By David Fincher
Our Bible colleges send out hundreds of graduates each year. Churches hire many of them right after graduation to serve as staff members. But the transition from enrollment as a full-time student to employment as a full-time minister is more difficult than expected. Too often, a poor experience leaves the church wondering what could have been done better in the first year of ministry.
Bible college graduates know how to succeed within the expectations and rhythms of the American educational system. In addition, Bible colleges have used several other practices to help students. Below are 10 ways a church can borrow proven techniques from biblical higher education to help a new graduate succeed in his first year of ministry.
1. Offer a sufficient salary.
The first thing a student does before classes begin is look at the cost of attendance to see if financial aid will cover the bill. Churches who do not pay a sufficient salary to cover the costs of relocating and living in a community will have a difficult time seeing their minister succeed. If possible, churches should offer a bonus when employment begins to help the minister relocate, settle into housing, and cover initial costs.
Graduates who took student loans will start repayment six months after graduating. A salary review at that point will allow the church to understand the minister’s financial needs and help him stay financially stable. If the resources are available, a church can make payments on behalf of the minister as an incentive to stay longer.
2. Create virtual “semesters.”
Most colleges follow 16-week semesters, with specific courses, activities, and sports teams creating distinct seasons. Just as each semester at college has a first day of class, fixed dates for examinations, and final grades, a new minister will benefit from having expectations organized in blocks of months.
Ministry can be grouped into three “semesters” per year: four-month seasons with unique priorities and plans. Ministry activities in September through December are different than those in January through April, while May through August events and expectations vary greatly from the rest of the year. A new minister should be evaluated near the middle and at the end of each four-month period with feedback that will recognize success and provide direction for the next virtual semester.
3. Provide a ministry “syllabus.”
Every college course begins with the teacher’s syllabus, defining the learning objectives and the student’s responsibilities for attendance, reading, writing, and other projects. For the first year of ministry, a similar “syllabus” can clarify the priorities of the following months.
If a minister knows the events he is expected to attend, simple misunderstandings with church members and leaders can be avoided. Books that are relevant to the programs and priorities of the coming months can be read and discussed with the leaders. Material that needs to be written for promotional purposes or policy manuals can be listed, as well as spoken messages that need to be prepared.
Whether this document is called a syllabus, playbook, or strategic plan, a first-year minister will more likely succeed when expectations are described and evaluated.
4. Negotiate a weekly schedule.
Successful students follow a schedule that allows enough time to meet all of their obligations and not fall behind. Students start with the times their courses meet, then schedule time for study, work, and relaxation in their weekly routine.
Church leaders should help a first-year minister make a schedule that includes the expected times to arrive and leave regularly planned events. Meeting times may be more flexible, based on the needs of leaders and volunteers. Office hours, visitation times, and a day off can be negotiated to correlate with other staff members, congregational expectations, and the minister’s family needs.
5. Employ academic studies.
In four years of Bible college, students research several theological and ministry topics in great detail. This depth of study may be difficult to replicate in the first year of ministry while new relationships and obligations are being developed.
Thoughtful church leaders can identify a few areas their minister has already studied and let him build upon those in his first year. A series of sermons, lessons, or seminars that present the fruit of earlier work provides multiple benefits to the congregation and minister. The church is exposed to recently developed material, and the minister is able to review and present truths learned in an academic context through the lens of local ministry.
6. Assemble a network of support
Bible college graduates build dozens of strong relationships with roommates, teammates, and classmates. While those relationships may continue after graduation through social media and occasional visits, church leaders also need to help create a new support network within the first year.
Plan an overnight trip for ministry purposes or personal enjoyment in which the minister shares a room with one or more volunteer church leaders; this will build fellowship. Whether playing sports together or participating in some community events, team building can help build a new network. Finally, leaders who learn together with their minister at a seminar or conference will build an educational relationship that provides support when difficulties arise.
7. Partner with community services.
Bible colleges send students to work with local agencies and organizations to provide Christian service and to make a mark within the community. Graduates have already learned to represent Christ and work within established channels.
Wise church leaders will help a new minister identify local community service providers and allow him to volunteer or work part-time at one or two. The local YMCA, hospital, public school, homeless shelter, food pantry, or thrift store are just a few places where a new minister can connect to the community. Getting to know the needs of the hurting and those working with them can help the minister and the church be more visible and successful.
8. Understand personal struggles.
Schools devote many resources to help students overcome the brokenness of this generation. Students identify hurts and find healing through conversations, campus ministers, and counseling. The healing process may not be complete or even fully begun when the graduate is hired. Whether the brokenness includes something as traumatic as abuse or addictions, or involves an ongoing battle with anger or attitudes, Bible college graduates are not immune from these struggles.
An elder with strong gifts of listening and empathy can help a young minister through those difficulties and suggest next steps for healing. Professional counseling may be needed, but many struggles can be overcome either through regular conversations with a trusted leader within the church or an area minister who is willing to provide wisdom and support.
9. Monitor intentional spirituality.
Christian colleges provide many activities to develop spirituality. Chapel attendance, small group devotions, and biblical classes demand spiritual habits, with intervention available when deficiencies are discovered. Although we hope every minister will monitor his own spiritual activities, it may take a year to complete the transition from institutional spirituality to intentional spirituality.
In the meantime, church leaders can ask the minister to report on key spiritual habits. For instance, every minister needs a personal plan for Bible reading, study, and memorization. Regular fellowship in a group of mature Christians will provide an atmosphere for prayer and support. In addition, listening to quality biblical instruction outside of his own messages will challenge a minister to grow spiritually and improve his own presentations.
10. Identify intergenerational sponsors.
Generally speaking, Bible college professors are one or two generations older than their students. Learning from mature leaders on the faculty is a key element of a student’s experience, but those relationships are difficult to sustain after graduation. An occasional e-mail or visit may maintain a basic connection, but the absence of regular classroom, office, and hallway interactions limits these opportunities.
If the church has older spiritual giants willing and available to help, they should be identified and introduced to the minister in a semiofficial role of a sponsor. An alternative is to find well-respected leaders in nearby congregations and ask them to consult monthly with the new minister regarding professional or personal issues. Either way, the new minister can receive wise counsel to help prevent shortsighted decisions.
It is heartbreaking when successful Bible college students struggle in ministry. Our brotherhood has invested millions of dollars into colleges to prepare new workers each year. If some of these elements can improve a new minister’s first-year experience, they are likely to create patterns of healthy communication, expectations, and evaluation that will contribute to a successful ministry for years to come.
David Fincher serves as president of Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, Missouri.