How One Church Is Equipping Young Adults for Ministry Without the Financial Burdens of Pursuing a Four-Year Degree
By Kim Harris
In 2019, 45 million young adults in the United States held more than $1.5 trillion in student debt, or more than $33,000 per debt holder, Forbes.com reported. Students are graduating with four years of knowledge and many more years of debt. Seminary and Bible college students are no exception.
In 2011, roughly 25 percent of individuals graduating with a master of divinity left school with more than $40,000 in student debt (according to BusinessInsider.com), but could expect to earn only 65 percent of what other college graduates received, ZipRecruiter.com reported.
While individuals entering full-time church ministry may not expect to earn as much as their secular counterparts, the high price for formal higher education—a cultural expectation—weighs heavily on future pastors and church workers.
In the rural Midwest, my church experienced this tension in a unique way. At The Crossing, which has campuses in Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri, we saw young adults who desired to enter full-time ministry but didn’t have the financial resources to pursue a four-year degree and did not want to accumulate thousands of dollars in student debt. In 2018, we introduced DEVELUP, a leadership development program. DEVELUP is designed to provide the exposure, experience, and education necessary to build a foundation for calling.
As director, I work with ministry staff at all of our locations to provide valuable ministry and leadership training experiences for the participants. The one- to two-year program includes hands-on ministry training, Bible education through our Ministry Development Institute, and twice-monthly leadership seminars. Program participants develop the skills, experiences, Bible knowledge, and training necessary to enter children’s ministry, youth ministry, church leadership and administration, worship ministry, technical and production ministry, and media-arts ministry.
The Crossing’s program is bearing tremendous fruit; we’ve been able to develop future leaders and invest in them before hiring them as full-time ministers.
Many churches can and should provide leadership development and apprenticeship programs for young adults. If churches continue to rely primarily on traditionally educated pastors—individuals with four years of Bible college and possibly two years of seminary—they may face difficulty in identifying qualified leaders who can realistically afford to pastor full-time. By working in partnership with Bible colleges’ and universities’ online education tracks, however, churches can train future pastors and leaders and provide practical ministry experience.
The leadership development and apprenticeship model flips the traditional higher education model upside down. Instead of pursuing a degree full-time at a residential campus for four years and accruing thousands of dollars of debt, students work full-time alongside current pastoral staff while experiencing and being trained in practical skills required of church leaders and workers. At the same time, students can complete Bible and ministry curriculum online for a fraction of the cost of attending a residential campus.
Leadership development and apprenticeship programs benefit churches too. When churches invest in the training and education of future leaders, they create a leadership pipeline that sets a stable course for their congregation’s future.
Developing such programs requires input, thought, and consideration from all facets of leadership inside the church—elders, staff, leaders, and volunteers.
DEVELUP is not a short-term internship program that gives students only a limited view of full-time ministry. (In some such programs, interns’ responsibilities might be limited to such things as event setup/teardown, weekly runs to Walmart, and the 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. shift of the junior high lock-in. While these experiences provide insight into some of the day-to-day of church ministry, they do little to prepare future pastors for high-capacity leadership in full-time church ministry.) While our program is a type of internship, it is much more than that.
Below are seven suggestions for establishing a leadership development and apprenticeship program that prepares the church and leaders for a sustainable future.
1. Begin with the End in Mind
Growing individuals into effective leaders does not occur simply by being in proximity to those already serving well. Creating a thorough and intentional plan for development is crucial for ensuring the program accomplishes its goals. Ask for input from elders, staff, and volunteers about what they look for in a pastor or ministry leader.
Determine the kind of leader the church is seeking to create through the program. Among the practical skills necessary are leading a staff meeting, writing a Communion meditation, preparing the building for services, and recruiting and training volunteers. Among the “soft skills” necessary are timely communication, email and social media etiquette, and confidentiality.
Once program goals come into focus, establish timelines for achieving each one. Identify specific seasonal events, initiatives, and activities that will provide valuable experience and training for participants.
2. Start Early
Create a realistic timeline for the entirety of the program. Set the anticipated program start date and then work backward to allow four to six months for applications, interviews, and onboarding. Establish a basic outline of church and community events and staff development opportunities within that timeline.
Candidates for such a program in a local church may range in age, education level, life experience, and physical location. Allowing four to six months for applications provides ample opportunity for individuals to learn about the program, apply, and interview.
Create an application process all candidates must fulfill to be considered for the program. Have candidates provide social media information and personal references, and plan on a phone interview and a formal interview. The candidate pool should shrink rather quickly early on by eliminating individuals who do not complete applications or who consistently engage in unsavory social media behavior or who do not respond to requests for interviews.
3. Cast a Wide Net
Share program details through a variety of channels—not just during Sunday-morning announcements—to attract a more diverse group of candidates. Many strong candidates will come from established ministry areas in the church, but individuals from other churches or communities that do not have leadership development programs should not be automatically disqualified from participating.
Consider paid advertising on social media targeted to individuals in your area who have expressed interest in full-time ministry. Church email campaigns that are designed to be shared with friends and family will extend the applicant pool beyond geographic barriers.
Ministry is expanding to include small-group directors, tech positions, communication directors, event planners, and many other nontraditional roles, so applicants may have diverse employment and ministry histories. Candidates with backgrounds outside of church ministry can add incredible value to church teams.
With a diverse group of applicants, pay close attention to applicants’ adherence to church doctrinal and/or unity statements to prevent potential problems. Include doctrine and unity statements on the application; make sure applicants are aware of these statements throughout the process. Require applicants to read and agree to the statements. Ask about the theological statements again during interviews. Provide ample opportunities for candidates to ask questions they may have about church stances or beliefs.
4. Look for Key Characteristics in Candidates
The ideal candidate for a leadership development program will vary, but here are key characteristics of strong applicants.
• Teachability. Applicants who demonstrate openness to being taught will benefit from the program more than those who believe they already have the experience necessary to be hired as a full-time staff member.
• A Desire to Grow. Candidates who express passion for becoming more of who God created them to be will likely lean into instruction, leadership, and teaching from program supervisors and directors. Individuals who desire to grow will seek out new challenges for themselves while also adding value to a church staff by providing unique insights.
• Spiritual Maturity. The expectations for spiritual maturity in a leadership development and apprenticeship program differ slightly from the expectations of a full-time staff member. Because these individuals will likely have little to no experience in ministry, it is important to recognize their spiritual maturity may not be at the same level as someone interviewing for a full-time pastoral position. Still, successful candidates should be able to clearly articulate their testimony, talk generally about their current walk with Christ, and identify areas where they are growing in their relationship with God.
• Strong References. Previous employers, mentors, ministry leaders, and friends can provide valuable insight about program candidates. While an applicant may be top-notch in the interview room, it is equally important that they demonstrate follow-through. The best way to ascertain integrity, work ethic, and potential is by interviewing references for each candidate.
5. Build a Bridge
Working with other churches and educational institutions helps build powerful partnerships that will enhance the overall quality of the program. Christian colleges may offer course credit for completion of the leadership development program. Reach out to Christian colleges or seminaries to discuss credit opportunities for participants. Some colleges may also offer seminars, class audits, and professional development courses for program participants.
Building partnerships with other churches can provide valuable opportunities for participants to experience varying ministry approaches and practices. Leaders at sister churches can offer valuable insight and input about what makes a great pastor or leader; they can also help sharpen and clarify program goals, outcomes, and experiences.
6. Communicate Expectations
Be sure to communicate expectations such as office hours, dress code, spending policies, meeting schedules, and the like to program participants.
Tell participants of job responsibility expectations and program goals. Ask them how they will work to achieve those goals.
Participants can also share their expectations of leadership and staff.
All those who supervise participants should be well-versed in program expectations and goals. Supervisors should have clear knowledge of the participant’s performance and the effectiveness of the program as a whole.
7. Ask for Evaluations and Feedback
Plan regular meetings at consistent intervals to evaluate participants; seek formal input from pastoral staff and volunteers who work with them. Give praise and recognition for jobs well done, offer guidance for areas that need improvement, and correct participants for any problem issues. Document these conversations.
Also allow time for participants to evaluate their experience in the program. Ask questions and try to elicit thoughtful responses.
At these same intervals, seek feedback, suggestions, and constructive criticism from all those involved in the program.
And throughout the program, don’t neglect the spiritual needs of the participants.
Kim Harris serves as DEVELUP director at The Crossing, a multisite church located in three states across the Midwest.