bookshelves, but much of what's in those books no longer apply to the 21st century church. If you want to enjoy the ministry today you have to commit to being a life-long learner. Seminaries and denominations must offer cutting-edge continuing education events at a time that is convenient for bivocational ministers to attend, and these ministers must commit to attending such events. The ministers must invest in good books that explore new findings in theological thought and practical ministry skills.

I do not know what seminaries and Bibles schools will do in the future to train bivocational ministers. Some are already offering certificate programs that can be taken online that provide a nice mix of theological and practical ministry skills. Some are exploring how they can better serve this sector of ministry, and I'm sure some will choose to ignore it and focus on preparing people for fully-funded ministry.

However, regardless of what these institutions do, nothing stops you from being a life-long learner. There are numerous workshops and conferences held around the country today that are developed especially for bivocational and smaller church leaders. I know because I'm involved in several of them this year. Take advantage of these opportunities. If there are none close to you, contact your denominational leaders and ask them to provide some training that will improve your ministry. Take the initiative and develop the skills and knowledge you need to fulfill the calling of God on your life.

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