If you’re a theology student, maybe you are thinking about a future in Christian ministry. Maybe, ministry is – and has always been – your only aspiration, and you just can’t wait to graduate so you can move straight into it. Or perhaps you’re having a similar experience as I had: an inner desire for future ministry is slowly growing, but while you study, you still think of the idea hesitantly and tentatively.
Whether you’re all-in for a future in Christian ministry, or just considering it, it’s important you talk about it.
You may have experienced what I have been through on many occasions when talking about an increasing desire for future ministry. Everyone has their own opinion, everyone has their own recommendation, and each one is vastly different from the next.
How do you make sense of all the advice you get?
One notable pastor and author told me, ‘Forget your theology BA at that secular university. That’s worthless. Start again at a seminary...’ While other pastor friends advised me, ‘You’re more than qualified; go for it now!’.
If you’re anyone like me, the confusion can spread and ‘the talk’ about future ministry can seem awkward, unhelpful and even upsetting.
More than that, you may think, ‘Does my theology degree matter?’ Whether it be a GDip, a BA, a BTh, an MDiv, an MPhil, an MTh – whatever you have, is it enough? Like me, you might be asking yourself, ‘Is my qualification too academic for practical ministry?’, ‘Is my qualification too ‘ministerial’ to be taken seriously in the academy, or by non-Christians?’, and ‘Am I ready for ministry now, or do I need another qualification, or do I need some life experience? … Arghh!’
Each piece of wise advice you get may likely come from two concerns which I deeply share:
a) A concern that some people who should go into ministry are not going into ministry, or
b) A (perhaps greater) concern that some people who shouldn’t go into ministry are going into ministry!
With all this in mind, let me pose four biblically informed questions which can help add some clarity to your thoughts and give you some direction in your ‘talk’.
1) Is Christian ministry a ‘one size fits all’?
God has given His people different gifts, roles and callings, but one goal: to build His church (Ephesians 4:12).
It’s easy to synonymise the word ‘ministry’ with ‘pastoring’ or ‘preaching’, but this is never the case in the New Testament. Rather, the Bible makes it clear that each person has different skills and callings from God, as well as different experiences and expertise, to equip God’s people in faith, love and obedience.
It might be helpful to write down a list of your ‘spiritual gifts’, and ask your pastor, elders and wise friends for guidance. Remember: spiritual gifts aren’t something like your ‘spirit animal’ or your zodiac sign. Spiritual gifts are abilities which God has given you – yes, you! – to build His church now. They can change over time according to the needs of your local church.
A useful exercise might be to write four columns: (1) What you’re good at, (2) What you have experience in, (3) What you enjoy, and (4) What your local church specifically needs right now.
After praying and seeking wise advice (Proverbs 15:22), you can ask yourself, ‘What would it look like for me to use my spiritual gifts, knowledge, interests and expertise to their absolute maximum for the glory of God?’ In other words, you’re asking, ‘How can I make my life matter most in eternity based on what God has given me?’.
2) Is Christian ministry always a full-time commitment?
As I have immersed myself in various forms of church and para-church ministry, I’ve become increasingly aware of how many people serve in ministry part-time or completely voluntarily in their evenings or weekends. For years while I had a ‘normal’ job, I spent so much of my off-time at my church, leading Bible studies, meeting with university students one-to-one, planning church events, and other activities.
It was freeing to notice that the New Testament never segregates between full-time Christian workers and everyone else in status, godliness or obedience to God. Rather, the local church simply recommended that some gifted individuals give their full time to serving, and so the church collectively covered their costs to support them (1 Corinthians 9:13-18; 1 Timothy 5:17-18). This means that even church elders (who are themselves pastors) will often have other jobs outside the church.
It’s easy to create a ‘sacred-secular divide’ in our minds when it comes to ministry, but the New Testament never does this. It’s worth considering whether you are called to full-time Christian ministry, or simply to use the theological training that you’ve gained to serve the church alongside an ‘ordinary’ job.
3) What training do I need to be the best gift I can be to God’s people?
Believe it or not, if you flick through your Bible, you will never find the words, ‘GDip’, ‘BA’, ‘MDiv’, ‘MTh’, or even ‘PhD’! Instead, you will see a good God who gives good gifts to His children to build up His church (Ephesians 4:11-12).
Because of this, wouldn’t it make sense to ask ourselves, ‘How can I be the best gift to God’s people?’ Or at least, ‘How can I be my best gift?’.
To answer this question in my own life, I have imagined myself as a jigsaw puzzle – strange, I know. This jigsaw puzzle has some pieces fitted together, and other pieces missing, and symbolises the kind of ‘gaps’ I want or need to fill to be best equipped for my chosen ministerial role. Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to be the ‘finished piece’ before entering ministry! Ministry is very much an on-the-job training role! Rather, the jigsaw puzzle analogy is helpful to ask ourselves how we can be best equipped for what God is manoeuvring us to do for Him and His people.
So, I invite you to consider the ways in which your current theological study is helping you to put pieces into your jigsaw puzzle. Are there gaps in your course’s ability to equip you to understand the Bible, or to teach the Bible to others, or to understand and teach doctrine? Are you having opportunities, through your course, to develop your understanding of pastoral, practical and ethical issues which might arise in your future ministry? You might feel confident that your current theological training is all that you need, or you might identify gaps in your jigsaw puzzle.
Just as ministry is not ‘one size fits all’, so too the path to ministry is full of diversity according to where you are, what you need to learn and what you need to experience. As you consider the empty spaces of your jigsaw puzzle, you might feel that further formal theological training is needed, or perhaps non-formal, unaccredited training.
Ministry training can look like a secular university degree (yes, you read it right!), Bible college or seminary degree, a ministry internship at a church or Christian organisation – or all these together. Different institutions will be able to offer you different things, and a close analysis of your jigsaw puzzle, through coffees with your own church leaders, will help you to navigate what is right for you.
4) Input through output?
Think back to earlier when you considered spiritual gifts as abilities which God has given you – yes, you! – to build His church now. Based off this, is your journey into ministry simply a matter of ‘input’ (in other words, what others can teach you), or are there elements of ‘output’ too (in other words, what you can learn from doing, giving and serving now)?
‘Input’ in a classroom, lecture theatre or chapel is not your only source of knowledge which can assist you in ministry. Your ‘output’ – what you do for others – can help you grow in valuable knowledge and experience.
When speaking with Christians about their pastors or full-time church workers, I’ve noticed that almost all of them appreciate pastors and gospel workers more when they have had experience working in non-Christian environments. Why? Because they work in non-Christian environments, and they want a shepherd who knows their experiences and understands them.
Learning from this, I asked myself, ‘Has my input and output allowed me to seriously reflect on my own maturity, and my ability to relate to people of different walks of life, in my future ministry?’. Answering this question for myself confronted me with the reality that I needed to grow in maturity by seeking work outside ministry for a few years before stepping into it later in life. This may not be the case for you, but considering your ‘output’, as well as your ‘input’, can help you think of the ways you can serve to grow.
Fuelling ‘The Talk’
As you ask yourself and others these four questions; you may be surprised by the clarity you can reach in your thoughts and anxieties. Remember that God is sovereign over the process and, and He will lead you as you ask the right questions and seek to honour Him.