By Chuck Sackett
I learned recently that the majority of the staff of a large congregation are not “Bible college trained.” In the congregation I serve, we recently called our second “nontrained” staff member. I suspect it’s not the last time it will happen. Our congregation, like others, is filled with wonderful Christian people with hearts for ministry.
Such hiring from within has significant benefits. For example: we’ve seen this person in action, we’ve had time to observe character, personality, gifts, and passions. There are no moving, settling, getting-acquainted issues to delay the onset of ministry. We already know we can minister alongside this person.
There are, of course, drawbacks. Among the concerns: lack of ministry experience, minimal exposure to the dark side of professional ministry (yes, it does exist), the potential disillusionment of seeing the other side of ministry issues, and the possible absence of or inadequacy of their theological and biblical foundations.
I admit my own bias in regard to that final concern. I’ve been involved in preparing staff members for churches and parachurch organizations for the past quarter century. I remember my reaction to first hearing about a staff member “hired from within.” It wasn’t one of disapproval, but of healthy skepticism.
Immediately I began to wonder what safeguards were being put in place. To my dismay, I didn’t hear of any. But, as more churches discovered these delightful, gifted members sensing a call from God to do their ministry “professionally,” we have recognized the need to put into place some serious safety measures.
In a fine article concerning worship in the February 2005 Christianity Today, Gary A. Parrett addresses this issue. His thesis: “Those who lead the congregation in song must be theologically equipped for this important work.”
“Many in our churches have their theology formed principally by our hymnody. When we recognize young men and women in our congregations as gifted in the areas of musical composition, performance, or leading, we should encourage them to pursue theological training and support them to do so. This may mean sending them off to seminary, Bible college, or some other venue.
“Others, for whom such training seems inaccessible, should be mentored by those in the congregation who are more biblically literate and mature. Pastors must not relinquish ‘worship leading’ to a theologically unequipped person simply because that one is musically gifted.”
What Parrett suggests concerning worship leaders can be extended to all staff members, including those hired from within. Those who lead any of our ministries “must be theologically equipped for this important work.”
Allow me to recommend the following safeguards as a beginning point for discussion:
1. Responsible interviewing—I don’t presume we aren’t doing adequate interviewing, but knowing the person must not deter us from asking hard questions. Not only should our interview and observations consider their people skills, gifts for their respective ministry, and passion about Christ and service, but their theology as well.
No matter the ministry area, some of our interaction will revolve around biblical and theological questions. To protect the future of our congregations we need biblically informed staff members. Therefore we need a list of key theological concerns about which we ask hard, penetrating questions.
2. In-house training—Potentially the most important element of our staff meetings could be a time of teaching. Our churches may need to empower our preaching ministers to spend more of their time in staff education and development.
Any new staff member would benefit from mentoring by an experienced staff member in the early weeks of ministry. A trusted staff member could spend significant time in the early months tutoring the new staff member in key biblical and theological issues.
3. Ongoing education—It’s highly unlikely that anyone who has impressed us enough to be called to our staffs has not demonstrated commitment to lifelong learning. Clear direction and focus can make that spirit of learning even more profitable. If we can’t develop an adequate reading list on our own, a staff member at another congregation could provide suggestions for a comprehensive “self-education.” A Bible college/seminary professor could also provide recommended material.
Our congregation’s leadership empowers such investment. They provide a line item in every staff member’s budget for personal reading material and the time in their schedule for personal development. Anything similar would be a fine beginning.
4. Theological/biblical retreats—Seminars are readily available, but most of them revolve around the practical nature of our specific ministries. Why not a staff retreat for a local congregation, or an area gathering of staffs, that focused on Bible and theology? A local professor, or a trusted preacher, might spend a day or two simply developing key theological themes or walking through a book of Scripture.
5. Resident theologian—Could we consider adding a new staff position, resident theologian? This person could give continuing education to the staff and provide resources for classes, sermons, lessons, music, or dramas. I’ve known lay leaders in churches to ask local scholars to review scripts, musicals, lessons, or articles. Why not have someone in the local congregation responsible for that? This person might also double as an adult education staff member, providing significant teaching opportunities for the entire congregation.
If a congregation cannot afford a staff position of this nature, possibly they could covenant with an area college/seminary for such services. Creating a relationship with one or two key professors would benefit both the congregation and the classroom. (A group of congregations in a geographical area might share a teacher.)
6. College/seminary courses—Many churches are within driving distance of a college or seminary. With encouragement and resources from the leadership, staff members could take select courses to develop their biblical/theological acumen. They wouldn’t have to pursue a degree, but simply ensure their understanding of biblical materials, hermeneutical principles, and theological perspectives are solid.
Many seminaries and colleges are offering flexible schedules. In addition to online courses and video materials, special intensive courses are available. For example, Lincoln Christian Seminary where I teach offers intensive courses in a one-week format each fall, winter, and spring. We also have intensive Thursdays—one Thursday a month for the semester.
The future depth and faithfulness of our congregations depends upon biblically founded teachers. If staff responsible for reproducing themselves in others are biblically solid, our congregations will develop into healthy, growing bodies. For that reason, we have no choice but to creatively enhance this positive trend in our congregations.
Chuck Sackett is professor of Christian ministries and associate dean at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian College and Seminary and preaching minister with the Madison Park Christian Church in Quincy, Illinois.