Training for Christian ministry: what to look for?

ACR asked South African Uni ministry campus director Ryan van der Avoort what he would say to those working out where to do ministry training.

Perhaps cheekily, I’d first want to make two statements:

1. Having a degree doesn’t necessarily mean you should go into full-time paid Christian ministry.

Don’t hear me wrong, theological education is crucial in many ways, but it’s not the primary requirement for pastoral oversight and Christian ministry work. Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 make it clear that godliness is. I find that helpful to keep in focus. It’s wrong, and dangerous, to assume that a degree means you are, or can automatically become, a paid ministry worker. 

2. Make sure that further training isn’t just an individual decision.

I fear we’re in danger of people making individual decisions to train further because it’s possible (finances, time off work/career path), rather than because their local minister says ‘You simply must go!’ followed by their local church saying, ‘We’ll send you and commit to partnering with you, either as you come back to us or as you go elsewhere.’ Further training is best when it’s not just an individual decision, but rather one that allows the wisdom, godliness, and continued partnership of God’s people to weigh in.

I’d also want to ask:

I realise not everyone can do this, but have you first considered doing a ministry apprenticeship?

Our culture worships formal education and degrees. So, for some people, a ministry apprenticeship may seem to be a waste because you don’t come out with a certificate. But that’s a mistake in my view.

We speak of our ministry apprenticeship program here as having a training and a testing element to it. My apprenticeship helped train me in careful exegesis, expositional preaching, basic doctrine, and biblical theology. It gave me abundant opportunities to engage in word and relational ministry: 121s, Bible studies, evangelism, pastoral care, and preaching – having ample opportunities to put things into practice is so beneficial to good training. But secondly, and vitally, an apprenticeship should also have a testing element: do you, your leaders and others around you think that going into full-time paid Christian ministry is a good idea for you?

Whether you continue into further formal training or not, it’s a win-win situation: you’ve been better equipped to love and serve the Lord and others. And that’s really because the best apprenticeship programs are simply a continuation (and more intense time) of Christian discipleship.

Now as to where to train if you’re going into full-time paid Christian ministry in the future…

Go for further training at a healthy theological college!

What’s a healthy one?

  1. A healthy theological college is grounded in careful reading of the Bible. This is foundational and non-negotiable. If they don’t have a high view of Scripture and a careful practise of how they read Scripture then your views of the triune God himself, as well as the Christian life, are going to be skewed. In practice, this means most secular universities with theology departments may not be your best option.
  2. A healthy theological college takes theological and historical thought seriously. The Scriptures are always our firm foundation. But you do want a place that shows you what careful exegesis looks like in practice in theological thinking about God and his world. And you’re looking for one that can introduce and ground you in what that theological thinking has looked like from the historical days of the apostles until now.
  3. A healthy theological college is residential and relational. I know that practically this isn’t possible for everyone, and I know technology continues to open more and more doors of training-by-correspondence, but in my mind, further ministry training is best suited to being done in relational contexts. And because so much of life and the Christian life and discipleship is relational, that makes sense.
  4. A healthy theological college has faculty who are first Christian before they are academics. I don’t mean to create a false dichotomy, and of course, we want our theological faculty to be fine academics! But the starting point should be a faculty of men and women who first love Jesus, and whose hearts are caught up in seeing God’s name honoured, and kingdom come, and will done. Having faculty with an experience and grounding in real Christian ministry also, in my opinion, makes the training that much sharper.  

There are other points to make but I think those would be my big four.

Click here to read Ryan’s story of why he moved from South Africa to Sydney for further ministry training at Moore Theological College.