Unschooled

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By Justin Horey

As more and more local congregations recruit ministry staff from among their own members, they’re seeking new ways to equip them for ministry. Several traditional colleges and universities are offering nontraditional ways to give professional ministry skills to everyday Christians. 

Dave Moses never planned to serve in full-time ministry. He grew up in a non-Christian home in Huntington Beach, California—“Surf City”—playing football and enjoying the Southern California lifestyle. He entered the restaurant business shortly after graduating from high school and worked in the food-service industry for more than two decades, even owning and operating his own successful pizza parlor.

Moses became a believer at age 24 and, like so many other Christians, served faithfully at his church but did not intend to leave his career for vocational ministry. Still, for many years, Dave felt what he called “a kind of weird calling to ministry.” When his home church, First Christian Church of Huntington Beach, offered him a 10-hour per week position in its children’s ministry, he accepted. Not long after, Dave sold his restaurant and transitioned into a full-time position at the church. Today he serves as First Christian Church’s director of city involvement.

Dave is one of countless church employees who did not train for vocational ministry, and he is part of a growing trend: Christian churches and churches of Christ are increasingly “hiring from within” to fill full-time ministry positions. In fact, Dr. Michael Sweeney of Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee, estimates that most of the people working in the Restoration Movement’s largest churches were recruited from within.

Community Christian Church of Sharpsburg, Georgia, may have the highest percentage of internal recruits of any Christian church in the nation; 13 of the 14 people currently on staff there were a part of the church prior to their employment.

Of those 13 people, senior pastor Ed Martin said, “They all served their way into employment. They started out volunteering in ministry, eventually became volunteer leaders of ministry, and then we hired them.

“When it came time for them to become a part of the staff, it seemed like a natural transition. Through the years, we have had other staff members come from outside our congregation and they have served well. But we needed to learn their strengths and weaknesses; they needed to learn our culture and how they fit. People from our congregation already know the culture and the people.”

John Scott, lead pastor of Community Christian Church in Hemet, California, agrees. He said, “The main benefit of hiring people from your congregation is they already know and understand the church’s mission, culture, and values. You also know them. You know their family, relationships, and how they are seen by others in the church. You already have so many questions answered about their ‘fit’ with your team, their ability to lead, and their heart and character.”

New Churches and Challenges

Dave Hileman, associate director of Waypoint Church Partners, noticed the trend of hiring from within many years ago in his work with church plants in and around Virginia. But there was a problem. He said, “While these people were doing a really good job in ministry, there was something missing in their understanding of the Restoration Movement.”

Martin and Scott pointed to an even bigger challenge with hiring church employees from within: a lack of formal ministry training. Without it, church leaders can be hindered by a lack of biblical knowledge or weakened by their own spiritual immaturity, decreasing their effectiveness and increasing the risk of burnout.

Community Christian in Sharpsburg, Martin reported, has “tried to supplement our team’s formal Bible training,” but there is only so much a church can do on its own.

Seasoning Students with SALT

In the last decade, Bible colleges and Christian universities have instituted programs to meet this need for training. Hope International University, Fullerton, California, was one of the first. The School of Advanced Leadership Training (SALT) at HIU works with churches to “equip emerging leaders with the knowledge and skills needed for effective and relevant ministry.”

The SALT program is part of a larger initiative at HIU (in partnership with Nebraska Christian College) called the Institute for Church Leadership. SALT courses take many forms—some are designed as online classes, others are on-site seminars. All are designed to be collaborative and instantly applicable to real-life ministry situations.

“Finding unique and creative ways to partner with churches is what we are all about at Hope,” said Phillip Towne, director of HIU’s School of Advanced Leadership Training. Many of SALT’s approaches to training and education came about by asking, “How can we at HIU equip people for ministry without removing them from the churches where they serve?”

Perhaps not surprisingly, SALT has been embraced by megachurches. Christ’s Church of the Valley in Peoria, Arizona, one of the largest Christian churches in America, has provided SALT training for employees who were recruited from within.

But megachurches and West Coast churches aren’t the only ones taking part. The North Boulevard Church of Christ in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, makes a practice of hiring from within, and the congregation has enrolled dozens of students in SALT courses as part of its School of Christian Thought (SOCT).

Renee Sproles, who was hired by the church after years as a stay-at-home mom and now directs North Boulevard’s School of Christian Thought, said the congregation has found the SALT program to be tremendously helpful in training its staff. “I cannot say enough about what a blessing it is to local churches,” she said.

Thad McKellar is just one of the ministry leaders from North Boulevard Church of Christ to participate in SALT training. He joined the church staff in January after a long career in construction. His experience with a dedicated “sponsor” in a 12-step program inspired him to personally mentor and disciple more than 30 other Christian men.

Seeing his effectiveness in ministry, the church tapped him to lead its discipleship efforts. McKellar has only begun his professional ministry career, but said, “SALT has already given me a great foundation in Christian doctrine and theology.”

A More Formal Approach

Whereas the flexibility of HIU’s program attracts a number of students who choose to take individual classes, most students in Emmanuel Christian Seminary’s Christian Ministries program opt to complete their degree. Emmanuel offers two options for church leaders who cannot relocate: a low-residency Master of Christian Ministries (MCMin) degree and an online Certificate of Graduate Study in Christian Ministries.

Emmanuel launched its program about five years ago at the urging of Ethan Magness, former spiritual formation pastor at Mountain Christian Church in Joppa, Maryland. Twelve students from Mountain have already graduated from the program. (Ethan serves today as senior minister with First Christian Church, Johnson City, Tennessee.)

“The opportunity to earn a seminary degree while continuing in full-time ministry was a tremendous gift,” said Kelly Kastens, worship arts pastor at Mountain. “The Emmanuel faculty and staff care deeply about the local church and were very supportive as I balanced the demands of ministry and education.”

All classes at Emmanuel are graduate-level and taught by faculty. The certificate can be completed in as little as 18 months, and the certificate courses can be applied to the MCMin degree or other seminary degrees. The MCMin requires 48 credit hours of instruction—primarily online, with one or two residential weeks held at Emmanuel’s campus in Northeast Tennessee.

The Next Level

Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri, recently introduced a training resource it calls Next Level for churches and church leaders (both paid and volunteer), said Jim Dalrymple, professor of New Testament and church leadership at Ozark.

“The goal of Next Level is to connect Ozark Christian College to relevant needs in the local church,” Dalrymple said. To that end, Ozark has adopted a simple tagline for its Next Level program: “Help leaders lead better, longer.”

Next Level is organized into three levels. The first level, Next Level Online, provides free video training for churches and ministry leaders. In the second level, Next Level Onsite, Ozark faculty members conduct seminars at church campuses. Level three is a more formal online education program.

Journey Christian Church in Greeley, Colorado, hosted a Next Level Onsite. Terry Davis, teaching pastor at Journey, said, “The Next Level program is bringing the Bible college experience to us. It provides training that people would normally not be able to get.”

In order to serve churches with as much material as possible, and to equip as many leaders as possible, Ozark’s goal is to add more free content to Next Level Online every year.

The Newcomer

Johnson University created its Certificate in Christian Ministries in 2016. Dr. Jeff Snell, professor of congregational ministry and director of preaching ministries at Johnson, said, “The impetus for the certificate came from the field itself.” In other words, churches had been requesting it.

The certificate program was created specifically for staff members who are hired from within churches and who do not have a bachelor’s degree, nor a Christian college or seminary background. The one-year certificate equips students with foundational skills needed to minister effectively, including personal spiritual formation and biblical exegesis. Graduates can apply the 15 credits from the certificate toward an online bachelor’s degree at Johnson University.

Johnson (which has campuses in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Kissimmee, Florida) offers both undergraduate and graduate-level certificate programs. All are designed to be completed in one year.

“If the person is involved in local church ministry in a significant way but never attended Christian college, this certificate is for them,” Snell said. Waypoint Church Partners has even enrolled one of its church planters in Johnson’s program to supplement his ministry training.

Flexibility and Balance Are Key

While each college or university has taken a slightly different approach to this issue, their various solutions have many similarities. All are designed to be more flexible than traditional, on-site, four-year degree programs. And all seek to provide balanced, diverse training in a variety of subjects—Old Testament, New Testament, Christian ministries, theology, and spiritual formation.

Even the most formal programs still offer a level of flexibility not found in traditional higher education. They all seek to provide knowledge to people who, in the words of Terry Davis at Journey, “have ministry desires but no ministry training.”

Of course, this is not a new idea. Jesus himself recruited most of his disciples from other professions. (Peter and John are famously described in the book of Acts as “unschooled, ordinary men.”) Yet Jesus also personally called Saul, a well-educated man and self-described Pharisee. Similarly, churches seeking to reach the lost and transform their communities are finding ways to maximize the efforts of traditional, lifelong ministers and
“second-career” church leaders.

John Scott of Community Christian Church in Hemet, California, affirms that both unschooled and formally schooled ministers can and do work together to fulfill the mission of the local church. At Community Christian, he said, “We’ve hired from within and from outside our congregation. We have found that hiring from within has proven to be a very helpful strategy when it comes to building a great team. But for us it’s not ‘either/or.’ It’s ‘both/and.’”

After two decades in construction, Thad McKellar still has a difficult time calling himself a minister (though his church bestowed that title on him when he was hired). But with a combination of faith in Christ and formal training, he—like Dave Moses, Kelly Kastens, and thousands of others—is “being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5) and the full-time vocational minister that God has called him to be.

Justin Horey is a writer, musician, and the founder of Livingstone Marketing. He lives in Southern California.

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