Christian LivingComplementarianismEvangelismMinistry

Learning by doing: Isobel Lin on ministry training 

Isobel Lin is a chaplain at Moore Theological College, the chair of the EQUIP women’s conference, the wife on Bishop Peter Lin, and the mother of three teenage daughters. As you can imagine, she’s involved in training across lots of different areas and has much wisdom to share! The ACR chatted with her about her experiences of ministry training over the years, and the lessons she holds most dearly as she trains others now.

What was your earliest experience of ministry training?

I grew up in a church that didn’t have a focus on training. I suppose my first training experience was teaching Sunday School. I had a class of 20 Year 7s and I didn’t really know what I was doing. It was a steep learning curve, and I learned as I went! 

I recruited another girl to teach with me and we met together to prepare lessons. So we read the Bible together, and prayed for our group and each other. No-one had ever met up with me like that, so I don’t know how I knew to do it, but in hindsight I see that we accidentally discipled, mentored and trained each other.

How did your secular work train you for ministry?

Some of my best ministry training was when I worked as an engineer. When I started, I was 22 (but looked about 16) and in charge of 90 men who weren’t used to a woman on the factory floor, yet alone in charge. It was a great learning experience to work with people who were so completely unlike me, and it grew my understanding of how to helpfully encourage people to do what’s ‘right’.

One of my projects was to supervise changing the production schedule to optimise the process. We had a meeting to explain why this new way of doing things was better and more efficient, but that didn’t mean that the men on the factory floor were necessarily compliant.

My boss was really helpful in getting me to think through the process of change and understand that even when someone can see that it will benefit them, change is still stressful and tiring. Even if you’re convinced of the long-term benefits, making a change is still hard. 

This was an important lesson as I thought about people changing their lives in light of the gospel. Even when people want to change their lifestyle to fit with what God’s word says, and they are convinced it’s the right thing to do, it’s still a real struggle. As someone who grew up in a Christian home and was in many ways lived the Christian ‘life’ before I understood it, I hadn’t personally struggled with a huge change in lifestyle on conversion (at least not outwardly), as many new Christians do. So what I learned about changing the production schedule gave me a greater understanding of people and more patience in ministry.

That job also taught me how to relate to people who were technically under me in terms of workplace hierarchy, but who were more than my equal (and in many ways above me) relationally and in terms of life experience. It was also a crash course in apologetics as my colleagues fired all kinds of questions about Christianity at me, but thankfully it was never rude or antagonistic.

When did your ministry training become ‘formal’?

When I was working as an engineer, I did evening classes at Moore College to get to know the Bible better so that I’d be better equipped for lay ministry. The more ministry I did, the more I realised how much I didn’t yet know.

But because I was so tired from work by the time the classes started, I was frustrated that I couldn’t get more out of them. So I decided to take a year off work to study at Moore College full-time, only with the intention of being better equipped to serve at church. The thing was, that when I went for an interview at College, they asked me so many questions about my plans for ministry that I didn’t have answers to. They sent me away to think about whether I actually wanted to do ministry full-time. This was not the question I had been expecting.

My youth leader put me in touch with Phillip Jensen who was running MTS at UNSW. This was also the first time I met a woman in full-time ministry, Carol Gooch. Phillip encouraged me to do MTS—but not for just one year. He said I’d need to do at least two years, because I would make a lot of mistakes in my first twelve months and I’d need the second year to learn from them! I became convinced that taking two years to do MTS was a good thing to do, and I began my traineeship at UNSW in 1991. As it turned out, Phillip ended up convincing me to do four years in the end! I never returned to my secular work and instead went on to study at Moore College and ended up marrying Peter, who was also training for full-time ministry. 

What are some of the key training lessons you gained from MTS?

The expectation of MTS was that I would learn by doing (as well as by being mentored) and that was certainly my experience. It was daunting to be training people in things I hadn’t yet done myself—things like walk-up evangelism, one-to-one Bible reading, and taking people through Two Ways to Live

The first time I used Two Ways to Live was with a newcomer to Unichurch and I did a really bad job. After we finished going through the presentation, she said “I think I’m person A [i.e. a non-Christian] but I want to be person B [i.e. a Christian]”. I insisted that I mustn’t have explained it properly and that we should go through it again… I continued to tell her that she hadn’t fully understood the gospel! Somehow she understood that all she needed to do was pray to God, and so at some point she told me, “Don’t worry; I’ll just pray at home”! We did end up praying together and she did put her trust in Jesus for the first time, no thanks to me.

Afterwards, Phillip told me that he thought this was God encouraging me in my decision to train in ministry, not a reflection of my proficiency! He said, “Isn’t it great that God works in spite of ourselves”. This was a really formative lesson for me to have so early on in my ministry training experience, especially having come from a background that put a lot of emphasis on performance and proficiency. It reminded me of my role as a minister of the gospel and that it is God who converts people, not us. I did such a bad job of taking this girl through the gospel, and yet she still became a Christian. It was a really important lesson that God is the one who saves; he doesn’t depend on me and my proficiency. 

How does the training you received affect the way you train others now?

I think that you do tend to train others the way you’ve been trained yourself. So I aim to train people by modelling what ministry looks like, and also by allowing them to do the work of ministry themselves—to learn by doing. At MTS I was given real responsibility but with a very big safety net. I could always ask for help if I didn’t know what to do. Now as a trainer with more experience, I realise how hard it is to give responsibility. 

Training someone to do something often takes more time than doing it yourself and you have to be prepared that they will do things differently, and sometimes not nearly as well or as efficiently as you would do it yourself. I tend to forget how I was 20 years ago and only think about how I would do something now, and so it’s sometimes frustrating watching on.

I have to remind myself that I’ve had many years of lessons and experience, and that learning by doing is still the best way to train others. It doesn’t mean letting people sink; it’s about giving guidance from experience without micro-managing them. 

Of course, it’s easier to train people in the black and white issues where it’s a matter of right or wrong (for example, you always need to have a Bible talk at evangelistic event). The wisdom issues are trickier. What I’ve learned from experience may mean I’d do things one way, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong to do something another way. And the trainer always has to accommodate different personality styles. Overall, I want to allow people to make mistakes, but obviously not catastrophic ones. In that way, it’s a lot like parenting. 

What lessons in training do you hold on to most dearly as you train others to train others?

More than anything, my own experience of MTS taught me confidence in God’s word. When you’re reading the Bible with so many people, you can’t help but see people’s lives changing according to the word of God. I never want to underestimate the power of God’s word to work in people’s lives.

The other thing I always hold on to is that ministry is ultimately personal—it’s all about people and not structures. Although it hadn’t been my experience growing up, MTS taught me to have a mindset of personal ministry. When I did MTS I was overrun with one-to-one Bible reading appointments. And I think that’s how the gospel goes forward—one person at a time.