By Paul E. Boatman
As New Vision Christian Church grew through the plateaus that stymie some churches, the emerging megachurch began to acquire a new look in its ministry staff.
First, it added a minister of administration: Kevin was a successful businessman who had served as an elder in the church. The church’s need for competent financial and personnel management and the elder’s giftedness seemed a perfect match. He sold his business and focused his professional energies on the church he loved.
Then an opening occurred in worship leadership. A search discovered several candidates who were recent Bible college graduates, but none of those résumés could match the credentials and charisma of Emma Jean, the popular and personable woman who had been volunteering her services to the worship band.
As this woman brought all the talent that had undergirded her acclaimed 12-year career as a high school music teacher, the music ministry blossomed into an extensive fine arts program that brought to the surface previously undisclosed gifts and talents of many, blessing the church with creative offerings of music, drama, graphic arts, and dance.
When the church decided to create a staff position for its sports ministry, Jeremy was a slam-dunk. A former all-state point guard on a local high school basketball team, Jeremy was the sparkplug for several of the multiaged sporting programs, and had been instrumental in leading several of his fellow athletes to Christ. He proudly accepted the title of minister of athletics.
Watching these transitions from across town, leaders in other congregations began questioning what they perceived as an ominous trend: Is New Vision deciding it can “do church” better by commissioning its own lay people into ministry? Some serious dangers seemed apparent to them.
The more traditional mode of calling ministers who have academic credentials from a “known” Bible college or seminary gives certain assurances: We may assume the person’s doctrinal fidelity. A degree from those institutions always includes specific education in the art of ministry. We know the person has studied the history and traditions of the Restoration Movement and, hopefully, has come to accept participation in the independent Christian churches as a great way to use one’s ministerial gifts.
We can usually find an ecclesiastical track record—this person’s past ministries and internships—and what those references say about the candidate.
At Midway Christian College a few hundred miles away, the report of the events at New Vision generated a lively discussion among faculty and administrators. Some saw storm clouds all around the issue. In addition to the concerns raised among the local churches, some wondered if this trend might signal the end of Bible college education. Bible colleges may only marginally compete with technical and liberal arts schools, but they are peerless in commitment to equipping ministers. If the churches do not depend upon the specialized institutions to supply their ministers, then a primary “reason for being” is taken away.
Other faculty were less disturbed. One professor observed that the church has frequently put laypersons into staff positions, trusting that other leaders and the Holy Spirit would nurture this neophyte into maturity as a minister. Another noted that very few Bible colleges even have programs to train the special categories of ministers that New Vision hired. “Worship leadership” programs are a recent innovation at most schools. Programs in business administration and sports ministry are rarer still. The lively discussion ended inconclusively.
A Trend Examined
The preceding scenario is fictitious but not far-fetched. This article examines the trend of larger churches hiring ministry staff from within their own membership.
I recently spent several hours checking the staff listings of Web sites of megachurches. I then interviewed a sampling of ministers of such churches. Here is what I learned:
• Advertisement for available ministry positions rarely declares restrictions upon the background or experience of candidates.
• The preaching/teaching ministry positions in megachurches are staffed by people with conventional ministry educational backgrounds. Some Bible colleges point with pride to the number of megachurch leaders numbered among their alumni, and the statistics back the claims. The pulpits and lecterns of the largest churches are filled with people who have “risen through the ranks” in relatively traditional ways and have been called to a large church after demonstrating competence and faithfulness in other settings within the same religious movement. The few exceptions to this pattern are leaders who “grew up” with a mushrooming congregation.
The larger churches I surveyed typically have no formal policy regarding education for ministerial staff, but they identify a Bible college education as the baseline for all pastoral leadership roles. Mark Miller, Indian Creek Christian Church, Indianapolis, says, “For certain pastoral/teaching positions, we have an understanding we will not hire anyone lacking a formal theological training, and we require such education for ordination.”
• Pragmatism is the driving force behind the hiring of ministry staff: “Where can we get people who will likely be effective in specialized ministry?” A person from a distant setting often is at a disadvantage in pursuing an opening if a volunteer within the congregation is already demonstrating the skills for the job. Overlooking such insiders for an unfamiliar outsider may be risky from a developmental standpoint, and might even be offensive to the church that creates the ministry.
Craig Zastrow, Central Christian Church, Beloit, Wisconsin, observes that staff members hired from within are “already active volunteers in the area to which they are called.” Dave Ferguson, Community Christian Church, Naperville, Illinois, declares the first qualification for any ministry staff position is “proven faithfulness,” noting that “in hiring from within, you can observe their character, giftedness in action, understanding and ‘buying’ of vision and philosophy of ministry, and how they love that local church.” A recurrent theme is the alignment of the candidate with the “DNA of our church.”
The colleagues with whom I communicated debated some practical issues regarding hiring from within. Several noted that a resident of the community can move into the ministry without the expenses and difficulties of relocation, and there is less cost if the ministry role “does not work out.” Yet, some shared painful “war stories” of shattered relationships and disillusionment when a former volunteer encountered the hard work and complex relationships of full-time ministry.
• There is a general decline in the insistence that all ministers should have the same credentials—degrees from certain schools, references from influential ministers, etc. The frameworks that hold most aggressively to such patterns (e.g. mainline denominations) are in persistent decline. The sincere effort to be true to the “priesthood of all believers” is intentionally open to people who emerge as ministers through unconventional or surprising channels.
George Barna determined that 46 percent of pastors born from 1965 to 1983 (“busters”) have seminary degrees, compared with 62 percent of those born from 1946 to 1964 (“boomers”).1 Whether this indicates a trend toward inferior education is open to debate, but it clearly shows a trend toward less formal, less traditional education for ministry. This trend, quite apparent in the megachurches, does not necessarily represent hostility to theological education.
George Ross, Northside Christian Church, New Albany, Indiana, reflects positively on the value of “sensing the call from God, investing time, money, and hard work to understand Scripture and ministry, and then entering the local church ministry.”
In hiring from within, Ferguson desires that these emerging leaders get a theological education, but does not want to “pull them out of the context in which they are having their huge impact in ministry.”
Joe Harvey, LifeBridge Christian Church, Longmont, Colorado, says, “We provide our own theological training for ministry team leaders who are not ordained ministers.”
• It would be unrealistic to demand that ministry staff positions unimagined a mere decade ago must be filled by persons with conventional résumés. Bible college and seminary curricula are market-sensitive, perhaps even market-driven. Few could have foreseen with specific insight the unprecedented expansion of ministry roles and developed programs and faculty to equip students for these emerging ministry roles. New academic programs take three to four years to put in place, and financially strapped academies are cautious about risking development costs for untried ideas.
Some pointed responses are in order. All parties do well to monitor this trend. Any trend that hardens in one direction becomes devastating to community. Two millennia of church history tells us the church does best in educating its ministry when local churches are in partnership with the larger body.
With apologies to John W. Gardner, we might say, The church that scorns excellence in theological education, because it is a traditional activity, and tolerates shoddiness in ministry, because it is a contemporary activity, will have neither good theological education nor good ministry. Neither its doctrines nor its baptisteries will hold water.
Some creative alliances are already forming. Many of the large churches have strong internship programs that link effectively with the academic programs of Bible colleges and seminaries. Indian Creek Christian Church in Indianapolis hosts an extension of Cincinnati Christian University. Central Christian Church in Las Vegas has an on-site program of Lincoln Christian College. Most schools are adjusting class schedules, formats, delivery systems, and even degree programs to enable a theological education without the traditional residency.
If the academy and the churches (mega or otherwise) hold one another in suspicion and fail to interact, this portends a serious problem: The schools will be isolated from some of the most dynamic ministry mentoring and the churches will be vulnerable to theological incest. However, if both entities see themselves as partners in providing ministry in the midst of extraordinary opportunity, we can anticipate a productive alliance in providing strategic, transforming ministry in our rapidly changing culture
1 George Barna, “A New Generation of Pastors Places its Stamp on Ministry,” www.barna.org, 17 February 2004.
Paul Boatman is associate dean of ministries and head of the department of pastoral care and counseling at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian Seminary.